Richard Prebble: Where Hamilton West goes, goes the country
National used to claim it selected its candidates regardless of class, gender, religion or race. Christopher Luxon now says he wants “diversity”. There were two obvious National candidates for the Hamilton West by-election: Tim Macindoe, the former National MP who has won the seat for a record four times and Andrew King, the former mayor. Despite King saying in April he wanted to contest the seat and Macindoe refusing to rule out a comeback, both men have withdrawn.
The National members have no choice but to select from two women, one Pacifica and a Maori male. Even if the candidate selected is well-qualified we will never know if there was a better qualified candidate who was ruled out because he is white and a male.
Christopher Luxon has abandoned one of National’s fundamental values, selection on merit. National’s no whites policy for the by-election should be offensive to everyone who is opposed to discrimination.
National goes into the Hamilton West by-election the overwhelming favorite. But by-elections are different. Parties have lost by-elections in safe seats by parachuting in a candidate that the locals will not vote for.
By-elections matter. Losing two Conservative seats in by-elections finally cost Boris Johnson his job. The by-election in marginal Hamilton West on 10 December is a huge test not just for Labour but all the parties.
Four factors determine by-elections: Cause, turnout, referendum and personality.
Cause: The electorate is sympathetic when the by-election is triggered by a death. The electorate hates to have to vote again because their MP has a better job. Even worse, when asked to vote to settle an internal party dispute.
Turnout: As by-elections do not change governments it is hard to motivate people to vote. The parties’ ground game is crucial. Being a university town there will be student volunteers. The split will have shattered Labour’s local organization. Tim Macindoe had a good team. If they support the new candidate National will have a good ground game. If they do not, National’s ground game will suffer.
Referendum: By-elections are a referendum on the government’s performance. Hamilton is the last place Labour wants to hold a referendum. The city is the ram raid capital of New Zealand. Under Labour’s catch and release policy, last month my local dairy at Lake Rotoma was ram-raided by repeat offenders from Hamilton.
Hamilton is also the mortgage capital of New Zealand. 77% of Hamilton households are servicing a mortgage. The Reserve Bank on the eve of the by-election, 23 November, is expected to raise interest rates again.
The by-election is a test as to whether voters believe Grant Robertson that inflation is all Putin’s fault.
Personality: In a by-election the quality of the candidate is crucial.
Dr Gauray Sharma will discover people did not vote for him, they voted for Jacinda.
Georgie Dansey, another teacher/trade unionist, is favoured to be Labour’s candidate. Her challenge is explaining why she is now the best person to represent the electorate. Labour just two years ago ranked her number 81 on the party list.
Regardless of how good National’s candidate maybe Hamilton West voters will be offended that they are being used to improve the party’s diversity credentials. Identity politics is not a vote winner with white males, a misunderstood tribe, with which I have some affinity.
Act is the only parliamentary party that still believes in selecting on merit.
The Greens have a complicated lengthy selection process. The party has already announced its electorate candidates that do not include Hamilton West. A Green party that gives its priority to combating climate change would find a way to field a candidate. A Green party that gives priority to its deal with Labour, will not.
Tauranga showed there is a significant anti-vax vote, people who lost their jobs because of the mandates. Brian Tamaki dreams of getting the anti-vax parties to agree to stand a single candidate. They will not.
New Zealand First skipped the Tauranga by-election. The Hamilton West by-election will reveal if Winston can win the grievance vote to propel himself back into parliament. A failure to stand a candidate or a poor result will raise doubts about a return.
The stakes are high. The by-election is a far better predictor than any public opinion poll. If Labour can win it will be an indication that Labour are favorites to win a third term.
To win a third term parties have to be able to campaign to skeptical and sometimes hostile audiences. To do a President Harry Truman who in the “Give ‘em hell Harry” campaign won despite all the polls. Elected on two waves of Jacinda mania, the Prime Minister has never had to campaign to a skeptical electorate.
Telling hostile audiences to “be kind” just outrages them. Jacinda needs a new message. She cannot win campaigning from the Beehive or from overseas. During the Tauranga by-election she traveled the world, everywhere except to Tauranga.
Jacinda announced from the Beehive the by-election and then travelled to Antarctica. Norman Kirk would have made the announcement in Hamilton. If Jacinda cannot campaign effectively in Hamilton West then Jacinda is no longer a campaign winner.
As a new MP Christopher Luxon needs the by-election. Campaigning, like everything else in life, improves with practice. Embracing identity politics was a bad start. Luxon needs National to not just win but win well. He needs to show he is not just a woke corporate executive. National needs more policy than tax cuts.
One party has been issuing costed, practical, policy solutions all year. David Seymour and Act must be relishing the prospect of campaigning in Hamilton West.
The Honourable Richard Prebble CBE is a former member of the New Zealand Parliament. Initially a member of the Labour Party, he joined the newly formed ACT New Zealand party under Roger Douglas in 1996, becoming its leader from 1996 to 2004.