The Tauranga by-election is turning into a test of the centre-right (and far right) of New Zealand politics.
National and ACT are engaging in an arm wrestle designed to determine who has momentum on the centre-right.
At the same time, Brian Tamaki has been working in the background to use the by-election to try and bring the small fringe parties to form a united coalition to fight the next election.
All this is taking place in a city that hasn’t yet entirely lost its image as the North Island’s retirement capital.
Seventeen per cent of its population are over 65 against a national average of 15 per cent.
And they are whiter than most North Island cities.
But that is only half the story. That was the electorate Winston Peters appealed to.
In 2006, a year after he lost the seat to National, the population was 103,881. Since then, it has grown by 30 per cent. StatsNZ currently estimates it at 136,713.
Once, it was not much more than Hamilton’s distant surfside suburb, but now it is fast closing in on that city which has a population of 165,400
So it is now also one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, drawing in large numbers of young professionals who can work remotely. In turn, that growth, along with developments at the port and industrial estates on the city fringes, is drawing in tradespeople and workers.
It is as near a boom town as you can get these days. And that changes the politics. It is a safe centre-right seat.
Labour candidate Jan Tinetti is campaigning, but not so you would notice.
She has billboards around the city and is using social media, and appears at candidate debates.
Even the Prime Minister has talked down her chances of winning. Party officials in Wellington say the party is in this to show the flag and not much else.
The real campaign is between National and ACT, and then a handful of minor parties running on issues like anti-vaccination and anti-co-governance are scrambling among themselves for votes in a city that traditionally has been hospitable to fringe political causes.
National’s candidate, Sam Uffindell, is out of the John Key – Christopher Luxon mould.
After studying at the University of Otago, he spent ten years working in senior banking roles in Sydney, also gaining a Master of International Law and International Relations from the University of New South Wales. Then he became Vice President of Deutsche Bank in Singapore.
He returned to New Zealand during Covid and to Tauranga, where his wife came from and is currently the Head of Financial Economic Crime for Rabobank and owns a small agribusiness based in the Bay of Plenty.
But when he returned, he thought things had changed.
“I got the feeling that our health and education standards had slipped a fair bit,” he told POLITIK.
“I was someone with young children; it felt like we hadn’t had the investment and infrastructure that we had needed.
“Here in Tauranga and then nationwide as well; things are just bursting at the seams a bit, and we haven’t really kept up with that with the population growth and the demands that it puts on our infrastructure.”
For the centre-right, infrastructure is a top issue in this by-election. That is possibly not surprising with Tauranga’s main street, Cameron Road, lined and divided by endless road cones.
Cameron Luxton, ACT’s candidate, is a builder. He promotes himself as being someone who grew up and set up in business in Tauranga, in contrast to Uffindell, whose connection with Tauranga is through his wife.
“The thing that comes up more often than anything else is infrastructure,” said Luxton.
“And it’s something that has been neglected for a long time.
“Tauranga is at the coalface. It’s the canary in the coal mine of so many issues across our country. And it’s just come to a head here before everywhere else.”
ACT is seeking to outflank National on infrastructure, helped by its unwillingness to subscribe to the Zero Carbon Act.
Both parties, though, are talking tough on crime, particularly gangs. There is little difference between them on this issue.
“I don’t think people feel as safe as they used to,” said Uffindell.
“We’ve had a spate of home invasions and Bethlehem, which is one of the nicest suburbs here, and I think that’s got everyone on edge.
“There’s also a heavy gang presence; I think they outnumber police two to one here.
“And it is gangs and drugs.”
Uffindell believes some of this can be explained by local issues.
“There are probably a few factors here. There’s probably opportunity, in a sense, with the port. There are also some poor communities,” he said.
And as a banker, Uffindell has some views on poverty, something that National candidates don’t usually talk much about.
“That extra Covid money coming from the Reserve Bank has largely gone into assets, which unfortunately here in New Zealand has led to a significant increase in wealth inequality,” he said.
So what would he do about it?
“Looking at where we stand now, I think the Reserve Bank should be looking at or considering taking some liquidity out of the system.”
What that signals is not necessarily a practical solution to inequality but rather that Uffindell is going to bring a new and informed voice into National’s caucus economic debate.
Since Bill English departed, National has not had a top-flight economic thinker driving its economic policies. Its leader, Christopher Luxon’s strengths are in management rather than economics.
Uffindell may quickly prove to be a very valuable member of National’s caucus.
Both Uffindell and Luxton are conventional mainstream politicians talking about conventional issues like infrastructure and crime.
But on the fringes of the Tauranga by-election are an array of minor parties.
The most high profile is Sue Grey, co-leader of the Outdoors and Freedoms Party.
She was one of the “stars” of the Parliamentary protest, but she’s been around fringe causes like anti-1080, anti-5 G and now anti-vaccinations for years.
Though she is based in Nelson, she clearly sees the by-election as a platform that she can use to promote her party.
But perhaps surprisingly, she has discovered that Tauranga wants to talk about mainstream issues.
“A lot of people are still really concerned about the government’s Covid response and the economic fallout from the cost of living going up; the economy is an issue,” she told POLITIK.
“A lot of people’s businesses are very fragile, that sort of thing.”
But what about her traditional “alternative” issues?
“People haven’t been talking about them so much,” she said.
“I think they’ve got more immediate problems on their mind, although pollution of water is a real concern.”
By which she means adding fluoride to water.
More extreme than Grey is former Tauranga City Councillor Andrew Hollis. He is the New Nation Party candidate, and that party also opposes vaccinations and also the United Nations and would be tough on law and order, would not call New Zealand Aotearoa and would resume oil and gas drilling.
But Hollis has a track record in Tauranga as an opponent of many things Maori, particularly the Treaty, which he ripped down from the Council office walls in the city.
He initially agreed to be interviewed by POLITIK, but then the party leader, Michael Jacomb, claimed (incorrectly) that POLITIK had previously described Hollis as “far-right” and cancelled the interview.
From the right, there is also a New Conservative candidate.
Not standing in the by-election is the Freedom and Rights Coalition, but leader Brian Tamaki has twice been to Tauranga to talk about uniting the fringe parties at the next election.
“We’ve been talking to lots of them (small parties) over the years, not just in this campaign. And there are always new ones coming along. So some of the ones that are calling themselves parties aren’t registered parties yet<” Grey said.
“But we’re definitely talking.”
Grey is realistic about the difficulties in bringi9ng everybody together.
“We’ve been talking to the Freedom and Rights Coalition, and we’ve had a couple of meetings with them, and a lot of the candidates are really keen on working together,” she said.
“There’s often a difference in view between the candidate and the party financiers, so that makes it more difficult.
“We’ve had a lot of joint meetings.
“We’ve been talking to New Nation Party. We’ve talked to the new Conservative Party prior to the last election and talked to the Social Credit Party, but most of the smaller groups and even the ACT Party has got some interest in talking to us.”
If Tamaki can unite the fringe parties into a sort of loose coalition, it is entirely possible they could get five per cent next year.
That may be one consequence of the Tauranga by-election.
The other will be the arm wrestle between National and ACT as to whether ACT can demonstrate it is not dependent on National for its survival at the same time as National’s caucus, a potentially valuable new MP.
The Government can only sit on the sidelines and watch.