August 16, 2022

Helen White: The employment lawyer and pragmatist hoping to win Auckland Central for Labour

Vote strategically. That’s the message from Helen White to voters in the race to win Auckland Central for Labour.

White, an employment lawyer, is in a three-way contest with the high profile sitting Green MP Chloe Swarbrick running a “two ticks” campaign and National’s Emma Mellow to replace the popular National Party incumbent Nikki Kaye.

Labour’s White ran in the seat in 2017, winning 40 per cent of the candidate vote – five points behind Kaye with a 1581 vote winning margin. The Greens’ Denise Roche came a distant third with 9.7 per cent of the vote.

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To avoid a split of the left-wing vote, White says it’s important voters understand the numbers and how close the candidate vote was in 2017.

Her election pamphlets feature a column showing Kaye received 13,198 votes alongside a column with the combined centre left vote of 14,455 – 11,617 for Labour and 2838 for the Greens.

White said she respected the hard-working Kaye and learned a lot from her at the last campaign, but is hoping her departure means the 1000 or so people who gave their party vote to Labour but ticked “Kaye” in 2017 will support her in 2020.

She said she respects Swarbrick and expects to see her returned to Parliament as a list MP, but her every effort is going into winning the seat, including digs at her left-wing opponent with a strong track record as a campaigner.

Auckland Central candidates Helen White, Erica Sanford and Tuariki Delamere at Freemans Bay School during an election debate. Photo / Dean Purcell

In a war of words, White called Swarbrick a “celebrity” and said her main opponent is National. Swarbrick hit back, accusing White of using the same attacks on her that misogynists use against the Prime Minister.

White has also got stuck into Swarbrick over the Greens’ “loopy” wealth tax of 1 per cent on individual assets over $1 million, or $2m for a couple, saying it would penalise her retired parents with no income and a reverse mortgage living in a valuable apartment in Freemans Bay.

One thing White has over her opponents is the stardust Jacinda Ardern brings to her campaign.

Ardern has strong links to Auckland Central. She lived in the seat for several years as a young MP, playing DJ at music festivals and fighting local causes like expanding the port into the harbour. The Prime Minister stood in the seat in 2011 and 2014, losing on both occasions to Kaye.

Helen White has the backing of Labour leader Jacinda Ardern to win back Auckland Central. Photo Supplied.

“Jacinda has been very clear. She has said to audiences a strategic vote for the left in Auckland Central is a vote for Helen White,” said the Labour candidate.

Ardern has ruled out doing a deal with the Green Party and knocked the idea of a Green candidate catapulting from third to first place.

Besides, it really hurt Labour to lose the urban liberal seat it held for decades until Kaye beat Judith Tizard in 2008, becoming the first National MP to win the seat.

White said it means a lot for Labour and Ardern to regain Auckland Central, reconnect with the community and have a finger on the pulse of the business district as the country recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

White, who grew up in Freemans Bay and lives outside the electorate in nearby Morningside, practices as a barrister at Chancery Chambers in the central city specialising in employment law.

She began her career at the Law Commission, but it was her time at the Union Law Centre in the mid-1990s where she gravitated to employment law. Between 2001 and 2006 she worked at the EPMU under the then national secretary Andrew Little.

Among her career highlights was stopping proposals by Air New Zealand to contract out engineering maintenance work and other parts of the business. If elected, she wants to overhaul the country’s employment laws and make it easier for low-paid workers to pursue justice.

She has a strong interest in social justice issues, including the right of everyone to earn a decent wage and housing affordability, particularly in places like the central city and Hauraki Gulf islands.

Helen White would like to see the St James Theatre restored and possibly a school built on top. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Making the central city a liveable space for people all ages is another goal, including a new school, possibly on top of a refurbished St James Theatre on Queen St.

Currently, children have to walk across several lanes of motorway to reach Freemans Bay School and there is very little green space in the city for them to play, White said.

White describes her style as pragmatic, saying her 25 years as a lawyer has been about working for people who don’t have a lot of money and finding solutions for them.

“I can see an environment where you are a constituent MP and look at the person in front of you and think ‘what can I do that is going to help you?’. I’m very confident I can do that part of the job on my own bat,” she said.

Auckland Central candidates: Tuariki Delamere (Opportunities Party), Dominic Hoffman Dervan (TEA), Joshua Love (Independent), Jenny Marcroft (NZ First), Emma Mellow( National), Felix Poole (Act), Chloe Swarbrick (Green), Vernon Tava (Sustainable NZ), Helen White( Labour).

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