Lawyer's bid to reclaim former staunch seat for Labour

By Bridget Rutherford

Labour's Duncan Webb will go up against current Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner for the seat in September's general election. Photo / Martin Hunter
Labour's Duncan Webb will go up against current Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner for the seat in September's general election. Photo / Martin Hunter

More than five years ago, the Labour Party lost the Christchurch Central seat for the first time in history.

Duncan Webb was gutted.

He was incumbent candidate Brendon Burns' campaign chairman during the 2011 general election build-up.

It was the first time Labour had lost the Christchurch Central seat to National since it was established in 1946, reports Christchurch Star.

Now, the former lawyer has begun his fight to get it back - this time as the candidate.

Dr Webb, who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1999, remembers losing the seat well.

"I consider it a huge tragedy."

He was at the Elmwood Tavern when the final vote tally was read out - a dead tie of 10,493 votes each.

But after special votes were counted, Ms Wagner won by just a 47-vote majority.

The election was held on November 26, nine months after the devastating February 2011 earthquake.

"Christchurch was utterly disrupted," Dr Webb said. "There were difficulties in getting people to vote - they didn't know where to vote."

He said at that point the Labour Party was in "retreat".

"Brendon Burns was a fantastic MP, he worked himself to exhaustion. I suspect he wasn't as visible as he wanted to be."

Losing isn't a feeling Dr Webb would like to experience again.

"I've lost and I've been poor and both of them I didn't like. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."

He was referring to his childhood.

Dr Webb moved to Christchurch from London when he was five.

His father put himself through bible college and became a pastor at the Maori Evangelical Fellowship Church in Wainoni.

After living in Aranui, the family moved to South Brighton where he and his four siblings grew up.

They lived off the donations that were put in the church's plate. In a lower-socio economic suburb that wasn't much, he said.

He never saw himself becoming a lawyer let alone a politician when he was attending Shirley Boys' High School.

He left before finishing year 13 and headed to Canterbury University to study law using the money he had saved from working at South Brighton SuperValue to pay his enrolment fee.

"No one in my whole extended family had ever been to university."

His first job was at Parry Field Lawyers where he was a debt collector.

From there, he was a university lecturer, academic and lawyer and became a partner of Lane Neave in March 2010.

He helped and represented Canterbury homeowners struggling with earthquake claims following the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes.

His profession is part of the reason he is standing.

"I come from 30 years of working as a lawyer, professor of law and judicial officer. I've seen what works and what doesn't work and there's a lot to fix. Government is the only to fix it."

Labour was ready to lead again, he said.

"It's presenting as a Government in waiting.

"There's a real sense now that change is possible."

He wanted voters to compare him with Ms Wagner, who he said had "tried hard" over her two terms.

"My job is to let people know I'm here and give them the information they need about me to make a comparison."

That's how he plans on claiming the seat back.

His office is on busy New Regent St. People can't help but look in when they walk past - that's why he chose it.

His team has already visited homes in Opawa and Beckenham. Over the weekend he took part in a working bee in Edgeware.

There are some areas of the electorate Dr Webb's team know they can't win, including Merivale and Redwood.

He believed the real battleground lay in St Albans and Mairehau.

His campaign was about meeting as many voters as possible, and letting them get to know him on a personal level.

"That's the only effective strategy."

Nicky Wagner, the National Party candidate for Christchurch Central. Photo / Simon Baker
Nicky Wagner, the National Party candidate for Christchurch Central. Photo / Simon Baker

Mental health, inequality and the redevelopment of the central city were real concerns for him and things he hoped to work on fixing if elected.

"I'm deeply concerned about the level in which the recovery favoured some people. And that's not right."

Before she was elected to Parliament in 2005, Ms Wagner was a school teacher turned businesswoman and Environment Canterbury councillor.

She is the Minister of Customs and Disability Issues and Associate Minister supporting Greater Christchurch Regeneration, Conservation, Health and Tourism.

Ms Wagner said no one believed National could take central - but her philosophy of "hard yakka pays off" had proved them wrong.

"It was a great sense of satisfaction because I had worked so hard for so long."

But it was the culmination of about five years having reduced Labour's winning margin for the two elections leading up to it, she said.

Ms Wagner said she would continue to have a strong presence in the electorate to try and hold on to the seat.

"I've always been very active in the local community. I've never wanted to stand anywhere else."

She said the development of the residential red zone, the continuation of the Avon River Precinct - which she was responsible for - and getting more events to the city would be focuses for her during the next term.

"I want to make sure we develop these opportunities so young people say of course I'm going to stay in Christchurch."

She said some people coped better than others following the earthquakes, but the city's future was looking brighter.

"I think that's always a danger when you have a natural disaster."

Canterbury University political science senior lecturer Bronwyn Hayward said it would be a tense and exciting campaign with two strong contenders.

But she said there was no substitute for presence on the ground and Ms Wagner knew this well, she said.

She said Dr Webb had proved he could listen to quake-affected communities and businesses and he needed to transfer that across to neighbourhood groups.

"At the end of the day a local electorate seat is won by the connections of respect you can build with local residents, this is what encourages them to come out on a Saturday and tick your party and also your name."

Dr Webb said Labour had a better chance of winning the election now John Key had stepped down.

"John Key was a highly charismatic leader. He had the ability to reassure people that nothing was wrong when Rome was burning."

He said with Prime Minister Bill English people were seeing what they were getting without the "PR gloss and spin."

But Ms Wagner disagreed.

She said although some people were fond of Mr Key, Mr English had different strengths.

Dr Webb doesn't have a plan B.

He resigned from Lane Neave in June and is putting all his energy into his campaign.

He jokes he will be available for work if he is unsuccessful.

"Come and talk to me then."

- Christchurch Star

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