National was so determined to put a good face on its campaign to hold the Northcote seat in the current by-election that it flew MPs in to the campaign launch yesterday from all over the country.
Invercargill’s Sarah Dowie was there as was Hutt South’s Chris Bishop and the Christchurch-based MP, David Carter.
What they made of a campaign which seems almost entirely focussed on Auckland’s traffic congestion was unclear.
It was an eclectic crowd that turned up at a Netball Court to launch the campaign for Dan Bidois, a Harvard educated economist, Maori and high flying business executive.
The party’s former leader, Don Brash, was there saying he was thinking about re-joining the party, partly because he was impressed with Bidois and partly because his partner (Margaret Murray-Benge) was pressuring him to do so.
Another former leader and MP for the electorate, Jim McLay was there along with the party president, Peter Goodfellow and, complete with drums, a strong contingent of Indian supporters.
Also standing in the audience was the retiring MP, Jonathan Coleman, who had campaigned for the leadership of National in 2016 on, amidst other things, a proposal to bring forward the construction of a second Auckland Harbour crossing.
The current party leader, Simon Bridges, rejected that idea but ironically that is exactly what Labour is now proposing.
Their candidate, Shanan Halbert, also Maori, and an education manager, spent the day with his door knocking team.
But he has had his party heavyweights in the electorate already as well.
Jacinda Ardern fronted a fund raiser for him.
Yet with all this activity, it is still hard to discern what the by-election campaign is actually all about.
That is not surprising. After all; only eight months ago National was the Government. There has hardly been time for Labour to put any imprint on the issue that any conversation in Northcote inevitably comes back to — transport.
The electorate sits alongside the northern end of the Habour Bridge. In the mornings it roads are jammed with commuters trying to get to the northern motorway which leads to the Bridge
Traffic may or may not be flowing across the bridge itself.
It is served by harbour ferries but unlike buses and trains (and roads) they are unsubsidised.
Otherwise, it is middle New Zealand though with a high Asian migrant population. In some ways, it is a typical Auckland suburban seat transforming itself into a typical Auckland inner-city seat.
Ultimately though, it is the harbour bridge that defines Northcote.
The Auckland Transport Allignment plan that Bridges agreed to in 2016 provided for a second crossing in 30 years.
Labour’s revised ATAP brings that forward to the “late 2030’s”.
But it’s a plan. It has done nothing to ease the jams on Onewa Road or the holdups on the bridge itselfdue to breakdowns and accidents.
More ominously there are structural concerns about the so-called “Nippon Clip Ons”, the two-lane wings that sprout out of each side of the bridge.
“The structural capacity of the Auckland Harbour Bridge has also been maximised, with projected growth meaning future heavy vehicle restrictions are likely to be required,” says the new Government’s revised ATAP.
“In determining optimal timing, these restrictions will need to be weighed against the very high cost of an additional road crossing.
“Further development of this project should ultimately enable delivery of a multi-modal corridor across the harbour, with flexibility for rapid transit and road to potentially be delivered in separate tunnels at separate times.”
Halbert promotes himself as a local — his family live in the electorate, and he was Labour’s candidate at the last election.
He identifies with young people who move into the electorate to buy their first house.
But he comes back to transport.
“We’ve got to be a lot more visionary,” he told POLITIK.
He says moves like car pool lanes and double decker buses have made a difference.
“These are the little gems that are helping us out.
“It’s tough for our mums with young children, dropping one at Northcote Primary and another at Northcote Intermediate.
“I understand that.
“We’ve got to support those people, but we’ve got to educate our community that there are really good transport options.”
He would like to see the ferries subsidised like the buses.
National is taking a different line.
Instead of advocating specific transport projects for Northcote they are arguing that the proposed fuel tax will not benefit the electorate at all.
“We spend too much time in traffic and waiting for ferry services and quite frankly we have had enough.” The candidate, Dan Bidois, told his campaign launch.
“We pay for everybody else’s improvements but don’t see any ourselves.”
But having said that, Bidois, then sounds remarkably like Halbert.
He says the answer to the transport problems facing the electorate is a whole suite of solutions ranging from ferries to new on-ramps to park and ride facilities to buses.
Part of the problem, as he frankly admits, is that many of these are Council issues, not issues for central Government.
As an example, he suggests that the Council could open up the carpool lanes to cars with just two rather than three passengers.
So what does he really offer the electorate?
“It’s about being a good local MP; about being visible, about continuing the legacy of what Jonathan Coleman did and the way he’s made it a solid National seat I’d love to continue in that vein,’ he told POLITIK.
Halbert agrees that Coleman was a popular local MP.
“But he didn’t actually achieve anything in Wellington,” he argues.
The National MPs who have represented the seat — particularly Jim McLay and Coleman — have been centrists rather than doctrinaire right-wingers.
Bidois says he doesn’t like to think of himself in the left-right paradigm.
“I’m pragmatic, I look for solutions that work.
“Fundamentally I’m about limited Government and building a great community and a great business sector, and I’m about personal responsibility.”
Bidois is not from Northcote whereas Halbert sees himself as an embedded member of the Northcote community. He likes to underline that difference.
He says people like his mother (who lives in the electorate) want a place where people can feel confident that their children and grandchildren will also live in the electorate.
“”They see this Government as a stronger alternative to keep their children living locally.”
Halbert says it is a very well mannered campaign. The candidates wave to each other when their paths cross on the street. Bidois says he wants it to be a clean campaign.
This is not the stuff of tabloid headlines, but in a way, it is a real insight into middle New Zealand living in Auckland; not particularly ideological, more concerned with practical problems.
It is also a revelation into how much New Zealand has changed with the two main parties fielding Maori candidates.
If only someone could solve the traffic problems.