Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Little's pushing local issues to win hometown

Andrew Little. Photo / NZPA
Andrew Little. Photo / NZPA

"Vote Little", the red billboards around New Plymouth read, inviting the predictable graffiti. "Dick" someone has tagged on the bottom.

Welcome to the campaign of Labour's New Plymouth candidate, Andrew Little, back in his childhood town to try to wrest the seat back for his party after National's Jonathan Young took it from Harry Duynhoven with a slim 105-vote majority.

When the Herald first caught up with him, he was at a candidates' meeting with the Taranaki Young Professionals, about 40 people in their 30s and 40s.

At that meeting, Mr Young diligently stuck to his party line while Mr Little largely avoided his party line.

He did not mention Labour leader Phil Goff or most of his party's main policy planks. Instead, he talked about the port, oil, gas and dairy farming. He promised to push for roading realignments north of the city and to "shake every tree and push every button that needs to be shaken or pushed to get the funding for it".

He proposed ramming a tunnel through Mt Messenger.

Mr Little is aware of the deep vein of conservatism in the electorate - and that the hip-pocket issues of this audience are different from those he would find in union ranks.

He is also aware that he is a carpet bagger - he lives with his wife and 10-year-old son in Wellington and is bunking with his mother for the campaign. He has promised to move to the electorate if he wins, but the locals have made it clear he needs to establish his credentials, hence the emphasis on local issues.

At the candidates' meeting, he is asked if he will still move there if he does not win the seat but gets in on the list. He answers no. It is a question that has come up before and he's managed to come up with a cunning excuse - that it will save the taxpayers' money if they don't have to pay his Wellington accommodation and commuting costs.

Mr Little has never bothered to hide his leadership ambitions. New Plymouth is the start of his work to get there. He doesn't need the seat because he is high on Labour's list, but there's a certain moral heft in getting into Parliament on the votes of the people, rather than the party.

He does not think National's popularity will benefit Mr Young. "New Plymouth is an electorate that is used to splitting their vote. They like a bit of both."

He says he has come across a lot of National supporters and "some have said they will support me and others have said they have an open mind".

After the candidates' meeting, several in the audience decided he was the "winner".

It was possibly the discovery of his sense of humour that won them over: he mentioned upgrading New Plymouth's airport and a departure tax, similar to Hamilton or Palmerston North, "although in that case the idea of paying to leave somewhere you never wanted to go to in the first place seems rather odd".

It gets him a small laugh. When the Herald asks him later whether it was wise to mock Labour's sole remaining provincial seat, there was a slight gulp and a laugh: "Palmerston North is a city that is most loved and adored by Labour. We love Palmerston North, and we particularly like paying the departure tax."

He says he's enjoying his return to New Plymouth. The weather is better than he remembered "better than Wellington".

He admits his surname was a problem on the billboard front. To compensate, he's had campaign T-shirts made that say "Little for MP, Big for NP."

When it is pointed out NP also stands for National Party, he quickly replies: "In New Plymouth it only means two things: New Plymouth and No Parking."

- NZ Herald

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