Phil Twyford and Alfred Ngaro are campaigning to win Te Atatu but both have had more than their fair share of problems. Steve Braunias reports.
The battle for Te Atatu arrived last week at a rest home. Labour's Phil Twyford, the MP for Te Atatu, and National's Alfred Ngaro, his long-time losing rival for the seat, both came to the Roseridge Rest Home out the back of Henderson in West Auckland, behind the golden mile of Lincoln Rd, towards the long dark skyline of the Waitākere Ranges. The home was on a quiet corner. There was a mānuka tree in the front yard. Ivy crept up its trunk. I tagged along with each candidate to inspect their style, their appeal, their parking.
Twyford easily and sensibly parked his enormous red Toyota Hiace van right outside Roseridge on Friday. The day before, Ngaro made a meal of turning his great big blue Dodge Ram 1500 V8 truck around to park opposite the rest home. It took forever and it was very ungainly and boring, and it wasn't the last time I wondered why Ngaro seemed to act on impulses that only served to make his life more difficult.
All electorates tell a story about an election campaign. The two candidates for Te Atatu are emblematic of failings within their parties. Twyford was held responsible for Labour's Kiwibuild fiasco; it makes the Coalition Government look incompetent, and unable to get things done. Ngaro has evangelical and conservative Christian beliefs; it makes it hard to take National seriously as a party of rational ideas.
Neither has an assured future. At number 30 on the party list, Ngaro is at definite risk of being swept out of parliament. He fell 10 places in August and the sense is National regards him as a liability, and no great loss. Last week in the Herald, political editor Audrey Young's assessment of Twyford in a post-election Cabinet was bleak: "The two choices are either to demote him down the Cabinet rankings and give him something unimportant or to leave him out altogether because the very name Phil Twyford has become synonymous with non-delivery." Yes, said Twyford, he'd read that. His face muscles twitched. "Very mean," he said.
The day after visiting Roseridge, Ngaro made the news for all the wrong reasons. He went on Facebook – a definition of social media is that it exists as a dumping ground for impulses which make your life more difficult - to attack Twyford for his views on drugs and his stand on abortion. The accusations were false and misleading, and provided another unwelcome distraction for National leader Judith Collins, who distanced herself and the party from Ngaro's trolling.
A seemingly chastened Ngaro deleted the post. It was a small, unsavoury episode, no big deal, and for Ngaro and National at least it had the virtue of passing quickly – except it hasn't. I called Ngaro on Sunday and he doubled down. He said he only deleted the post because trolls had attacked his wife, and accused her of being behind it.
As for his accusations against Twyford, he said, "I stand by those comments. I do not resile from them ... I'm not about to apologise for speaking up."
I said, "But your comments about Phil Twyford would appear to be total lies."
He said, "Phil Twyford might want to check the record."
I said, "What are you talking about?"
He said, "Have a look at the Family First website."
Once again, Ngaro was aligning National with something it has no wish to be aligned with, and tainting the party with his anti-abortion views. His refusal to climb down from his position drew a deep sigh from Twyford when I called him on Sunday for comment.
"It is a lie," he said, " a total lie." He meant Ngaro's claim that Twyford supported full-term abortion, and abortion based on gender and disability. "Mr Ngaro has a blatant disregard for the truth, and that's a hallmark of extreme right-wing politics in the US."
Opposing politicians in the same electorate are often collegial or at least cordial with each other. But I detected an animus between Ngaro and Twyford. Ngaro's face took a setting of active dislike every time I mentioned Twyford's name. I asked Twyford what he thought of Ngaro, and he said, "He's crafted this image of a nice guy, but ... Yeah. Well. I'll leave that to the voters."
The voters in Te Atatu include six of the 11 residents at Roseridge. Five are incapable of voting. Every vote counts, and last week the residents sat or slept in wait for the two candidates, who were as different in their style and appeal as their parking.
Visitors at the little wooden gate were asked to sign a form, with precautionary questions such as, "Has your sense of smell or taste changed in the last 21 days?" Roseridge went into lockdown early, and quickly sorted out PPE gear for staff. I loved the place and was easily moved to tears by the small acts of kindness that I continually noticed in the background of Twyford's and Ngaro's visits. "It was my dream to own a rest home," director Sabrina Zhou said; "We make this place magic for them," activity co-ordinator Shea Siua said.
Shea acted as host to the two MPs, made introductions, sat them down for a challenging and revealing interview, and filled the home with loud good cheer. "Roz? Roz, lovely?", she said, bending down to gently wake Roz Taylor, 86, who has dementia. She was the first resident in line to be introduced to Ngaro. They sat in big armchairs in the lounge with a view of the mānuka tree. Roz woke up, and said, addressing something in her head of scattered memories, "That was a big one. I knew that was a big one."
Ngaro stood in front of her and held her hand. He was in great shape, a fit and muscular 54-year-old who works out at Club Physical in Te Atatu South, and his demeanour throughout the visit was warm and charismatic. Laughter followed him everywhere he went; he had a presence, made an impact.
"This is the beautiful Rebecca," said Shea, introducing Ngaro to Rebecca Rihanna, who sat closest to the window, and was unable to speak. Next to her was Dominic Claffey, 71, a large, bearded Irishman. "I've had problems with women and the drink," he said. "I've voted Labour all me life and I've laboured all me life. Lifting, digging, scaffolding. But National is a good party. I'm tossing up between them. I want to vote Labour but something is telling me to vote National. I don't know what it is."
Lunch that day was meat roll and mash potatoes with green veg and banana pudding. The radio played Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton: "Islands in the stream! That is what we are." After his tour of the residents, Ngaro was taken to a cosy nook by the front door and interviewed by Shea. She asked him direct and specific questions about healthcare. His performance was rotten. He spoke in circles, failed to provide anything resembling an answer, offered no help and, worse, offered no hope.
Shea asked him about clothing allowances for residents. "We need to stop thinking about services and start thinking about outcomes," he blathered. I got in his face afterwards and said, "They're poor. They need clothes. What are you going to do about it?" He said, "It's not about fixing the problem."
I wish to go on record and declare this is the worst thing I have ever heard any politician say out loud.
The next day, it was Twyford's turn to meet the residents. Roz was asleep with a doll on her lap. Dominic looked younger: he'd shaved off his beard. He talked about the years he spent at Oakley psychiatric hospital, and said, "They wanted to give me a lobotomy." Twyford stood there awkwardly. He wore black trousers, and a black T-shirt beneath a black jacket, and looked like some creep from an advertising agency; also, he was overweight.
A sign on the wall read, SHOPPING DONE ONLY ON THURSDAYS. The TV in the lounge was set to quiz show Tipping Point: "Traffic lights consist of how many colours?" Roz had woken up, and was being spoon-fed a yummy mush by Roseridge's youngest resident, Salati Lausiva, 40, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's when he was 26. "I love this place," he said. "I want to stay here a long time."
Twyford was taken to the sunny nook for his interrogation. He listened, he connected, he offered answers and solutions, and, better, he offered something else: his time. Asked about a clothing allowance, he said, "There is flexibility in the benefit system and emergency grants you can access. But I don't know the answer about clothing, Shea. If you want, I'd be happy to work with you on that one, and advocate for people on issues like that. Let's follow up on that. Do you have a card I can take?"
Afterwards, I asked Salati to show me his room. He got out of his chair, but was unable to walk down the corridor. I went with Shea and Sabrina. It was a nice room, with his New Zealand citizenship proudly framed on the wall. We stood in the doorway, and I asked, "So what did you make of Twyford just then?" They both said how much better and clearer he was than Ngaro.
How would the Roseridge residents vote? "Labour," said Salati. "Labour," said three others, who did not wish to be named. Dominic had made up his mind: "Labour."
I said, "Yesterday you thought something was telling you to vote National."
He said, "Never mind about that."