It's all down to a few key seats

By Mike Williams

With the general election just months away, a handful of key seats, the Maori electorates and players like Kim Dotcom will take part in a strategic chess game of deal-making to ensure a governing majority

Clockwise: John Key, David Cunliffe, Kim Dotcom, Peter Dunne, Te Ururoa Flavell, David Seymour, Hone Harawira, Colin Craig, Annette Sykes. Photos / APN, NZ Herald, Getty Images
Clockwise: John Key, David Cunliffe, Kim Dotcom, Peter Dunne, Te Ururoa Flavell, David Seymour, Hone Harawira, Colin Craig, Annette Sykes. Photos / APN, NZ Herald, Getty Images

As the 1999 general election loomed, I faced an angry meeting in Thames, the largest town in the Coromandel electorate.

The then-Labour leader Helen Clark had made a statement encouraging Coromandel Labour supporters to consider casting their electorate vote for the Green Party candidate, Jeanette Fitzsimons.

The candidate and the electorate committee were incensed, having formed the opinion, with some justification, that the electorate was winnable by Margaret Hawkeswood, the Labour candidate.

As the Labour Party's campaign manager, I explained the arcane workings of the MMP system; that Helen Clark must have concluded that the Green Party vote was hovering dangerously below the 5 per cent threshold and that an electorate seat win, which would validate a party vote lower than 5 per cent for the Greens, was an insurance policy Clark didn't want to spurn.

My advice, that the local organisation should focus its energies on the party vote, did not go down well and I beat a hasty retreat back to Auckland.

Clark's advice worked and Fitzsimons won the seat with a majority of 250 on the special votes, though in the event the Greens sneaked past the 5 per cent party vote hurdle, also on special votes.

This episode demonstrates why parties and political commentators will be focused on a few key seats in the September general election, which may decide the outcome in terms of a governing majority in Parliament.

The best illustration of just how this rule can work was the 2008 general election.

The ACT Party, with 3.65 per cent of the party vote and a win in Epsom, was awarded five seats. NZ First, with 4.07 per cent of the party vote but no electorate wins, was eliminated from Parliament.

Had New Zealand First won a seat, the election outcome would have been very different and Helen Clark may well have joined the very short list of New Zealand Prime Ministers who won four consecutive elections.

All six elections under MMP have been close and this one is likely to be no exception. Deputy leader Bill English was wise to warn the recent Auckland National Party Convention that the two sides of politics were neck and neck and that every vote would count.

What he didn't say is that a few candidate votes in a handful of strategic electorates could again decide who governs New Zealand after the poll, and that those few votes may be in Maori electorates.


Epsom

The traditional strategic electorate of Epsom will most likely again deliver David Seymour for Act, although the other half of National's general seat parliamentary majority, Peter Dunne's Ohariu electorate, is not guaranteed.

These two electorates form National's narrow majority in the current parliament and polls seem to be telling us that neither party is likely to win enough party votes to elect a second MP from its party list.

Epsom should offer no surprises and the Prime Minister will likely give some kind of nod to National voters that electing the Act candidate in Epsom will suit National's strategy.

This signal will need to be better calibrated than in 2011, when John Key's "cup of tea" at UrbanCafe in Newmarket with John Banks badly backfired by drawing media and voter attention to Winston Peters.

This gave NZ First the electoral oxygen it so badly needed.

Labour's overnight polling clocked an immediate leap in support for New Zealand First that was sustained through to election day and very nearly cost National the election. Such are the vagaries of MMP.


Ohariu

The Wellington electorate of Ohariu under various names has elected Peter Dunne as its MP for 30 years, but may surprise this year.

Ohariu is a well-watered patch for Peter Dunne. As the Labour Party's marginal seat organiser in 1984, I recall telling a candidates' conference about some new software developed by the party which enabled candidates to target letters to voters based on occupations.

Peter Dunne, the recently selected Labour candidate for Ohariu, was hanging on my every word and, years later, an Ohariu constituent mate who worked in radio told me how Dunne regularly sent him information about broadcasting.

Dunne sought and received the Prime Minister's support in 2011, but still only managed a majority of 1,400 votes over the Labour candidate in an election which amounted to Labour's worst since the 1920s.

Events have not been kind to Dunne in his ninth parliamentary term. He was stood down as a minister when he refused to hand over emails in an investigation of a leaked document, his party was briefly deregistered and the chaotic muddle around "legal highs" must be laid largely at his door.

On the other side of ledger, he may have picked up a new sliver of support from boundary changes.

The gambling website "iPredict" favours a Labour win in Ohariu and should the Green Party neglect to field a candidate, the outcome could see Peter Dunne collecting his gold-plated parliamentary superannuation in October.


Conservative Party seat

Colin Craig's Conservative Party spent heavily and won 2.65 per cent of the party vote in 2011 at a cost of $31 per party vote, so gifting an electorate seat must be tempting for National and could be an election-winning tactic.

Finding an appropriate electorate is the so-far-unsolved problem. Craig was eyeing the new Upper Harbour electorate until National's Paula Bennett staked her claim, then East Coast Bays until incumbent National Party Minister Murray McCully made it clear he was in no mood to be a list-only candidate.

Maurice Williamson's recent tribulations caused Craig to rediscover an affinity with Pakuranga a week ago, but John Key quickly scuttled that avenue by confirming his support for the beleaguered MP.

Colin Craig thinks his party can get over the 5 per cent threshold so won't need a nod from National in any electorate.

Polls do not support his belief and a small but potentially crucial block of right-wing party votes could be wasted.


The Maori electorates

The permutations of voting in the Maori electorates are a three dimensional chess game involving Te Tai Tokerau, Waiariki, Matt McCarten, Kim Dotcom, non voters and the Labour Party moderating committee, but the outcome of this mind-bending tangle of ifs, buts, and maybes could decide who governs after the election. Here's the landscape. The Maori Party currently holds Te Tai Haurauru with Tariana Turia, Tamaki Makarau with Pita Sharples and Waiariki with Te Ururoa Flavell. The Maori Party lost Te Tai Tonga to Labour in 2011 and the three remaining Maori Party MPs saw their majorities slashed, almost certainly due to the party's confidence-and-supply agreement with National.

Labour is confident of winning Te Tai Haurauru and Tamaki Makarau with the retirement of Turiaand Sharples, so that leaves Flavell in Waiariki as possibly the only Maori electorate MP likely to support a National-led government.

It is just conceivable that Labour leader David Cunliffe's much-debated appointment of Matt McCarten as his chief of staff was the masterstroke which, with 20/20 hindsight,won an election.

McCarten is a master of Maori politics. He was with Tariana Turia the night she won her by-election in 2004. He delivered the result of the Te Tai Tokerau by-election to Mana Party's Hone Harawira in 2011.

Here's the chess game.HoneHarawira in Te Tai Tokerau is committed to the defeat of the National-led government; Te Ururoa Flavell in Waiariki is in a support relationship with National.

The best outcome for a Labour-led victory is for Harawira to win Te Tai Tokerau and Flavell to lose Waiariki.

The major threat to Hone Harawira comes from Labour list MP Kelvin Davis, who came close to unseating him in 2011.

Davis is a future Labour Party star and achieved great success in that most intractable challenge of educating young Maori.

His list placement in 2011 failed to deliver him a seat in Parliament and he's back because of Shane Jones' retirement.

Should the Labour Party moderating committee place Davis in a clearly safe list slot, the signal to Te Tai Tokerau voters is that they can have both men and perhaps make a crucial contribution to the defeat of a government they don't like.This is not as easy as it may seem.

I chaired three meetings of Labour's moderating committee as party president and the sequential horse trading which characterises the process is unpredictable.

Now look at Waiariki. Flavell lost a big chunk of his vote in 2011 and by any standard the seat is marginal. However it was the Mana Party candidate, Annette Sykes, who came second.

Labour has selected a highly marketable and well-connected candidate in Rawiri Waititi but Flavell could survive on a split vote, unless there is a clear signal from Mana and Labour favouring one candidate over the other.


Dotcom's Internet Party and Mana

Here's where Kim Dotcom's Internet Party arrives. This party, dedicated to the defeat of the National- led government, has been looking for an alliance with the Mana Party and has not been rebuffed.

The attraction for the Internet Party is that Mana could win a seat and therefore validate a party vote less than 5 per cent.

The attraction for Mana is the kind of lavish financial resource that enabled Colin Craig's Conservatives to get to 2.65 per cent of the party vote on its first outing.

Should the Mana/Internet Party get close to 2 per cent of the party vote, a not inconceivable outcome, then a second MP is a possibility as long as Harawira holds Te Tai Tokerau.

Placing Annette Sykes second on the Mana/Internet Party list could well be the Epsom-like signal to Waiariki voters to give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate and take a seat away from the National-aligned Maori Party.

The final wild card in this complex brew will be last elections' non-voters. Turnout hit an all time low in 2011, especially in the Maori electorates where four in 10 enrolled voters failed to cast ballots.

The tendency to vote forms a spectrum. Retired Pakeha are most likely to vote and young Maori least likely. Post-election research found that a third of these no-shows failed to vote because they saw the result as a foregone conclusion.

It may only take a couple of thousand previous non-voters in Waiariki to work out that the upcoming election is close for National's parliamentary majority go up in smoke.

Despite National getting a record percentage of the vote in 2011, the party failed to recruit new support during its first term, unlike the Clark government. Numerically, National's vote in 2011 was just the same as it was three years earlier.

A slight recovery in Labour's Party vote or a twitch in participation brings these strategic seats into play. Watch for a flurry of marae visits in Rotorua and Tauranga.


Mike Williams is former Labour Party President.

- Herald on Sunday

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