Nelson MP Nick Smith

Since MMP began in 1996 Nelson has voted on the party vote for the Government for whoever it might have been.

Yet, through all that time, National MP Nick Smith has held the electorate and watched the Shipley National government go out; the Clark Labour government come in; the Key National Government take over and then the Ardern government win at the last election.

His own vote has risen and fallen depending on whether National was in Government or opposition. But always he clung on to his electorate seat.

Whilst the numbers on the chart show an MP with a remarkable ability to swim against the electoral tide in his electorate, National is nervous about his fate this time.

His Labour opponent, Rachel Boyack, needs a swing of only just over five per cent to take the seat.

In the current climate where the party vote swing to Labour (according to the Colmar Brunton poll) is just over ten per cent, Smith has every reason to be worried.

It may be that his only route back to Parliament would be if National were to lose some seats like Whanganui, Wairarapa, Auckland Central and East Coast — all of which look possible for Labour.

Each one National lost would free up another place on its list and Smith at 18 is ahead of the candidates for all four, so he would stand a good chance of making it back.

Parliament would lose a lot if he didn’t even if there might be quite a few MPs who would argue with that.

Smith is dogged, fiery and often intense. He frequently clashes with Speaker Trevor Mallard, and within his own caucus, he has his critics.

But on the other hand, he is a centrist who has played a major, if not the major, role both as a back bencher and Minister in persuading National to take environmental issues seriously.

With environmentalists Guy Salmon, the late Rob Fenwick and former Minister, Simon Upton, he founded the Blue Greens, which has become a home for National’s liberals as well as a hugely influential voice in the development of party policies like climate change and freshwater.

I play the position of the left-wing on the rugby team, and some people say that is the most philosophically appropriate position for me on the field,” he says.

“I’m a bit of a centrist.

“I have as much fear as the extremes of the left as the extremes of the right.

“I also think that when you are a constituency member of parliament grounded every day, the work, whether it be schools or health care or the like, it does have a heavy influence on you as being more moderate in your political views.”

Within National, Smith has had the task since they have been in opposition of rewriting the party’s policy. It was a process he took very seriously, some colleagues felt too seriously, but he visited almost every electorate and demanded that he meet not just party loyalists but stakeholders in the policy issues he was investigating.

He conducted a huge web-based public consultation, and with the young researcher, Liam Kernaghan, who is now the party’s candidate in Taieri was almost ready to produce the final work when Covid struck, and the party then underwent its leadership changes.

Under Todd Muller, Amy Adams was effectively appointed to replace him and then when Muller went without Adams having accomplished much; it seems to have become a process of rescuing what can be salvaged from Smith’s work and frantically trying to plug the gaps.

But Smith had been given the job because he is widely trusted by the party membership.

“I make no bones about the fact that I’m a very strong supporter of business,” he said.

“I want enterprise, but I also feel very strongly about the environment, and I’ve done lots of ministerial portfolios in those areas, but I also want to make sure that National equally delivers on things like good environmental protection.”

What might make Smith more vulnerable to an electorate seat loss is the low profile the Greens seem to have adopted this election.

Not so long ago, this would have been regarded as a prime Greens target. In 1999, the first time the party stood under its own name, it got its third-largest share of the party vote in Nelson. At the last election, it had slipped to the 13th largest share of the vote.

In a way, that tells the story of the Greens; of how they have morphed from being a party of Nelson hippies to a party of urban lefties.

It some ways it is typified in Nelson by Sue Grey, the former partner of former Green MP, Iain Ewing- Street and prominent environmental activist-lawyer in her own right now standing as co-leader of the Outdoors Party.

That party opposes the use of 1080.

The Greens candidate, Dr Aaron Stallard, is a geologist who owns a scientific editing business in Nelson.

He is not even on the Greens list.

I’ve been surprised on the ground at the weakness of the Green campaign, and Nelson has been a seat where the Greens have done reasonably well,” says Smith.

But the problem is if the Greens have a weak candidate and if the other “green” candidate is backing an anti-1080 party, then the chances are that a lot of potential Green voters will go to Labour.

Labour’s candidate, Rachel Boyack, is a former unionist and organist at Nelson’s Anglican cathedral who now works as Health and Safety Coordinator for the Anglican Diocese of Nelson.

At 57 on Labour’s list, she could well be an MP even if Labour gets only in the mid to high 40s on the party vote.

So she cannot be sure either of winning the electorate or getting in on the list, but she stands a big chance.

That could leave Smith on election night ironically hoping that some of his fellow MPs might lose their electorate seats.

However, there is no doubt about his determination to continue.

These are extraordinary times,” he says.

There are lots of times when the things that Parliament and Government decide don’t have much impact on people’s lives and sometimes actually it’s better the Government doesn’t do very much because things in the country are working very well. 

“We’re at a time when the Government is having more influence over people’s lives than ever.

“The scale of the economic decisions that are being made are absolutely huge.

“And so what motivates me to want to continue to be part of Parliament and the policymaking and political process is that these are extraordinary times.

“I’ve been through the recessions of the 1990s and through the Great Financial Crisis.

“I think I’ve got something of value to add is to how we get through this one and are looking forward to making that contribution over the next three years.”

But he is a realist.

“I’ve no doubt that Nelson’s not a sure bet.

“It was a Labour seat for well over 50 years before I won it eight elections ago.

“And my focus on the next two and a half weeks is to try and earn the confidence of the Nelson people to serve for another three years.”

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