Scoop Feature: The fight for the Coromandel
The seat of Coromandel, currently held by National MP Murray McLean but fiercely contested by Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons, promises to be one of the most interesting and potentially significant seats of the looming general election. Jonathan Hill reports on what is building for a hard fight.
The Coromandel/Hauriki area has been a National-held seat since at least 1975, although it will not necessarily remain so come election day. At the last election there was a strong anti-National vote particularly in the electorate vote. However vote splitting between candidates on the left apparently from an electorate not accustomed to the principles of MMP returned the incumbent Murray McLean with a very low majority.
McLean won the seat with 34 per cent of the electorate vote, Jeanette Fitzsimons (then an Alliance MP) was second with 27 per cent, New Zealand First's Robyn McDonald with 22 per cent and Labour's Margaret Hawkeswood with 15 per cent.
This shows that had Hawkeswood (because she was polling last) stepped aside and backed Fitzsimons, there would have been a comfortable margin with which to easily defeat McLean. This time round pre-election polling will be interesting, not least to see where the collapsed support for New Zealand First has gone - especially with Coromandel backing on to Winston Peters' seat of Tauranga.
The boundaries and name of what is now the Coromandel seat have changed constantly over the last 30 years and while the seat has remained National's it has also been a seat in which smaller parties have done well.
In 1990 under FPP the Green Party received 20 per cent of the vote - their best polling electorate in the country. Social Credit also polled well there in the 1980's. In both the 1990 and 1996 elections the Greens achieved double the vote of Labour in the seat.
Since the last election the Green Party has split from the Alliance and will be standing as an independent party this time. The new Alliance candidate is Tony Bird who helped run Fitzsimons' campaign last election. Both Hawkeswood and McDonald are also standing again.
The Coromandel seat is crucial for the ongoing survival of the Greens. That is unless they can build national support to the magical five per cent.
Recently the genetic engineering debate has helped boost the party's polling to around 2.5 per cent nationally, which would give the party three MPs in Parliament if they can win an electorate seat. The bottom line is that Jeanette Fitzsimons must win the Coromandel seat to ensure the Greens get back into Parliament.
But the success or failure of the Greens has implications beyond their own survival. This week's TV3 CM Research poll on the party vote alone showed that if an election were held this week, a Labour / Alliance coalition could have a most uncomfortable majority of just one seat, with New Zealand First coming dangerously close to again holding the balance of power. Were an arrangement to be reached whereby Labour endorsed Fitzsimons in Coromandel her success in the seat would be almost certainly assured, giving the left another valuable three seats.
However Helen Clark has been most unreceptive to the idea of endorsing Fitzsimons in the seat and has rejected suggestions of withdrawing Hawkeswood from the race. The merit of the politics of this move are arguable, however it seems that even if Clark changes her mind she may have already blown the possibility of a deal in the seat. For her part Fitzsimons says she has never suggested Labour withdraw Hawkeswood, as that would be "insulting to the Labour voters in the seat".
Last week Jeanette Fitzsimons published an independent poll she had commissioned in the seat. Conducted by Reid Research it showed Fitzsimons on 33 per cent, McLean on 31 per cent, Hawkeswood on 20 per cent, McDonald on 10 per cent and Bird on six per cent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.6 per cent.
Both Helen Clark and Murray McLean were quick to dismiss the poll. In the Evening Post Clark said the polling company was not well known, the sample small and the margin of error high. Murray McLean issued a media release saying he had polling which showed the race was between himself and Hawkeswood and that Fitzsimons was not even in the race. He didn't mention any details of the poll.
Scoop contacted McLean and asked for a copy of his poll or at least for some details. McLean said he was not sure who had conducted the poll but would consider releasing the results. He has not done so and is now out of the country for a week.
Fitzsimons has a relatively high national profile compared to the quiet McLean, however McLean has a reputation as being a well-liked local MP. Tony Bird says there is considerable anger within the Alliance towards Fitzsimons due to the Greens deciding to leave the Alliance and go it alone. He refers to her as another Alamein Kopu, despite the fact that the Greens remain Alliance MPs, and vote with the Alliance, until the House rises before the election.
Fitzsimons admits that an agreement with Labour in the seat would certainly have been helpful, however she is now determined to win the seat on her own merits. She says her polling in the seat shows it is a clear two way race in the seat and that Margaret Hawkeswood is well off the pace. She says Labour supporters in the seat have recognised that and are already supporting her, regardless of directives from the party hierarchy.
She said being seen as seeking an accommodations from Labour in the seat "looked weak" and that she was confident of winning the seat on her own merits.
With the rise of New Zealand First in the polls Helen Clark may well be kicking herself for not taking the opportunity of doing the Greens a favour while they were more open to the idea. Post election she may find several seats from a party of the left which feels an obligation to her useful. Now if the Greens manage to return to parliament it will be with no obligation and a hard earned independence.
Regardless, the fight promises to be fascinating.