Much ado about not a lot in Northcote
By Richard Harman (author)
The Northcote by-election has turned out to be much ado about not very much.
With four days to go before the vote, only two things seem clear.
One is that Labour seems to have had a better campaign than National.
And the other is that the challenge for each main party will now be to overcome widespread apathy and get their supporters to actually vote.
The biggest problem is that the Government is still new.
The Nats frankly admit that Jacinda Ardern’s Government has really done anything to provoke strong feelings of either support or opposition within the electorate.
At the same time, National has to be careful how far it goes with its criticism of the Government on issues like transport because only nine months ago, it was the Government and therefore largely responsible for the congestion on the main roads in the electorate.
However the fact that the general election was not so long ago and that the retired MP, Jonatan Coleman, resigned so soon after it, is in itself an issue.
National canvassers have told POLITIK it was an issue often raised on the doorstep.
The National candidate, Dan Bidois concedes that there has been some backlash over this.
“A little bit, but not much,” he told POLITIK.
“Once you go and talk to them and say by-elections are just a fact of life, and once they’ve met me and like me, they are happy to vote for me.”
Bidois has been up against another issue; he is not a local and the word around the electorate is that many National supporters would have preferred a local candidate.
Again, Coleman is partly to blame.
Under Coleman the National Party organisation in the electorate had declined and to make up the required numbers for the selection meeting, National Party members from other electorates across the northern North Island were brought in to the selection meeting.
Many of those members were electorate officials and were conscious that the party leadership wanted the Maori Harvard educated economist, Bidois, with his stellar CV, in Parliament.
It’s clear National has been struggling to get the numbers to staff its campaign and at its launch there were a number of MPs from the South Island and southern North Island present.
Even yesterday, Nelson MP, Nick Smith, was standing in pouring rain in Birkenhead waving a Bidois billboard at passing motorists.
Labour’s candidate, Shanan Halbert, is making much of the fact that he is local and that his mother still lives in the electorate.
National played into his hands when they decided to run a Facebook video which featured former Prime Minister, John Key, interviewing Bidois.
And in the video Key appeared to concede that National could lose the seat.
“It would be a very bad outcome for us if we didn’t hold the seat of Northcote,” he said.
Halbert told POLITIK the video showed how out of touch National were.
“Particularly it shows how naïve my opponent is with this particular community,” he said.
Halbert talks up the support he has been getting from the former Labour MP, Anne Hartley who has been working full time on his campaign.
“That’s the kind of person involved in our campaign, good local people.
“And people have been able to see how genuine we have been in our campaign effort.”
In contrast, though Coleman made an appearance at the National campaign launch, little else has been seen of him on the campaign.
If there is one issue that dominates the campaign it is transport, and in particular the daily jam down Onewa Road as people head on or off the Harbour Bridge.
National have been able to use the campaign to point out that Auckland City’s new 11.5 cents a litre petrol tax will bring no benefits to Northcote at all although the residents will have to pay it
“Traffic congestion is issue number one,” said Bidois.
Standing on the corner of Onewa Road and Glenfield Road he said traffic backed right up from the bridge motorway the length of Onewa Road to where he was standing during weekdays.
“Congestion, fuel taxes, the lack of investment, it’s really about local issues.”
One National MP who campaigned for Bidois was a bit worried about this line.
After all, he pointed out, the lack of investment was actually by the last National Government.
But if National's past is not far behind, Labour is relying on promises for the future.
The big one is to bring forward the feasibility study for a second harbour crossing.
"Now that is a lot more ambitious than some of the discussion that have happened in the campaign."
However, the recent Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP)report makes no mention of an earlier start on a feasibility study and says merely that "consistent with earlier ATAP work construction is not anticipated to commence until at least the late 2030s.”
That doesn't sound very different from the National Government’s projection that the crossing would be completed sometime between 2038 and 2048.
In other words, motorists on Onewa Road have at least another 13 years of jams ahead of them regardless of who wins on Saturday.
What is more likely to determine victory will be how many of their loyal supporters each party can get out to vote.
One thing National and Labour officials do agree on; this is a two horse race, and the minor parties are playing a very minor role.
"The supporters are definitely there, it is just making sure we are not complacent so that is why we are fighting day in, day out, to make sure our voters turn out," said Bidois.
Halbert says Labour has had 16,000 "conversations" with voters by phone or on the doorstep.
Coleman beat Halbert at the general election by 4210 votes. At the start of the campaign Labour Party heavyweights were anxious to point out to media that that was a huge majority which they would be unlikely to overturn in a by-election.
But yesterday Halbert said the campaign had changed its mind, such had been the response he now believed they could win next Saturday.
That will depend on whether National can get its vote out.