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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Apathy clear frontrunner so far in Christchurch East byelection

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It is a measure of Labour's nervousness that it has called on Jim Anderton. Photo / NZPA
It is a measure of Labour's nervousness that it has called on Jim Anderton. Photo / NZPA

Byelection? What byelection? With just a couple of days to go until the polling booths open in Christchurch East, one thing is for sure: apathy is the big winner so far. It is difficult to recall a byelection that has received such scant attention.

Both National and Labour - which has held the seat since 1919 - have made a point of talking down their respective chances of victory.

In Labour's case, it is easy to understand why. Christchurch East may be one of the poorest electorates in the country. The long-serving Lianne Dalziel, whose decision to contest the Christchurch mayoralty triggered the byelection, may have secured a solid 5,000-plus majority at the last election. The popular politician may have given a strong endorsement of her would-be Labour successor, Poto Williams.

It is no accident, however, that Williams' campaign manager is none other than Jim Anderton. It is a measure of Labour's nervousness that it has called on the experienced former Alliance leader to motivate the party's volunteers who do the donkey work of electioneering.

Labour has reason to worry. First - and most astonishingly - National won the party vote in the seat in 2011 by a margin of more than 4,000 votes.

That outcome had a lot to do with the decline in support for Labour in successive general elections in what was previously "Fortress Christchurch" for the party.

A Labour victory may hinge on the nearly 3,200 voters who backed Dalziel with their electorate vote in 2011 but who gave their party vote to National doing the same favour for Williams at the expense of National's candidate, Matthew Doocey.

But there are no guarantees of that happening. Quite the reverse.

National's strong party vote may also have been the result of two other things: an exodus of Labour supporters from the most earthquake-affected part of the city, and John Key's popularity. Both factors persist.

Labour's biggest enemy, however, is voter indifference. Turnout is going to be low.

National has wasted no opportunity downplaying its chances, mostly so it can claim a huge upset should Doocey win. If Labour holds the seat on Saturday night, Key will simply argue that was always going to be the case.

Labour has realised it has a scrap on its hands. The capacity of that party's machine to prod likely Labour voters in the direction of the ballot box should ensure a Labour victory, though not a large one.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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