Two polls last night showed National ahead of Labour and well on track to form the next Government.
The poll from the Hamilton West electorate by-election will particularly please National, which showed their candidate, Tama Potaka, well ahead of Labour’s Georgie Dansey by 46 to 33%.
And what is significant about that lead is that Potaka has been emphasising national issues in his campaign, whilst Dansey has tried to keep it local.
But there are two qualifications that need to be placed on Potaka’s lead; there is a very high number of undecided voters (28%), and previous winning candidates in the seat have had a higher vote percentage.
The high undecided vote points to a much lower turnout by the time the votes are counted on Saturday. Both the main parties expect that, by last night, after seven days of advance voting, only 5337 votes had been received compared with 11040 after the first seven days of voting in the June Tauranga by-election.
Turnout in that poll was 40 per cent, so it is conceivable that Hamilton West’s turnout could go down into the 20s.
At that level, the result would be meaningless.
It is that fact and that, unlike the 2015 Northland by-election, the outcome will not change the Government that may have persuaded National MPs to use the by-election as a test ground for their general election campaign next year.
Unlike Tauranga, where Todd McClay ran the campaign from the city, this time round, National’s campaign chair, Chris Bishop and its campaign manager, Jo de Joux, are running the campaign from Wellington.
And again, unlike Tauranga, the party has two full-time staff on the ground in Hamilton, whereas in Tauranga, it had only one.
That has meant a much higher profile for leader Christopher Luxon than he had during the Tauranga by-election, with at least three visits there since Potaka was named as a candidate four weeks ago.
The party will be pleased with the results because even within the caucus, there is a niggling worry that because Luxon is not a natural politician, he doesn’t easily engage with people.
That apparent success in Hamilton West, coupled with his steady advance up the One News Kantar preferred Prime Minister poll (also published last night), may help persuade some of his doubters both within the caucus and the party that he can win next year.
National also chose Hamilton to launch its get tough on youth offenders crime policies.
Potaka insists that the cost of living is a major issue in Hamilton, but National has had little to say on how they might address it.
Instead, Potaka has been reciting Naitonal’s standard talking points.
“Those hardworking people that I’ve met over the last three weeks of this campaign are telling me that the biggest issues are crime and cost of living,” he told POLITIK.
“What I’m hearing and what the parties hear is that people are suffering from inordinate costs.
“Inflation is driving up the costs of normal goods and services every day.
“What they know also is that the Government’s been spending a lot of money on things that don’t really matter for them, things that aren’t really that important.
“So $1,000,000,000 extra a week now compared to under the John Key – Bill English, National government.”
What Potaka hasn’t been saying is what spending a National Government might cut and whether it would be willing to cut back fiscal spending in the middle of what is now highly likely to be a recession by the end of next year.
As Damien Grant, the co-host of last night’s Taxpayers’ Union – Daily Blog candidates’ debate in Hamilton, pointed out, most of what they proposed was minor stuff.
Leader Christopher Luxon, for example, likes to cite the proposed RNZ-TVNZ merger’s budgeted cost of $320 million as an example, forgetting that the sum is over 3.5 years and most of it is a reallocation of the $41 million currently spent by NZonAir on RNZ and the money now paid out by NZonAir to local productions screened on TVNZ.
But if Potaka sticks to the scripts being emailed up from Wellington, Labour’s candidate has her own set-piece talking points. They are mostly about herself.
Last night’s debate was typical, with one of her first answers emphasising that she was a small business owner. (She has owned a gym in Te Awamutu since September) and on other occasions, she will talk about how she likes to go cycling with her family, which is a way of applauding Labour’s multi-modal transport policies.
Law and order in Hamilton has been Luxon’s issue, and it’s a good place to talk about it as the self-styled ram raid capital of New Zealand.
From that point of view, his appearances there have been aimed not at the electors of Hamilton West but at wider New Zealand.
But across the country, he is not getting the same momentum that Potaka is getting in Hamilton West.
The One News Kanar poll last night showed National up another one per cent and Labour down by the same amount show though that does mean the gap between the two parties is widening in favour of National.
If the vote is moving anywhere, it is moving to ACT, which was up two per cent in last night’s One News poll while also moving was New Zealand First, who are now on four per cent.
The poll was taken before NZ First Leader Winston Peters offered support to the parents who are refusing to have their child transfused for a vital operation unless the blood comes from unvaccinated people.
In a speech on Sunday, he appeared to dog whistle anti-vaxers.
“Remember, it was the Prime Minister who told you that if you got vaccinated, you would not get covid or be a covid transmitter,” he said.
“These lazy critics repeated her words and haven’t got the honesty to tell you they have both been proven to be dramatically wrong.”
His strategy seems to be to try and take over the support of all the fringe parties, most of whom are anti-vaxers.
This may increase pressure on Luxon to rule out forming a government with him.
So Luxon will go into the Christmas vacation ahead in the polls with possibly also a victory in Hamilton West under his belt. However, how important that will be will depend on the turnout.
Nevertheless, this will change the dynamics of next year, with National now the front-runner and the Government on the defensive.