Eyes on tussle in bellwether seat

By James Ihaka

There's a historical theory that the party that wins the Hamilton West seat will almost certainly win the general election.

With a population of about 70,000 and an average family take-home pay of $58,000, the suburbs and fringes west of Hamilton central are viewed by some as a snapshot of middle New Zealand.

And while the idea of Hamilton West as a bellwether seat in an MMP system seems a thing of the past given the overall result is determined by the party vote, numerous elections back the theory.

The incumbent, Martin Gallagher, held the seat in 2005 for his fourth term after beating National candidate Tim Macindoe by just 825 votes and helping Labour back into office for another three years.

The former teacher and deputy mayor of Hamilton was also the comfortable victor in earlier election contests in 1999 and 2002 over Bob Simcock, now Hamilton mayor.

But an ominous 16 per cent swing of Labour voters to National between 2002 and 2005 almost mirrored the nationwide 15 per cent of those wanting change.

It's been difficult for Mr Gallagher to make his mark nationally as an electorate member of Parliament in an MMP environment.

Well-liked and respected locally, the former chairman of Parliament's law and order select committee saw his private member's bill to raise the drinking age to 20 defeated in the House.

He was recently leap-frogged by younger, female and ethnically diverse faces on Labour's list of candidates, indicating he could be on his way out.

His main rival, Mr Macindoe, stood as a list candidate in 1999 and then again in Tauranga against Winston Peters in 2002 - both times unsuccessfully.

On election night three years ago, Mr Macindoe was leading the Hamilton West race with 86 per cent of the votes counted, only to watch Mr Gallagher scrape home to win the seat.

Mr Macindoe has said that Hamilton, and the Waikato in general, has suffered from chronic under-investment in infrastructure and roads despite the region having some of the country's busiest arterial routes.

Should he win the seat it will be interesting to see if he can successfully advocate on behalf of the city and the region.

Across the Waikato River in the Hamilton East electorate, National MP David Bennett is looking to cement a second term in office in what has historically been a volatile seat.

The electorate has had three changes of stewardship in the past three elections.

Rated by colleagues as pragmatic and hardworking, Mr Bennett has been critical of the Government's failure to deliver on the $500 million eastern bypass.

Pushing him hard for the seat will be former journalist and stablehand Sue Moroney, now a list MP.

A tough-talking advocate for the Nurses Union and Public Health Coalition, Ms Moroney will be boosted by the culling of 10,000 mainly blue-ribbon voters from the constituency, which she believes has put paid to Mr Bennett's chances.

She was promoted in Labour's reshuffle to the role of Junior Government Whip and has already had her private member's bill, the Minimum Wage (Meal Breaks and Rest Periods) Amendment Bill, adopted by the Government this year.

Further north in the renamed Hunua electorate - which replaces parts of the Clevedon and Port Waikato seats - Labour candidate and "Just Left" blogger Jordan Carter is running against long-serving National MP Dr Paul Hutchison and Act founder Sir Roger Douglas, who stands a good chance of being re-elected to Parliament given his high position on the party list.

While Sir Roger's standing in the predominantly Pakeha and high-earning electorate could split the centre-right vote, the former finance minister, who has labelled Dr Michael Cullen as "something of a disaster", has made no secret of his ambitions to get his old job back in a National-Act Cabinet.

Mr Carter has welcomed Sir Roger into the race, saying the Act Party was "honest about its agenda".

Meanwhile, high-flying and returning expatriate Jacinda Ardern will try to break National's stranglehold on the newly formed Waikato seat.

The electorate replaces parts of the Piako, Coromandel, Hamilton West and Taranaki King Country.

A former Beehive adviser, the Morrinsville-bred Ms Ardern, 28, has spent three years overseas where she worked as a senior policy adviser to the UK Home Office's Chief Inspector of Constabulary.

But her challenge to National MP Lindsay Tisch, who won Karapiro in 1999 before it was renamed Piako in 2002, could merely be window-dressing given her recent return to the electorate.

Her placing at 20 on Labour's list - ahead of 18 sitting MPs - raised eyebrows but is a clear indication of the regard she is held by those in the higher echelons.

Mr Tisch, 61, a former management consultant and farm valuer from Matamata, will be looking to continue National's long reign of more than 40 years over the electorate and its former boundaries.

- NZ Herald

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