At the best of times, by-elections are never pretty. These are not the best of times, and hard-to-read Mt Albert is starting to feel the heat
By-elections bring out the worst in New Zealand politics, a fact that’s probably dawned on the residents of Mount Albert by now.
By-elections are always difficult.
They are not scheduled events. They happen because of the death, accidental or deliberate injury, serious illness, expulsion, or resignation of a sitting MP. Resignations are best – particularly if they happen less than six months before a general election is due. Then we don’t have to have a by-election.
This one is going to be particularly difficult.
It is happening because of a short-notice resignation by one of the most accomplished politicians in the country. Polling day will be less than five months after a knock down-drag out general election, a fortnight after the first budget from a new government grappling with what threatens to be the worst recession since World War II, and bang in the middle of the most dramatic reform of local government in Auckland’s history.
A new Labour leader is out to win his spurs. A new National Prime Minister has a mandate to confirm. Party organisations and candidates are crashing straight through from selection to election at warp speed. And every political fruitcake in the country will be out there trying to grab a piece of the action.
Mt Albert has suddenly become the target of a concentrated assault by political and media machines that would normally be busy blitzing the whole country. By June 13, there won’t be a letterbox unstuffed, a door unknocked, a hand unshook, or a single view unsought. This is going to be a hell of a campaign.
Mt Albertians have not seen anything like it. As long as they have had a seat in Parliament, it has been occupied by a Labour MP and there have only been three of them – Arthur Richards, Warren Freer, and Helen Clark.
For the 28 years that Helen Clark has represented them in Parliament, they had had a relatively peaceful life. She knew them. They knew her. It was a pretty comfortable relationship. By the time it ended, they liked her more than her politics or the party she led.
In her final run, when the tide had turned against Labour, she still won more than 20,000 candidate votes and romped home with a majority of more than 10,000.
Candidate Clark’s support was down just 3.6% on her 2005 result, while Prime Minister Clark’s party vote dropped 14.9% in her electorate and more than 17% across the country. Mt Albert may have been safe Labour when Helen Clark entered the lists in 1981. It is not so safe Labour now she has moved on.
This inner-city, multicultural, working class, partly gentrified slice of Auckland has suddenly become incredibly difficult to read.
The same could be said for the Mt Albert campaign tactics being employed by the major political players.
Take Labour’s campaign slogan – Putting Mt Albert First. Then match the sentiment with its selection. David Shearer – a fly-in expatriate UN aid manager, hand-picked and personally promoted by Phil Goff – sidelined a range of talented competitors with strong Labour and local residential credentials: the Clark electorate agent and Helen’s fan club candidate Meg Bates, high-profile Auckland City Councilor Glenda Fryer, and former union lawyer and employment law specialist Helen White.
Take Greens leader Russell Norman’s campaign style. He put some mean into Green by slamming Labour’s choice as “National-lite” and “the grey machine man”. He seems to be moving out of the Greens warm and fuzzy comfort zone alongside the Clark-led Labour Party into a pragmatic relationship with the National-led coalition and a more combative stance toward Goff-led Labour. We will soon see if the party follows the leader.
Then there’s National’s candidate selection. The Nats have taken Labour-like risks, dropping Ravi Musuku, its loyal local flag bearer in the last two Mt Albert campaigns, in favour of Korean-born TV presenter and producer Melissa Lee, who has been acting as a “buddy” MP covering the electorate since she gained a list seat five months ago. When National described Lee as “Mt Albert’s list MP” before selection night, Labour scored spin points with chief whip Darren Hughes' statement: “National candidate selection a stitch-up”. Nonsense, but the claim gained more traction than the explanation.
Act campaign strategy can only split the right of centre vote. Inserting its highest-profile Parliamentary newcomer, John Boscawan, into this campaign is not driven by the delusion it can win the seat. Boscawan is in there for other reasons. First, he’ll to cover his leader’s back in the inevitable debate that will occur over Commander Hide’s plan for super city government in Auckland. Second, he’ll be there to promote Act’s differences with Bill English’s first budget. His presence signals the fragility of the right wing of Key’s coalition government.
My wild card bet is that the Maori Party will enter the campaign. Mt Albert is part of Pita Sharples’ Tamaki Makaurau electorate and the party would gain a bully pulpit to press its case for Maori representation at the top table in the planned super city council. It could gain some additional leverage in its negotiations on other matters with National at Act’s expense.
Even given all that, my view of the outcome in Mt Albert remains unchanged: Labour will hold the seat with a reduced majority, and lose any arguments about privatization from here on. It is adopting a candidate who has said military interventions can be privatized with profit-sharing. After that, what can’t be?
If history is any indicator, Mt Roskill MP Phil Goff should tread more warily than anyone else. The last Labour politican to jump the fence from Roskill to run a campaign in Mt Albert was Arthur Richards. He died a year later. That’s what forced Mt Albert’s last by-election... back in 1947.