By Bernard Orsman
The race for the electorate of Coromandel sparked into life this week with a weekend newspaper poll showing that the Greens could win.
Labour leader Helen Clark used the poll on the eve of the Green Party's election campaign launch to signal to local Labour supporters to give their constituency vote to the Greens' Jeanette Fitzsimons.
In the process she ankle-tapped the Labour candidate, Margaret Hawkeswood. It is hoped that Jeanette Fitzsimons will win the seat and deliver Labour an insurance policy against having to rely on New Zealand First to govern.
Cruel? Yes. But on the latest polls Labour can no longer be confident of forming a two-party coalition with the Alliance.
With polls putting the Labour-friendly Greens at about 3 per cent - still below the 5 per cent threshold to automatically qualify for list seats in Parliament - a win for Jeanette Fitzsimons in Coromandel would net the party three or four seats.
Margaret Hawkeswood is taking Helen Clark's "statement of the obvious" with some difficulty, even though it has been drummed into her by the party hierarchy that tactical voting will come into play. She got just 12 per cent of the vote in 1996, when she stood for a third time in Coromandel.
"I have deep feelings about honesty and integrity and I've made a commitment to my supporters to be out there.
"But if it becomes a cliff-hanger, to get rid of National they will vote accordingly."
The poll of 400 voters puts sitting National MP Murray McLean on 37 per cent, just ahead of Jeanette Fitzsimons on 34 per cent. Margaret Hawkeswood is trailing on 15 per cent, followed by NZ First list MP Robyn McDonald on 7 per cent and the Alliance's Tony Bird on 5 per cent.
So can Jeanette Fitzsimons be the first candidate in 50 years to break National's hold on Coromandel?
Possibly. The poll indicates tactical voting might be crucial but other factors come into play. Coromandel is not the eco-belt its name suggests.
The Coromandel Peninsula has large numbers of alternative lifestylers but the seat also includes swathes of farmers on the Hauraki Plains, plus horticulturists and the retired the further south you go to the boundary with Tauranga. These are vote-rich catchments for Mr McLean and Robyn McDonald.
In 1996, Robyn McDonald polled a strong third behind Jeanette Fitzsimons, drawing much support in her home town of Katikati.
Having stuck with NZ First, Robyn McDonald will benefit from a rise in the party's fortunes but her vote will be nowhere near the 22 per cent she polled in 1996.
Mr McLean is a first-term MP, a successful businessman from the Hauraki town of Ngatea, who has made hardly a ripple in Parliament but who is known locally as a hard-working MP.
"You have to physically take your hat off to a guy who puts the work in ... He's not a seat wallower," says Doug Bourne, a Whitianga businessman and Mercury Bay community board member.
Mr McLean is not a fan of MMP and has chosen to dodge the safety net of a place on the National list, even though it may mean losing his job.
Before Helen Clark intervened, Mr McLean was confident of victory. Now he appears panicky, running a scare campaign telling voters that if they elect Jeanette Fitzsimons they will allow a number of "law-breaking" Greens into Parliament by the back door.
At least the National candidate does not have to deal with vote-splitting on the centre-right. Act has given him a free run by not selecting a candidate.
Although Helen Clark has conceded the race for Coromandel is between National and the Greens, the Alliance is in no mood to play ball.
Tony Bird, a NewLabour unionist, is the Alliance candidate who helped Jeanette Fitzsimons when she stood under the Alliance banner in 1996 and came a creditable second. He felt betrayed when the Greens walked away from the Alliance.
The Alliance campaign manager in Coromandel, Bob Clark, says there will be no favours.
"We are not out to get Jeanette but in my view she needs to learn a lesson. If you give your loyalty you stay loyal."
Without the help of Alliance workers, Jeanette Fitzsimons is having to rely on Greens from outside the area to cover the vast electorate.
And she has to get across the message that, effective though she has been on green issues, she is about more than genetically modified food.
As Thames Coromandel mayor Chris Lux puts it: "Being green is not just about being up there in the branches. It is being down in the grassroots."
At street level, the hot issue is the future of Thames Hospital, which serves 48,000 people, swelling to 200,000 over summer.
The hospital's future has been in doubt since plans were unveiled several years to downgrade it. A month out from the election, nd the struggling hospital has been given a five-year funding guarantee.
Mr McLean, who has been pushing for a public-private community health trust, says he can hang his hat on delivering certainty.
But there is disquiet about the secrecy in drawing up the contract and the level of services to be provided.
Mr Lux says the community's wishes have been ignored yet again.
"Personally, I think [Minister of Health] Wyatt Creech's performance has been absolutely disappointing and he has made it very difficult for his local candidate."
Jeanette Fitzsimons has been pushing for some surgical services from the over-stretched Waikato Hospital to be based in Thames to support local surgery needs.
All these factors make Coromandel a difficult seat to read but a fascinating contest to watch. Labour voters hold the key. Mr McLean has more than his job on the line. The future of the Green Party rests on the seat.