It doesn't take an advanced degree in political science to understand this much about elections: under first-past-the-post, if two candidates aligned to the Labour Party run against each other for the Auckland mayoralty, neither is likely to win. Instead, by failing to rally behind a single contender, the Labour Party will all but certainly gift New Zealand's biggest political prize in local government to its adversaries. What a spectacular own goal that would be.
And yet exactly this nightmare scenario seems to be taking shape before our eyes.
Two Auckland councillors – Richard Hills from the North Shore and South Auckland's Efeso Collins – have both declared* their hand. Hills moved first, and appears to have the backing of the Prime Minister as well as party bosses. At the time of Hills' announcement, I had just assumed Efeso Collins, whose ambition for the office is no secret, must have been part of discussions, giving his colleague the green light. Even though I've known and admired Collins from the day he emerged on the scene, I also like and respect Hills a lot. If a peace deal had been struck between the two of them, and Hills came out ahead, that seemed to me like a perfectly good outcome.
But there is no peace deal. Collins had not signed on to back Hills, about whom he speaks warmly and considers a friend, and within days declared his own candidacy.
This state of affairs is made possible by the ever-moving feast that is Labour's ad hoc approach to local body politics. Incumbent Mayor Phil Goff always enjoyed Labour's endorsement but ran as an independent, a strange hybrid approach that may also apply to Rongotai MP Paul Eagle if steps into the Wellington mayoralty race, as many (including me) hope he will. For reasons I've never fully grasped, Kiwis are notoriously ambivalent about party politics in local government, so I get why Labour does what it does, but what's playing out in Auckland demonstrates that it does not come without costs.
On Tuesday, I sat down with Collins to get his read on the situation and get a sense of what's driving his campaign.
A brilliant orator and easily the council's sharpest media performer, Collins is quiet, thoughtful and unfailingly courteous in person. There may not be a peace deal, but this is not a man at war.
On the dangers of splitting the vote, Collins understands the stakes. He wants to live in Mayor Leo Molloy's Auckland no more than I do. But he's bemused by the process, and I found myself persuaded by his calls for a transparent selection that gives grassroots party members a say.
Before I'd finished asking whether he'd step aside if he came up short under such a process, he jumped in with a definitive "yes".
"If it was an agreed process that was fair, robust and transparent, and the one I've requested includes the membership of the party so that people can have a say. Too many of our people are left out, and this is a way to draw them in."
As it stands today, Collins seems unlikely to get his wish. The NZ Council, Labour's governing body, is taking charge, seeking input from locals via an Auckland local body committee, but ultimately plans to make the calls themselves. That means party honchos from Wellington and Christchurch get a say, but longstanding members and activists are shut out.
A transparent selection process, including giving party members a vote, could achieve more than avoiding a vote-split catastrophe – it has the potential to energise the party base, increase interest in the elections and help progressive candidates across the board.
There are some in the party who point to Collins' past views on same-sex marriage (he once favoured civil unions) as evidence of a disqualifying social conservatism.
Coming from a strictly religious household, he is the first to admit he's been on a journey.
"In my church, I'm considered way too liberal," he tells me, explaining how, as a youth leader, he regularly works with young people wrestling with sexual identity.
When I hear him talk on the subject, it occurs to me that what's seen as a weakness in progressive circles could well be an unexpected strength, one that allows him to reach far beyond his South Auckland base.
This journey he describes towards accepting new social norms, the evolution in his thinking, is something many people of all colours and creeds, including me, can relate to. The new progressive orthodoxy on questions of gender and sexual identity, for instance, has taken hold in the blink of an eye – even Barack Obama opposed marriage equality until 2012. It's been a struggle for many to keep up, and some feel vilified for holding views that were considered perfectly valid just a few years back.
Collins had so much more to say, so many bold but specific plans for the city, this column will need a sequel. Watch this space.
However Labour resolves the current standoff – and my hope is they find a way to hold an open contest and settle on a single candidate – it cannot afford to lose the talents of a leader as thoughtful, intelligent and appealing as Efeso Collins – and nor can Auckland.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.
* Editor's note: At the time this column was published, Richard Hills had not declared whether he would stand for the mayoralty or not.