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National's 05 Move On Provinces Cements 08 Gains


National's 05 Move On Provinces Cements 08 Gains

By Selwyn Manning – Scoop Co-Editor

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Election 2008: Let's call it the great provincial oscillation. In many respects the electorate fortunes of both Labour and National on November 8 are a complete reversal of the 2002 election.

We're talking about the provinces here, where back in 2002, Labour held its cities and reached deep into rural turf staining the political map red in what were once traditional National strongholds.

But that's all gone now. National’s wins in the provinces in 2005 have offered a foundation for it to conjure up a strong party poll position, potentially enough to stave off a surge in Labour-Green support that will emerge from deep within big city urban expanses.

For Labour, the fortune was realised back in 1999. Some say its ability to hold a group of difficult seats in 1996 (Taupo, Whanganui and East Coast) gave it a slim foundation to connect with rural New Zealand. In 1996, it was Helen Clark’s first run as Labour leader and New Zealand's first MMP election, it failed to fire and National and New Zealand First capitalised on Labour (as a party) suffering the lowest share of the vote since the 1920s, prior to Michael Savage's first socialist government .

But in 1996, while Labour lost the party list fight, it had strength in winning a strong electorate base. Three years later, it was able to capitalise on that foundation and with the Alliance party unified, was able to exploit a mood for change.

Under MMP, political polls tend to focus almost exclusively on the party list.

If current polling trends are accurate then on November 8 Labour will need to pull off an unprecedented four-party coalition to govern.

If one considers voting blocks, then this year's vote is expected to be very very close.

Labour will require Jim Anderton's Progressive Party, the Green Party, and the Maori Party to govern.

National will need ACT, United, and the Maori Party to successfully place a centre-right block in the Treasury benches.

National, on party list poling, looks certain to attract the largest proportion of votes. But the centre-right block looks unlikely to have 50 per cent or more of MPs in Parliament.

The electorate shift and swing is often overlooked by pollsters in favour of party list polling. Afterall, the proportionality of party support is what creates a governing coalition. But for the two largest parties, the fight out in the electorates, especially for National in the provinces, is where party list support is born.

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This article explores the General Electorate and examines how important the electorates are for the two main parties. A strong local party candidate attracts strong party support. In 2005 we saw National position and take a swath of electorate seats off Labour. Key among those were Northcote, Napier, Hamilton East, East Coast, Tukituki, Wairarapa, Whanganui, Otago and Invercargill. The Maori Party also took four of the seven Maori seats off Labour. And polling shows Labour had a battle on to defend its remaining three seats this year.

That shift away from Labour was obviously indicative of falling support for the incumbent government. The signals came from the ground up. It wasn't media-led, nor driven by the opposition, but rather by a tide of public opinion that was heading out to sea.

The people that matter, thousands of them from the suburbs and provinces, were feeling estranged from the party they once supported. Labour moved to cement-in targeted policy that would make a difference including: Working For Families, KiwiSaver, investment in schools, regional business, progressive policies that one would expect would connect with a broad span of voters on the socio-economic political axis.

But, throughout Labour's 2005-08 term a creeping, or should we say, a seeping shift of support from it to National had been in evidence. It was demonstrably an indication of a mood for change.

Party observers were charged to consider whether Labour should have driven a bloodless leadership change. Would this have stayed an erosion of support? Probably not, and besides, leadership change is never bloodless with Labour.

Its factions, while outwardly working toward a common-goal, are in fact an alliance of feminists, unionists, the rainbow block, those bringing diversity, and a group of pragmatists led by Phil Goff. A mere wheeze of leadership change shuffles the factions into defensive lines. Comrades, once co-operative, divide into their respective teams to strategise and block the advance of an opposing faction. Such is the Labour way.

Under leader Helen Clark, serious leadership challenges would never occur. She's led the party with a strength not seen for most of our voting lifetimes. And recent polling shows Helen Clark ahead of her rival with 45.4% support over Key's 44.8%. Not bad for a leader who has been campaigning for prime minister status since 1996.

But a mood for change raised the prospect and a slight puff of attention was paid to it.

A whisper surfaced immediately following ALT TV's mid-year interview with Phil Goff where Labour's most credible MP, after Helen Clark, was quizzed about his leadership aspirations.

Publicly and within the media, Phil Goff is seen as Helen Clark's most likely successor.

Clearly he has prime ministerial and leadership qualities. Politically, he's savvy. He's young enough to progress the country forward to a new level. He is more of a pragmatist than most National MPs, but sounder on human rights and justice. Once free to display to the public the leadership talents that he currently keeps clothed, Phil Goff would likely counter the populist lures of National's leader John Key. Surely, Labourites would fall in behind to assure a chance at challenging National's rise – albeit post-election and after Helen Clark…

But the factional whispers talk of a different future for Labour. Sources suggest earlier this year the feminists and unionists forged a pact. Scenarios were shaped. The rainbow block was pulled in close. The word was: Helen Clark would be secure until she chose to leave – irrespective of whether Labour was in government or opposition. Seems fair and only right considering the talent she offers.

But a plan was sprung.

First off, the unionists moved to have Mark Gosche become Labour Party president after Mike Williams departs after the election. After-Clark, the unionists and feminists and the rainbows will move to block the Goff-camp from taking leadership. They will shuffle David Cunliffe as a contender. The feminists move Maryan Street forward as a contender for deputy leadership. Ruth Dyson and Street will be the powerbrokers and the unionists will want to fast-track Andrew Little into parliament and then through the ranks. Phil Twyford would be a front runner for the Mt Albert electorate – again should Helen Clark eventually step down.

But this is merely scenario driven. If politics teaches us anything, it is best to consider the overview rather than the individuals. The trends and power-shifts of the factions are more indicative in forming a view of the agendas than the humans which are being moved into position. If an MP falters, falls, or is taken, there's another piece in the strategy ready to be played. This is not to say National is immune from all this, it's just that it's already on the rise after a rebuilding exercise engineered and sparked by its former president Michelle Boag which had eventually resulted in a re-reshuffle of its leadership. No, National's hidden agenda isn't one of internal factions so much as of policy. And that, is another story worth considering.

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But let's get back to tangibles.

In many respects, Labour's potential vote-take was destroyed by provincial New Zealand in 2005. Back then, the deep urban loyalties of the south Auckland electorates saved the party from humiliation. But Labour has since failed to reward south Aucklanders with new, progressive and credible candidates of the type National has lined up in Central Auckland, Tauranga, and elsewhere. Labour has allowed a situation to occur in its heartland where National can pick off soft voters. Valuable party list votes are now up for grabs. Add to this factor gains in the regions, and it looks likely National could return to government after a nine-year absence, despite MMP and a tough but lackluster campaign.

If National pitches itself well this week, especially in the provinces, all electorates south of Manurewa to New Plymouth could turn blue – the closest exception to this being Hamilton West.

Think visually. The legacy of the 2005 provincial pounding has left Labour having to start this year’s contest in a weak position. Add to this a diminished Labour majority in those once-strong electorates Hamilton West, Rotorua, Taupo, Otaki, West Coast-Tasman and Waimakariri.

Anyway, here’s how things are shaping:

Northland

National can expect to pile up huge majorities in the three rural seats north of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. John Carter (Northland), Phil Heatley (Whangarei) and Lockwood Smith (Rodney) are well resourced, well known, entrenched and (but with the exception of Shane Jones in Northland) face only nominal opposition. This is a far cry from the challenges in 1999 and 2002 when Labour won thousands of unexpected party votes in the far north and ran credible campaigns in Whangarei.

Prediction: National wins in all three seats.

West Auckland

John Key’s victory in Helensville is a sure thing. His majority in 2005 reflected National's major push to consolidate this electorate compared to its touch-and-go strategy and result in 2002. John Key also has the good fortune of facing Labour’s Darien Fenton, one of that party's least charismatic MPs. Fenton’s chances of challenging Key are about as good as converting Northern Ireland's the Rev Ian Paisley to Catholicism.

However Labour’s two westie Cabinet Ministers, Chris Carter (Te Atatu) and David Cunliffle (New Lynn) will not be moved. National will not go near taking these two safe Labour seats. Both Carter and Cunliffe are credible and respected politicians and can expect to win well, but with a decreased majority. Their challenge, within their electorates, is holding against a nationwide party list swing to National.

The most interesting fight in west Auckland will take place in the Waitakere electorate. Labour MP Lynne Pillay is no rock-star in Wellington. But she is an active and gregarious politician around the streets in Glen Eden. Up against her is National List MP Paula Bennett, who represents a different type of Tory politician, sparky, upfront, and prepared to do the grunt-work for the leaders.

In many respects the Waitakere contest will represent a test of local organisational strength. Pillay’s partner is Engineer’s Union heavyweight Mike Sweeney. Labour’s affiliate trade unions will pull out all stops to get Pillay back over the line. And it may well need that kind of organisational weight as Bennett has the support of an energetic group of young volunteers and three years of advocacy around the neighbourhoods of west Auckland.

This considered, it is difficult to predict for whom the Waitakere bell is likely to toll. Be ready to see a close result within 1000 votes either side.

Prediction: Wins for National's Key,and Labour's Cunliffe, Carter, and Pillay.

North Shore

Here, all Labour’s work between 1999 and 2005 has either retired or died. The retirement of Ann Hartley and the tragic loss of Helen Duncan has left Labour bereft of organisational heft in a difficult year. Fellow travelers Darien Fenton and Maryan Street have moved on (the seat is too marginal on a good year for Labour's more ambitious MPs to have a crack), and National’s Wayne Mapp (North Shore), Murray McCully (East Coast bays) and Jonathan Coleman (Northcote) are now entrenched.

Hamish McCracken must be agonizing over Labour's treatment of his loyalty. He's served the party and the union movement stoically since 1999 but has been passed over as part of Labour’s rejuvenation in being denied either a winnable seat or a decent list position (currently at 50 on the list) for the fourth time…

The closest result will be in Northcote (where Hartley won in 1999 by less than 400 votes and by 2500 votes in 2002). There, Labour’s Hamish McCracken's challenge is to rebuild in a bad year, which means McCracken's loss will be Coleman's gain by more than 4,000 votes on November 8.

Prediction: Wins for National's Mapp, McCully, and Coleman.

Auckland City

In Mt Albert, Helen Clark’s majority will be about as formidable as her landslide wins in 1999, 2002 and 2005. She will also haul in party votes for Labour in a way that is unsurpassed by others in her caucus.

Phil Goff will hold Mt Roskill, but his margin is likely to hover around 4000. Goff actually lost Roskill to Gilbert Miles in 1990, and knows how bad defeat feels. After spending time lecturing at AUT University (then AIT) Phil Goff was reborn in 1993 displaying a zest for constituent work unmatched by his peers.

Mt Roskill voters will stick with Phil Goff, even though the National’s party vote will rise – a credit to the work of its candidate, List MP Dr Jackie Blue.

National’s bastion in Auckland City is Tamaki. Allan Peachey has been a low profile MP this term, and has suffered health problems. But that won’t stop him from beating Labour’s Josephine Bartley by at least 10,000 votes.

Rodney Hide will dance toward victory in Epsom where he will likely win by polling close to 50 per cent of the vote. National conceded Epsom when it reselected List MP Dr Richard Worth to take Hide on for the fourth time. Worth inherited a strong safe National seat from former cabinet minister Christine Fletcher. But Fletcher's organizational team is now long gone. Its reach into stakeholder networks and voter support blocks is now disconnected. This said, National couldn't give a toss. It believes Hide's pitch, that a vote for Rodders in Epsom gets at least two National-supporting MPs into Parliament. Act is in a much stronger position in 2008 compared to 2005 and gives Hide a chance to campaign nationwide for party list votes.

Epsom is a seat where rookie Labour candidates can have a go. It's now considered a training patch. Labour’s Women’s Vice President Kate Sutton stands no chance, but then that's not the point.

The big daddy of Auckland contests will occur in Auckland Central and Maungakiekie.

Judith Tizard, who many jokingly refer to as the Minister responsible for holding the Prime Minister’s handbag, appears to be quietly losing her already shaky grip on Auckland Central. National’s young challenger, Nikki Kaye, has fast developed a reputation as a street fighter having won a difficult selection contest. Now Kaye is turning her attention to canvassing and engaging voters in Ponsonby, Herne Bay and Waiheke Island. Unlike Tizard, Kaye is prepared to door-knock the apartments to get a vote. Labour has lost penetration in Auckland Central, it knows it, but its candidate is now soft and comfy and lacks the teeth to win a fight. Bluster and a perception of self-assumed status just does not cut it against this new breed of National campaigner.

Tizard’s majority currently hovers at around 3900 votes - the most marginal Labour seat in the Auckland region. National's sniffed victory here and Kaye’s selection represents the strongest ever challenge that Tizard has faced.

If the nationwide swing to National is 5 per cent, then the swing to Kaye will be 10 per cent in Auckland Central. Prediction: Tizard will lose Auckland Central by around 2000 votes. And at 38 on the Labour Party list means one of the least-liked members of the Labour cabinet is teetering on being swatted out of Parliament for good.

Prediction: Wins for Labour's Clark, Goff, National's Peachey and Kaye, and ACT's Hide.

Maungakiekie

Labour's candidate for Maungakiekie, Carol Beaumont has big shoes to fill. Mark Gosche won this seat back off National in 1999 and entered cabinet as a highly respected and effective minister. He successfully lobbied to have income related rents for state house tenants brought in durin the first year of Labour's first term, relegating National's market rents policy as fit only for the garbage bin. He discovered funds lurking within Vote Transport that rightfully ought to have been within Vote Police and helped to create and resource the Highway Patrol, arguably responsible for saving hundreds of lives on New Zealand's roads. But for tragedy surrounding this great MP's life, he would remain a mover and shaker inside Labour's parliamentary wing.

But today, in 2008, Labour has three major problems confronting it in Maungakiekie. Firstly, southern boundary changes mean Gosche's bastion suburb of Otahuhu, has now shifted into Manukau East. Secondly, 2008 is shaping up as the most difficult year from Labour since 1996 (when Labour’s Richard Northey lost this seat by 300 votes). Thirdly, Beaumont is facing National’s Peseta Sam Lotu-Inga who is shaping up as one of two most credible Pacific islands candidates. Sam Lotu-Inga is campaigning showing the same style he used when running for Auckland City Council (where he won well over 7000 votes in a ward very similar to the Maungakiekie electorate).

This style includes a regular diet of door-to-door canvassing, pamphlets, cottage meetings and a credible track record of leadership at city hall means Lotu-Inga will chase then race ahead of the slow-moving Beaumont should she make it to Mt Richmond Park.

Like Auckland Central, Mangakiekie represents the reality of a particularly weak Labour candidate squaring off against a particularly exciting National challenger. Beaumont has been in Wellington for years, acting as the secretary of the CTU. Lotu-Inga is a city councilor and brings with him a deep background in commerce, sport, and social services. Samoan-born and a new breed of Pacific conservative, he challenges Beaumont in every single community in that electorate.

Prediction: Although Labour starts out with a 6450 vote majority, if it is to win here it will need to drive people to the polling booths. Look for National to win Maungakiekie by around 1500 votes. Should this prediction prove accurate, the result will represent a disaster for Labour. Nevertheless, Beaumont will be in Parliament thanks to her being 28 on the party's list.

South Auckland

No great surprises here. Labour will win Mangere, Manurewa and Manukau East. Labour’s William Sio will dispense with Taito Philip Field in Mangere with a large majority. Boundary changes and a weak opponent should deliver Ross Robertson his biggest ever majority in Manukau East. Electorate-shrewd old George Hawkins might not be popular with many in the Labour Party these days, but will win Manurewa (the electorate he has held since replacing Roger Douglas in 1990), by around a 6000 vote majority. Expect to see a strong Green Party vote here though, its candidate Alan Johnson is a savvy politician and voice for the people. He served as a force in Manukau City local politics throughout the 1990s, challenging for commonsense and a new way during the 'new right' ideological experiments seen throughout the greater south Auckland region in the 1990s.

Eastward, Pakuranga offers a lock for National’s Maurice Williamson, as is the new electorate of Botany for Pansy Wong. Look for both MPs to win with more than 60 per cent of the electorate vote. Williamson's ability to hang in there with his National Party colleagues is thanks in large-part to the support he enjoys in Pakuranga, seen by many to be the litmus test of how well small business is doing in New Zealand.

Further south, the new Papakura electorate will be won by National’s Judith Collins. She will win and hold Papakura in 2008 and firm up support for a win in 2011. Boundary changes will always ensure that Papakura and its rural frontiers both east and west are always subject to change. But Collins will walk all over Labour’s Dave Hereora, who is in grave danger of being bundled out of Parliament altogether.

Papakura ought to be a Labour seat. Many in this district despair at Labour failing time and time again to either attract or advance a candidate worth voting for. The socio-economics of Papakura, the demographics, the mix of cultures, and solid working class Kiwis out-number those who would naturally sway National's way. Given Labour Party support there are strong locals itching to have a go. But the conservatives in this "Where Town Meets Country" district, aided by the rural-block-voters provide strong support to a National candidate who will return Papakura to the party masters. This is a safe National seat a status that Labour fails to challenge.

Hunua, on the other hand, is a curious mix of the former Clevedon electorate and the Port Waikato electorate, which will be contested and won by National’s Paul Hutchinson. Perhaps the most interesting contest in Hunua comes from ACT New Zealand’s co-founder, Sir Roger Douglas, who is door-knocking around the towns scattered throughout that sprawling electorate. Douglas won’t win, but he provides more excitement and more of a contest than Labour’s Jordan Carter, who (as the party expected) is unlikely to make any kind of impact, at all.

Prediction: Wins to Labour's Hawkins, Robertson, Sio, National's Collins and Hutchinson.

Waikato Region

The Waikato has never been Labour’s strongest region. But in 2002, Labour outpolled National in the party vote in all but one electorate. This year it appears the roles will be completely reversed.

Taranaki-King Country

The most dominant National majority will be served up by Shane Ardern, who has held the sprawling Taranaki-King Country seat since a 1998 by-election. Labour is barely competitive in this sprawling rural expanse, and nothing is going to change that trend this year.

Waikato

National's Lindsay Tisch is milking support in this new Waikato electorate (which is a combination of the old Piako, Port Waikato and Hamilton East electorates). The electorate is home to some of the most fertile and picturesque farming countryside in New Zealand. And the voters of Waikato will once again prove to be true-blue for the National Party. Look for Tisch to defeat one of Labour’s new campaigners Jacinda Ardern by at least 10,000 votes. Waikato is hardly real fodder for Ardern who is far more political junky than 'Jackie from down on the farm'. She has worked in Phil Goff's Beehive office and also leader Helen Clark's 9th floor office. She has enjoyed a position of note abroad as a senior policy advisor in London and as President of an International Youth organization. She is being rewarded for her youth and experience. At 20 on the Labour Party list, she's going to be a first term newbie in the new Parliament.

Coromandel

Coromandel is the home of National’s Sandra Goudie. Despite having been narrowly won by the Green Party in 1999, Coromandel is a reliably National stronghold. Labour will poll some votes in towns like Thames, Paeroa and Waihi, but National will carry the seat by a wide margin.

Prediction: Goudie.

Hamilton West

Hamilton West probably represents Labour’s best chance of holding back against a groundswell of blue-support from Papakura to New Plymouth. As such, Labour MP Martin Gallagher has a symbolic fight to win here.

Gallagher lost this seat in 1996, only to pick it up again in 1999. Despite pushing his margin out to over 5000 in 2002, Gallagher only narrowly held West by around 800 votes in 2005.

Without the protection of the list, Gallagher is facing a do-or-die fight for Hamilton West. He faces a strong challenge from National’s Tim Macindoe who has come close before.

Hamilton West is too difficult to call. On paper, National should win this seat. But while those outside the Waikato would be forgiven for wondering who Martin Gallagher is, he has long earned a local reputation as a dogged fighter and is a fierce advocate for his people. He's one of the few Labour MPs prepared to pound Labour ministers' tables to get a result for a constituent. And what of Macindoe? Well he's no Simon Bridges (National’s candidate for Tauranga with massive public appeal), but more than capable of taking this seat. He is chief executive of Arts Waikato, a regional organisation based in Hamilton. Macindoe previously worked in public service, education, and as a marketing manager. He was Deputy Principal of St. Peter’s School, Cambridge.

Hamilton West is the seat to watch here immediately south of the Bombays.

Prediction: Too close to call.

Hamilton East

David Bennett’s 2005 victory over former Labour MP Dianne Yates hurt Labour. National’s win here chalked up the strongest result in a generation. Unfortunately for Bennett, boundary changes have seen many of the conservative voters who backed his candidacy moved into the newly created Waikato electorate. However, Yates has since retired and Labour list MP Sue Moroney is the new contender. Problem for Labour is she is not an endearing replacement and is fizzing as a possible contender in what was once a seat Labour held dear. Look for Bennett to win by around 5000 votes on November 8. That result will sink Labour’s fortunes east of the Waikato River arguably until at least 2014.

Prediction: Bennett despite boundary changes.

Taupo

Labour’s long-serving MP Mark Burton gave up his Cabinet seat to concentrate on retaining Taupo. But poor polling and a disastrous boundary change (losing Labour-leaning Taumarunui and gaining National-leaning Cambridge) means Burton has less chance of holding this seat compared to his last tough campaign in 1996.

Add to the mix Arapuni local, Louise Upston, who contests Taupo for National. Finally the National Party has chosen a candidate who comes from the more populous north of the electorate rather than the Ruapehu Plateau. With a strong background in business and a reputation as an active volunteer with a variety of charitable causes, Upston is likely to lever Burton out. He had previously managed to survive countless National-led challenges to take Taupo, but that was at a time when his political career was clearly on the rise.

Prediction: As credible and affable as Mark Burton is, his political days have already peaked and Taupo looks set to become blue.

Bay of Plenty region

Labour’s Armageddon.

Tauranga

National selected a grand prix candidate in Simon Bridges. Young, articulate, charismatic. He's got the look. This former Crown prosecutor is polling far ahead of embattled New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. While National got it right in using Bob Clarkson to stick it up Peters in 2005, it will cement support for National with Bridges and ensure Tauranga is no longer used as a back-stop by Peters.

Labour’s Anne Pankhurst is a strange selection. Having been defeated as a city councillor in 2007, Ms Pankhurst does not represent Helen Clark’s generational renewal. Then again, her selection is likely Labour's way of ensuring potential Labour votes go to Peters and not the Nats.

Prediction: Look for Pankhurst to poll third behind Winston Peters, who in turn will lose to Bridges by at least 3000 votes.

Bay of Plenty

In 1990 National’s Tony Ryall won East Cape with just short of a 2000 vote majority. Since then he has worked demographic changes and boundary changes to his advantage. Oddly, Ryall's electorate, Bay of Plenty, artistically skirts around the Tauranga electorate in the form of a banana. But Ryall's patch is no banana republic, rather a bed-rock of Tory conservatism.

Prediction: National’s majority here is likely to squash Labour’s candidate Carol Devoy-Heena by 12000 votes.

East Coast

Boundary changes, a strong year for National, and a Mackey who’s first name is Moana rather than Janet paves the way for National's Anne Tolley to comfortably win East Coast. This sprawling electorate should be a Labour seat. However, list MP Moana Mackey failed to attract the support enjoyed by her mother Janet, who served in Parliament from 1993 to 2005.

Here, it is hard to see how Labour can rebuild its tattered electoral chances in East Coast - given the younger Mackey’s failure to attract support and the diminishing support for Labour from Maori who choose to vote on the General Electorate.

Prediction: Some may shake their heads and wonder why, but Tolley will win this seat by around 6000 votes, and simultaneously eliminate any chance of Labour making a quick recovery in this sprawling remote part of New Zealand for some years to come.

Rotorua

Steve Chadwick was lucky to hold Rotorua in 2005. Her majority was slashed to under 700 votes despite the National candidate not even living in the electorate at the time.

Along with Labour’s defeat in Rotorua will come a significant decline in Labour’s party vote in the wider region, where defections to both National and the Maori Party (Maori voters on the General Roll) help to seal Labour’s fate in provincial New Zealand.

Prediction: Look for National’s Todd McClay (the son of former National Minister Roger McClay) to defeat Chadwick by over 3000 votes.

Central North Island

Labour’s last chance to hold a piece of provincial New Zealand.

New Plymouth

Labour’s Harry Duynhoven won New Plymouth for the first time way back in 1987; only to face a heavy defeat three years later when the fourth Labour government faced annihilation at the ballot box.

In 1993, Duynhoven won New Plymouth back, helping to fuel election-night speculation that Labour could cause an upset and win the 1993 election. The latter was not to be, but Duynhoven managed to build strong local support over the four MMP elections despite his party never resonating as the natural party for New Plymouth voters.

2008 stands as the next big test for Duynhoven. Not since 1990 has he arguably faced an electorate as hungry for change as it is this year. And Duynhoven's diminished majority in 2005 puts this electorate on the radar as one to watch.

National's candidate Jonathan Young has returned to New Plymouth to contest this election having left the city 25 years ago. He has been senior minister of City Church in Waitakere for the past eighteen years. He's light on political experience, but has politics in his veins – his father Venn Young was elected National MP for Egmont in 1966.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Duynhoven should be able to hold New Plymouth reasonably comfortably.

Prediction: Do not be surprised if the result in New Plymouth is closer that one would expect. Harry will be back, but National will comfortably outpoll Labour here in the all important party vote.

Whanganui

National’s Chester Borrows finally won Whanganui in 2005 after several attempts, and has not stopped campaigning ever since. Former Labour electorate MP Jill Pettis is retiring, while her replacement, former Sale of the Century winner Hamish McDouall, stands little chance of capturing voter’s imagination in what is shaping up to be a bad year for Labour.

Prediction: Look for Borrows to win every booth outside of Whanganui City, and to pile up to a 5000 vote margin.

Palmerston North

Labour’s Steve Maharey is retiring after 18 years in Parliament. It is hard to believe but Maharey nearly didn’t make it in the first place, having to wait on the outcome of special votes before claiming Palmerston North in 1990.

National has not won Palmerston North since 1975. It is hard to imagine a scenario whereby Labour’s new candidate, Iain Lees-Galloway, doesn’t go on to win by at least several thousand votes.

National's contender is Malcolm Plimmer with a long history of successful hill-country farming in the Pohangina Valley. Plimmer is leaving it late for his charge at political life and on paper one cannot expect him to win this seat.

But nothing is certain for Labour in provincial New Zealand. That said…

Prediction: Polish the shoes Iain, you are Parliament-bound.

Otaki

Labeled the son Helen Clark never had, cabinet minister Darren Hughes barely held on to Otaki in 2005. After inheriting the seat from Judy Keall in 2002, Hughes’ close-run race in 2005 instantly made him a target for this year.

Now National’s list MP Nathan Guy looks set to defeat Hughes in a lop-sided result, which is consistent with the apparent realignment of Labour’s fortunes across the provinces.

While defeat in Otaki would be a bitter pill for Hughes to swallow, he could take heart from his colleague Annette King, who lost Horowhenua in 1990 only to reemerge as the Labour MP for the much safer Miramar seat in 1993 (that same year, Keall won Horowhenua after having lost the Auckland seat of Glenfield in 1990).

Prediction: Don't worry Darren, you'll lose your support-base but at 19 on the Labour list, you're back in with a grin.

Rangitikei, Wairarapa, Tukituki, Napier

Other seats across the central North Island have continued to show a deterioration in Labour’s support. Simon Power (Rangitikei), John Hayes (Wairarapa), Craig Foss (Tukituki) and Chris Tremain (Napier) have successfully supplanted Labour.

This is a remarkable political achievement for National considering Labour’s previous majorities in three of these four seats… and as recently as 2002.

In Napier, Chris Tremain is set to totally do over Labour's Russell Fairbrother, who was once a real catch for Labour being celebrated as a successful and well-respected defence lawyer and barrister. But Fairbrother hasn't fired politically, and Tremain's pitch to Napier in 2005 was perfectly timed.

Labour had a chance to arrest Tremain's hold on Napier with the impressive Stuart Nash returning to his home town with a kit of experience and promise.

Nash is experienced in business, strategy, marketing, management and trade, with Master’s degrees from Auckland and Canterbury Universities. He was director of Strategic Development at AUT University before he moved to secure the Napier candidacy from Fairbrother - afterall Labour had long touted Fairbrother as one who would bow down to new blood.

You would think Labour would snap him up. Was Nash too clever? The cynically minded would suggest he possessed too much talent. Add to this his alignment to the Goff camp and you have it… blocked by the unionists and prevented from acquiring a chance-contender spot to run in a National-held seat. Nash instead was given the 36 on the list spot, teetering on becoming a party list MP should Labour not completely collapse.

In Napier, look for Labour to slide into a distant second place (as in the other three of the region's electorates) which should secure National a solid platform to finish off choking the centre-left in 2011.

In TukiTuki Craig Foss is securing up his hold. He ousted Labour cabinet minister Rick Barker from the seat in 2005, a feat that shocked many and predicted by Scoop. Labour has since been putting it about it has some political dirt on Foss – but nothing of substance has come of it. Expect Foss to extend his majority and cause Labour's Rick Barker considerable unease – at 34 on the list, Barker's safe enough.

Labour's candidate Denise MacKenzie has another shot at Wairarapa. She inherited the chance to win when Georgina Beyer decided not to stand in the electorate in 2005. Back then, MacKenzie lost to John Hayes, as predicted by Scoop. Hayes had deep experience in the foreign service and as such represented New Zealand in Singapore, India, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia as Charge d'Affairs, Papua New Guinea (as High Commissioner) and Iran (as Ambassador). MacKenzie's background in education and farming and Labour Party politics does not advance her chances in 2008. Hayes will win this seat extending the majority for the National Party once again in this once staunchly held Labour seat.

In Rangitikei National's Simon Power is a formidable force. This is a seat where National can embed a talented MP and allow him or her to carve out a solid and assured political career. Simon Power is such an MP and no matter what Labour's candidate Jills Angus Burney could muster will not erode into this man's popularity. Power will obviously return National a solid purse of party list votes and stretch his majority out by another 20 per cent.

Prediction for the region: Labour loses all four seats and the party vote. Look for the Greens to pick up more than its expected share of party votes in Napier.

Wellington

In Wellington there will be no change worth getting excited about. Labour is heading for comfortable wins in Rongotai (Annette King), Wellington Central (Grant Robertson), Mana (Winnie Laban), Hutt South (Trevor Mallard), and Rimutaka (Chris Hipkins). Ohariu will provide United’s Peter Dunne with another three years in Parliament (having first won the seat as a Labour candidate in 1984).

National’s problem in Wellington appears to stem in part from its antipathy toward the public service, which immediately puts it out of favour with a key voting block in the nation’s capital. But Wellington has never really been a National Party city. And Labour is moving to cream as many two tick party list votes as it can muster from the capital city's voters. The big cities are where we see a surge of party list votes for Labour, potentially gobbling up gains National makes in the provinces.

That is how this election will be won or lost. Wellington and the south and west Auckland electorates will determine the outcome of this election. They are different communities with differing needs. But if Labour fizzes in the greater Wellington region, then it is dog tucker on the night.

South Island

Big electoral swings tend to occur in the North Island, whereas the South Island tends to produce more predictable results. National will poll well in the south, starting with heavy victories for Colin King (Kaikoura), Nick Smith (Nelson), Amy Adams (Selwyn), Jo Goodhew (Rangitata), Jacqui Dean (Waitaki), Bill English (Clutha-Southland), and Eric Roy (Invercargill).

For Labour, the tide has gone out in the rural south in recent years. Despite having held much of the rural South Island as recently as 2002 (with victories in Invercargill, Otago and Aoraki), the tide has gone out as fast as Helen Clark’s now infamous 170km/hr dash across the south Canterbury plains. It is hard to conceive a scenario where Labour can expect to win the general election while having conceded so much ground to National - hence Helen Clark's pitch focusing on a Labour-Green voting block accruing more votes than National. If this was a first past the post election, it would be an absolute landslide to National. But under MMP, Labour and its mates still have a shot at a slim lead. The South Island electorates are one thing, but here candidates (both National and Labour) are also after every party list vote they can get.

The most interesting battles in the South Island center around Christchurch, Dunedin and the largest general electorate in New Zealand West Coast Tasman.

West Coast-Tasman

Labour’s Damien O’Connor is standing on the party list this year for the first time since 1996. It’s an indication of his concern that he sought party list insurance. With a margin falling to around 2000 votes and with Labour struggling to bridge a double digit poll deficit, O'Connor was at risk of losing his job..

While convention would say O’Connor stands no chance in a bad electoral environment, he has held on despite difficult circumstances before. In 1996 he won West Coast-Tasman despite Labour losing the election to National by a clear margin. In 1999 O’Connor won again despite Labour’s controversial plan to prevent native logging. However, 2008 could pose the biggest threat of all, which will test O’Connor’s political skill and local support. Labour here, like everywhere else, is seen to own every problem the country can identify.

Ironically O’Connor’s greatest asset could in fact be National list MP Chris Auchinvole. This Tory has a particularly aloof and theatrical style which seems at odds with the frontier personality that generally associates with the coast. By contrast O’Connor is not your typical Labour candidate; his down-to-earth-bloke approach resonates well with coasters.

It is close, Auchinvole starts as a narrow favourite to win West Coast-Tasman. But with O'Connor Labour has a fighting chance, if only due to his savvy conservative candidacy and the fact he is much at home on the coast – and ironically increasingly out of place in Helen Clark’s caucus.

Prediction: Damien, you have a slim chance thanks to Auchinvole. But you are lucky to be on the list at 37, you had better hope it is enough!

Christchurch

We are putting our reputation on the line by stating Christchurch will produce no change. But the caveat is there will be two close-run results. Labour will easily win Port Hills and Christchurch East. Gerry Brownlee will easily win Ilam for National, while Jim Anderton appears to be the permanent MP for Wigram.

However, two contests are worth watching… Waimakariri and Christchurch Central!

Waimakariri: Of the two, Waimakariri is the seat most in jeopardy. Boundary changes to this seat see Labour’s Clayton Cosgrove being moved out of north Christchurch into less friendly rural turf north of Canterbury. His saving grace is that he is a conservative and a great campaigner. But he will need to call in every last local favour in order to hold back the challenge by National list MP Kate Wilkinson. 2008 offers Wilkinson the best chance in years of winning Waimakariri.

Labour's centrist conservatives have long held this seat and former leader Mike Moore turned it into a safe haven. Cosgrove is a local who walks the talk, he knows for his survival's sake that looking after the constituents is essential. But National's Wilkinson was raised on a cropping farm in mid-Canterbury and she comes from a legal background. She's a steady as she goes list MP for National and could win this electorate should the swing against Labour roll over the top of Cosgrove's popularity.

Prediction: Cosgrove by a whisker thanks to Waimak still being a bloke's kind of place.

Christchurch Central appears on paper to be safe Labour. But 2008 is not a good year to change candidates, and the retirement of Tim Barnett presents something of a problem.

Despite having a number of outstanding and well known local nominees such as James Caygill (son of the former Labour MP for St Albans, David Caygill), Labour’s head office installed Brendon Burns to contest the electorate. While Burns starts off with a wide margin on paper, he faces the fiesty National list MP Nicki Wagner, who is both well known and well regarded in the garden city.

Wagner was born and educated in Christchurch and has lived and worked in Christchurch Central all her adult life. She taught at Hagley High School and Hornby High School before taking up a position at the Christchurch Polytechnic.

Burns is an out-of-towner, born in Wellington, a former Parliamentary press gallery reporter and was formerly the editor of The Marlborough Express. He was once touted by Labour as the Duke of Marlborough but failed to win that seat in previous elections.

A defeat in Christchurch Central would usually be unlikely and would no doubt devastate the Labour Party. But readers should remember that Barnett came within 700 votes of losing Christchurch Central when he first stood as a candidate in 1996, the same year that National last outpolled Labour in a general election.

Prediction: Too close to call but if the Cantabrians are not feeling too parochial, then Duke, you might just get the nod!

Dunedin

Since David Benson-Pope decided not to contest Dunedin South as an independent, the base of the Otago Highlanders will produce no great surprises in 2008.

Labour’s Pete Hodgson is set to win Dunedin North for the seventh consecutive time.

Clare Curran, who deposed Benson-Pope in a bitter selection coup at the start of the year, will win Dunedin South.

So Dunedin is now set to elect Labour representatives as it has done since 1975.

Prediction: Loyalty pays off in the deep south!

Maori Electorates:

And with the Maori electorates, on Sunday the Marae-Digipoll showed the Maori Party holding all four seats and a close race on for all three remaining seats held by Labour. It reported Labour's Parekura Horomia holding a "slender lead over the Maori Party's Derek Fox" in Ikaroa-Rawhiti. The poll of voters returned 49.8 per cent support for Horomia against 44.4 per cent for Fox.

NZPA reported: "Polls have shown its four sitting MPs - Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples, Hone Harawira and Te Ururoa Flavell - are well ahead of their Labour challengers.

"To win all the seats the Maori Party has to take Ikaroa-Rawhiti from Mr Horomia, Hauraki-Waikato from Nanaia Mahuta and Te Tai Tonga from Mahara Okeroa.

A poll released last week showed Mr Okeroa holding a 10 point lead over Tahui Katene, while the contest in Hauraki-Waikato is neck-and-neck."

Conclusion: It is a fascinating election in both General and Maori seats... Vote wisely!

ENDS

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