It seems the big challenge facing the two main political parties over the Hamilton West by-election is that no one seems to care.
Even at last night’s Waikato Chamber of Commerce candidates’ debate, only one person had voted even though voting opened yesterday.
Instead, what was apparent at the debate was that the audience wanted the candidates to talk about local issues or, perhaps even more importantly, to talk about national issues from a local perspective.
But likely turnout is the big concern.
The campaigns all acknowledge that a by-election two weeks before Christmas comes at a time when people have other things on their minds.
It’s a major concern for Labour candidate Georgie Dansey, who must also face an erosion of her vote from former Labour voters who have decided to stay with the former Labour MP, Gaurav Sharma, whose resignation has sparked the by-election.
Sharma himself is settling into the role of being a local advocate who was suffocated by the Labour Party hierarchy.
So turnout is the issue for Dansey, and the omens are not good.
“The Tauranga by-election turnout was 40%, the local city council election 30%,” she told POLITIK.
“I would love for the turnout to be great and for us to have a 100% turnout.
“I hope it will be. But we know that by-elections have a lower turnout than usual.
“But that’s not stopping me from getting around. Seeing as many people as possible and trying to get as many voters to the polling booths now and on Election Day.”
Dansey must represent the Government in the by-election, and that is a challenging task given widespread local concern over issues like crime and the cost of living.
But she has not been afraid to deviate from the formal Beehive line on some issues.
Under the English National Government, approval was given for a four-lane extension of the Waikato Expressway from Cambridge to the State Highway 1 Piarere turnoff – a black spot for crashes between Cambridge and Tirau.
However, in 2018 when Labour unveiled its 10-year plan for land transport, it included a huge investment in road safety and rapid rail at the expense of state highway upgrades.
The extension of the Waikato expressway was a casualty, and it was axed.
The Waikato Chamber of Commerce, who hosted last night’s debate, have subsequently been campaigning for its reinstatement.”
Dansey last night suggested she favoured the extension.
“I support a multi-modal approach which includes a potential extension but also having safe cycleways and good public transport,” she said.
When asked about the TVNZ-RNZ merger, she sounded less than enthusiastic.
“For me as a local person in Hamilton, no one is talking to me in the community about the merger; people are talking to me in the communities about the cost of living and the safety of their communities,” she said.
In fact, of the candidates, only Naomi Pocock from TOP expressed unreserved support for the merger.
“TOP if the party of evidence,” she said.
“And so it supports in-depth and critical of journalism, and we get that from RNZ, but since the Charter got taken away from TVNBZ, less of that has been happening there.”
But Pocock was more concerned to emphasise a local take on national issues.
Like all of the candidates — except Dansey – she was critical of Three Waters.
“It is a ridiculous system that they’ve set up; overly bureaucratic, too expensive,” she said.
“On the other hand, there is a need for investment in our water infrastructure inside, so the status quo is not okay.
“A good example of what we could do is the local and central government funding after the Christchurch earthquakes where there was central funding, but the local Council had the power of decision making.”
Pocock’s argument might not have stood up to too much rigorous analysis, but the emphasis on local decision-making was a popular one last night, particularly when it came to Three Waters.
Asked what she would do if the voters of Hamilton West opposed entrenchment to prohibit the sale of the water entities, Dansey again sounded like a local rebel.
“I guess the role of any member of Parliament and local member of Parliament is that we continue to bang on the doors of those ministers and people making those up decisions to make sure voices are heard,” she said.
“And that would be exactly what I would do, would continue to have those conversations and push for the people of Hamilton West.”
But echoing the theme that saw him publicly criticise the Labour Caucus, a move that led to his expulsion, Gaurav Sharma said the Ministers would not listen.
“Here is the minister of local government (Nanaia Mahuta) who lives just around the corner in Ngaruawahia, and you can ask FreeFM (A local Hamilton radio station) how many times they into contacted me and said, can we just get Minister Mahuta to come and talk to us about what’s happening with three waters?” he said.
“ Incredibly hard. Incredibly hard to get the minister who lives in my community to come and talk about this very important issue with us.
And it’s not about just that minister; it could be health. It could be anything.
“We just can’t get people to come and talk to the community about anything.
“And this is the same issue we’ve seen in the recent crime spree in Sandringham.
“ Somebody dies down the road from the prime minister’s house in her electorate.
“She’s off in Hamilton electioneering here.
“And then in the Chathams s the next day.
“And that’s the problem across the board. There’s absolutely no conversation before people are dying. There’s no conversation after people are dying.
“There’s no conversation before what is going to be entrenched? There will never be a conversation after it becomes entrenched.”
ACT’s candidate, James McDowell, preferred to highlight the national policies that his party was pushing.
He said it had been incredibly frustrating as an Opposition MP trying to pick away at the Government and to get them to listen to things.
“The over riding mood in Wellington is a drive towards the centralisation of everything,” he said.
He suggested that the Government should go and talk to Councils because, based on their reaction to moves like Three Waters and the centralisation in other areas, they were not very happy.
National’s candidate, Tama Potaka, opted for National talking points to answer questions.
Asked about the need for local consultation, he said: “The Labour government think they are omnipotent and omniscient from Molesworth Street, and that is not the case.
“No one knows everything, but for some reason, the Labour government right now thinks that it knows everything about these things and what we are saying is actually, no, whether or not its emissions trading scheme or anything, there’s a whole bunch of communities where democracy has to live and not be told this is the solution for all your problems from Thorndon Quay,” he said.
But Potaka also had to answer questions about co-governance.
He pointed out that he had worked with Tainui and that his children were Tainui, so he had a close connection with Waikato-Tainui.
“But co-governance over public services we do not agree with,” he said.
“So the Maori Health Authority and Three Waters, no, we do not agree.
We do not support them.
“The Waikato River settlements and the existent Waikato River Authority, yes, we tautoko, l we support that.
“However, when there are issues of need, absolute need, as we all know, such as in health, we will work closely with iwi, as we have done in the past, to deliver on the needs.”
Ultimately this is a local by-election with a big focus on Hamilton West; it may not tell us much about the overall political mood of the country.
That is, of course, presuming sufficient people actually vote for it to tell us anything at all.