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Tony Milne: campaigning for change

Tony Milne 1
Heritage advocacy: Christchurch Central Labour candidate Tony Milne says it’s not just about the buildings, it’s about consultation and empowerment.
PHOTO: Michael Cropp.

New Zealand’s parliament has a rich history of protesters turning into gamekeepers. Some of these protesters-cum-politicians, such as Sue Bradford, protest at full volume. People know who they are. Some are much quieter, and are almost never seen with a banner in hand, but they are vocal in other ways.

Tony Milne, the 32-year-old Labour candidate for Christchurch Central, is one of the latter. He has been for quite some time.

He understands that the first step of any successful campaign is to listen to, and understand, his audiences: the change-makers, the grassroots, the ‘silent-majority’, and the resistant other.

This is Milne’s bread and butter. He wrote a 10-step handbook on running and winning issue campaigns, which he offers to groups around the world.

By understanding your audiences, you can better understand your campaign. And regardless of whether the campaign is against big business or government – these people do their best to manage the message and their audiences.

His current role as the national manager of public health at the Problem Gambling Foundation (PGF) demands that he deploy his campaigning skills frequently, though some may say he has done so too frequently. The Government recently cut about 75 percent of the foundation’s funding amid allegations from some MPs  that it had become too political.

Milne says he chooses his campaigns with care and tries to read widely on an issue before committing his support.

Born and raised in Invercargill, he completed his honours degree in Political Science at the University of Canterbury. He moved to Wellington in 2003 to work for the Labour party as an executive assistant to then Christchurch Central MP Tim Barnett and then back to Christchurch as an assistant to Labour’s Canterbury MPs.

In 2008, Milne moved to the Problem Gambling Foundation where he thought he could make the most difference for the community.

But after Labour lost the Christchurch Central seat to Nicky Wagner at the 2011 election, he was asked by his old boss Barnett (now the Labour Party’s general secretary) to be the Labour candidate for the seat.

He had already run in 2002 and 2005 against Brian Connell in Rakaia, winning almost a third of the vote on both occasions. The Christchurch Central seat is a bigger prize but is no longer the  ‘safe Labour’ seat it once was (the Labour Party held it for 65 years before losing it to National’s Nicky Wagner at the last election) and Milne will have to campaign hard to win the seat back.

Not that he’s afraid of hard work. He refers to himself as “a bit of a workaholic” who will gladly work late into the night – and he’ll have to work long hours if he is to achieve his mantra that there is “no option other than winning”.

His main rival Wagner, says it took her about three years to get to grips with the parliamentary process. Despite Milne’s previous parliamentary roles, she says it will take him – or anyone else – just as long, and the constituents just want whoever is elected to get on with the job of being their MP.

Of Wagner, Milne says “she’s a really nice person”.  

“But, certainly, the feedback I get from lots of people is she’s missing in action on the big issues.”

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Campaigning to win: Milne is enthusiastic about his chances of winning the Christchurch Central seat. PHOTO: Michael Cropp

Milne has been supporting the Phillipstown school community, and says that it is time for government to ensure fair consultative processes are upheld – that people are empowered to create positive change in their communities.

He supports heritage advocates, for instance. Not necessarily because of the buildings in question, but because of his desire to see the community empowered to publicly contribute their ideas to the rebuild.

Milne appreciates that people in Christchurch want practical solutions to their post-quake problems – fixed roads, a faster recovery, resolution with their insurers, an end to financial struggles – but he says the city must not overlook the opportunities for positive community input.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of what happened here.”

But, he adds, we should also note that “the silver lining in this really dark cloud” is the  opportunity to deepen democracy in Christchurch.

The Labour Party has not announced many policies on Christchurch yet – certainly none that involve a vision of deepening democracy – but as Milne breakfasts with a core group of his supporters, he speaks clearly about how his campaign must be a grassroots one.

He wants to listen to the community, seeking ideas and hearing individual stories of what has and has not worked. He wants Labour’s policy to provide answers to the electorate.

He has no option “other than winning”.