Seen as the bright young hopes of two main parties sorely in need of rejuvenation, Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern are rivals for Auckland Central. But, explains Geoff Cumming, with Green candidate Denise Roche in the equation, the battle will be far from straightforward.

Nikki Kaye is opening a staircase in St Marys Bay - fodder for those who say she'd turn up to the opening of an envelope. It's a jibe the Auckland Central MP acknowledges on her Facebook page.

The steps, Kaye tells onlookers, are transformational, linking St Marys Bay via a walkway and bridge to the city and new Wynyard Quarter precinct. That's another transformation the rising National Party star is happy to name-drop, the one with the tramway that she hopes will one day loop through her electorate.

But the public transport enthusiast's words are largely drowned out by the roar of motorway traffic and construction work on the Victoria Park tunnel entrance. Those who lament her Government's preference for road-building appreciate the irony.


Word is that Kaye pushed very hard to officially open these steps. Her critics say it's just another example of the MP taking credit for a local government project. But Auckland Central is an electorate that straddles local and central government boundaries like few others.

Jacinda Ardern is also at the opening of the Jacob's Ladder steps. It's been like this in Auckland Central since the Labour List MP put her name forward for the electorate seat nearly two years ago. Openings, closings, meetings - the pair stalk each other in public and on Facebook and Twitter. They make the social pages, they are broadminded and culturally in touch. Their connection with younger voters runs deeper than social networking banalities. They advocate for homosexuals, sleep out for the homeless, talk sustainability.

They are the bright, young hopes of two main parties sorely in need of rejuvenation.

Their November election clash has been billed as "the battle of the babes" (for their relative parliamentary inexperience, according to political journalist Patrick Gower, who coined the phrase and who is young enough to know better). But the Auckland Central contest looms as much more than a head-to-head showdown between future contenders. The presence of a strong Green candidate, Denise Roche, in an electorate with a strong Green constituency is but one complicating factor. Another is that the seat they are scrapping for has become a big strategic prize in the three years since the Government changed. Voters will be delivering a verdict on a raft of intersecting central and local government issues, not just on three worthy candidates to represent them in Wellington.

Straddling inner-Auckland's western bays, city centre and gulf islands, Auckland Central includes the waterfront and CBD - the city's shop-window and key to its transformation (that word again) into an international city. Millions have been poured into the waterfront by local and central government ahead of the Rugby World Cup. The growth of inner-city living raises issues of urban design and amenities which link to the transformation vision. It is the focus of a central vs local government arm-wrestle over public transport investment. The electorate extends to the Hauraki Gulf islands, where environmental problems raise local and national issues. The CBD is the centre of a major export education industry. And it is the hub of the Super City, the central government reform of local governance, which is supposed to ease progress on all of the above.

Until 2008, Auckland Central was considered safely Labour. Conventional wisdom is that disenchanted voters who abandoned the party and Judith Tizard then will swing in behind Ardern now. Labour badly wants the prized seat back and has heavily promoted Ardern. Kaye shouldn't be too distraught, so this wisdom says - her solid performance as an electorate MP has already been rewarded with a safe place on National's List.

But there are good reasons why normal service may not be resumed. Kaye is a very hard-working electorate MP who is determined to keep the seat. She is depicted as ambitious but comes across in person as more a force of nature.

Labour's dismal poll ratings suggest swinging voters remain convinced by John Key. And demographic and social changes have eroded Labour's working class and Polynesian support base.

Then there is the Green factor. The Greens draw a lot of party votes from Auckland Central and in recent elections this support has extended to the MP vote.

Denise Roche has a high profile from her term as a city councillor. She lives on Waiheke, where she is known for her environmental work and is a local board member on the new council. Her presence makes Ardern's task of unseating Kaye harder (though there are hints Roche is happy enough if electors vote tactically).

All three could end up in Parliament on current polling - Roche via the party list if the Greens can slightly improve on current polling of just under 10 per cent.

At 48, it's a stretch to cast Roche as new blood for the Greens (she is, after all, on the party's national executive). But she is certainly young at heart and has the experience to mix it with her enthusiastic rivals. She is quick with a quip - a welcome contrast to their earnest ambition.

What we won't see is the trench warfare that marked Auckland Central in the 1990s when Labour's left rebelled over Rogernomics. As Ardern asserts, all three women are "nice people" who would rather debate issues than personalities. Though they have the self-belief to handle Parliament's bearpit, this campaign at times shapes up more as a Miss Congeniality contest.

Problem is, their views on many issues are almost interchangeable. All three are social liberals who support causes like same-sex couple adoption and highlight poverty. All three are pro-public transport and varying shades of Green. Ardern calls herself a social democrat; Kaye says she's a "liberal with a strong social conscience"; Roche says, "social justice is definitely my passion".

Kaye, 32, and Ardern, 31, followed remarkably similar paths into politics: both went from university into parliamentary research roles and worked in the offices of their respective party leaders. Ardern spent part of her OE working in a New York soup kitchen; Kaye worked in social services in London. Roche's welfare credentials come via the union movement - she's worked for so many she calls herself a "union slut".

All three find the media references to "babes" tiresome.

Roche: "What does that make me - their aunt?"

Ardern and Kaye wonder aloud why male candidates of a certain age aren't depicted in the same way.

But they have their differences. There are distinctions over funding for public transport: Roche would increase fuel taxes to help; Ardern would divert funds from roading and look at investment bonds; Kaye sees tolls as an option for a third harbour crossing and warns of a $10 billion funding gap.

Ardern hammers National on its emissions trading go-slows, mining on conservation land and its preference for roads of national significance over public transport funding. But it's hard for her to score points on these issues over Kaye - who stood against her own party over mining on Great Barrier, sees the CBD rail link as vital to Auckland's transformation and supports a tram loop through the western bays.

At a recent university debate on urban design issues, a request for the candidates to outline their differences on public transport saw Ardern unleash the best line of the night. "The difference is, my party agrees with me."

Kaye presumably has her party's blessing to diverge from party policy on environmental and public transport issues - this is, after all, Auckland Central. She says she gets along well with John Key, admiring his pragmatism. A fitness junkie, she door-knocked relentlessly to get the seat and, since winning, has taken on 8000 constituency cases.

She is seen as driven, ambitious. "The [term] people use is 'intense'," she says.

"With politics there's an intensity that comes with the scrutiny. I've never really minded that because I've always felt that strong sense of responsibility.

"I'm driven, but I'm driven by a desire to help people."

Raised in Epsom and Kohimarama, the former head girl of Corran School says she gets her compassion from her mother. After her parents split, her mother did administrative work for her new partner, a lawyer. Their sense of social responsibility was passed on, she says.

She admits, though, that she needs to find a better balance. Working 6-day weeks for the past 3 years, her social life doesn't amount to much. "You can't sustain that pace forever."

She sits on the local government and environment committee that oversaw Auckland's governance reform and strongly believes it gives Auckland the constitutional framework for "transformation".

She's vaulted up the party list after a solid first term and would seem in line for a local government or environmental portfolio role post-election.

But if she no longer needs an electorate seat to further her political career, she is absolutely determined to hold Auckland Central.

"I think my ability to deliver both locally and nationally is, in large part, because I am the member for Auckland Central and, if I wasn't, I wouldn't be at the table when major decisions are made. I am very passionate about Auckland."

Ardern, five months Kaye's junior, grew up in country towns but has become equally passionate about the city. Like Kaye, she sees the waterfront as the jewel in the crown but says her interest is in "how to make strong communities".

"The potential is staring us in the face. When we talk about a world-class city and a liveable city, it's about building a place where people's lives are better. Public transport and urban design - these are things we can't separate."

She grew up in Morrinsville, after early years in Murupara, where her father was policeman. She was always political and always Labour-leaning, she says. As a teenager, she worked on a re-election campaign for Harry Duynhoven in New Plymouth, where an aunt was involved with the party. At Victoria University, she decided "I can either study politics or I can do it." That led to a job in Helen Clark's office and the party has marked her for great things ever since.

She is Labour spokesperson on jobs and youth affairs, and pops up on television a lot. She is a confident communicator who works well with people, even if she seems more wedded to the party line than Kaye.

"I'm pretty keen to get the electorate back and not just because we once had it. Doorknocking, there's this appetite for things we think are important - economic issues, creating a sustainable economy, decent jobs with decent wages ...

"These elections are a crossroads. If National is given a second go, it plans to sell off assets. We have an entirely different vision for New Zealand."

Roche's task is to appeal to more than default-Green voters in an electorate with strong Green leanings. Of Ngati Raukawa descent, she's lived in Auckland for 26 years and says her council experience gives her a head start on "liveable city" issues.

She acknowledges her rivals' support for sustainability but says Labour has been stealing Green policies while National's fascination with mining and roads leaves Kaye with her work cut out.

"I think I'm the only one of the three of us who actually catches public transport on a regular basis."

On Waiheke, she's known as "the rubbish lady". She and husband John Stansfield established and ran a successful recycling scheme on the island but controversially lost the contract when the single council was formed. She also lost her council seat but is on the local board.

"I'm still getting over my Rodney Hide-ing."

She admits the three are unlikely to trash each other as the campaign peaks but says that once they've heard each other's stories 100 times, the gloves will come off.

"This will be quite a different campaign for Nikki, because she will be defending her position."

Perhaps Ardern has just as much to worry about.

Auckland Central
* One of New Zealand's most liberal and diverse electorates, including Grey Lynn creative types, students and academics, waterfront mansion owners, CBD apartment-dwellers and Waiheke hippies and lifestylers.

* High numbers are self-employed or in small businesses.

* Highest proportion of people aged 20-29 in the country and the lowest proportion of children aged 5-14.

* Highly educated. One in five have bachelor's degree or better.

* Asian population in 2006 was twice the national average at 18 per cent, the Maori and Pacific Islander populations that once lived here driven out by higher rents and property values.

* Lowest number of people who identify as Christian and the lowest in a traditional marriage.

35% of households said they earned more than $100,000 in the 2006 Census but only

40% owned their own homes.