Northland is one of New Zealand’s most economically deprived areas and has a long history of voting for protest parties.
Northland is economically deprived.
Northlanders are poorly educated.
Many belong to fundamentalist churches.
The region is isolated by poor transport links.
Internet uptake is below average.
All those factors have combined to long make the north a happy hunting ground for political protest parties.
From back in the 20s when the Country Party won the Bay of Islands seat, through the 1960s when Social Credit won Hobson and began its dominance of the far north, this has been an area which has looked to third parties rather than Labour when it has wanted to protest against a National Government.
The Otago University social deprivation index shows high levels for much of the north.
The economy of the north is largely dependent on dairy farming and increasingly forestry. But dairy farms in the north are among the least productive in the country. A Northland dairy cow produces only about 80% of what a Taranaki cow can do.
An Infometrics report for the Far North District Council shows that to March 2014, gdp in the region rose only 1.8% compared with 2.5% across the rest of New Zealand. Economic growth in Far North District averaged 0.6% per year over the last 10 years compared with an average of 1.8% per year in the national economy.
Employment rose by only half of what it did over the rest of New Zealand in the year to March 2014.
The Parliamentary Library’s survey of the electorate shows that it has the 63rd highest number of people with university degrees — there are only 63 general electorates. But it has the highest number of Brethren Church adherents and high numbers supporting other fundamentalist churches.
Transport remains a critical issue. The Northland Regional Council chair, Bill Shepherd, says the upgrading of the Auckland to Northland rail link along with a proposed link from that line to the port at Marsden Point is critical to the economic development of the region.
But KiwiRail has not only not upgraded the line but has hinted it could close. It appears that the branch line to Dargaville, closed after a derailment last year, is unlikely to re-open.
Yet despite all this the surprising thing is that Labour polls poorly in Northland. There may be a reason for this. The Infometrics survey shows that 24% of Northlanders are self-employed against a New Zealand average of 17%.
It’s those small business people and self employed who were the mainstay of Social Credit and may — along with Grey Power — be an important support base for NZ First.
So the question that this by-election must answer is whether those Northlanders feel sufficiently strongly about missing out on the economic boom which the rest of the country has enjoyed over the past three or four years to vote for what is essentially a protest party, NZ First.
The worry for the Government must be that they’ve done it before — in 1966 when Cracknell won Hobson.