National’s Sam Uffindell romped home in the Tauranga by-election with a result that will reinforce National’s belief they can now win the next general election.
But the real winner of the by-election may ultimately prove to be Sue Grey and a proposed coalition of fringe parties which has its origins in the anti-mandate protest on Parliament’s front lawn.
If talks,which began during the Tauranga campaign to unite the fringe parties get anywhere, then the by-election campaign may stand out as the origin of a new third-party populist force in New Zealand politics.
Nevertheless, Uffindell was always going to win; the only question was by how much.
Party officials last week suggested his margin over Labour list MP Jan Tinetti might be 15 – 20 per cent.
In fact, it turned out to be a massive 31 per cent, a swing of 13.5 per cent against Labour.
Though the turnout was relatively low at 41 per cent, it compared with the last contested by-election in a safe seat (2016, Mt Roskill) of 38 per cent. Turnouts in marginal seats like Northland or Northcote were higher).
But perhaps the biggest news from election night was the emergence of Sue Grey, the co-leader of the Outdoors and Freedoms Party, which scored 4.4 per cent of the total vote.
Grey told POLITIK last week she has already been in talks with the Freedom and Rights Coalition and some other small parties about forming a coalition to contest the next election.
She has also talked to the anti-cogovernance New Nation Party and the remnants of the New Conservatives.
On his website, NZ Freedom and Rights Coalition leader, Brian Tamaki, says he has also been in talks with NZ First.
“I am attempting to unite the smaller minor parties together,” he says on the site.
“At the last election, if most of the minor parties outside of the current government had united, they would have received roughly 7.4% of the party vote.
“That would have been enough to give them approx. (sic) nine seats in Parliament.”
Grey, who is from Nelson, has built her profile on the back of the anti-mandate protest at Parliament, in which she played a prominent role.
Her high vote may also have been helped by the absence of Greens and NZ First candidates in the by-election.
National sources say their internal polling suggests the Green vote split between Tinetti and Grey while the NZ First vote mostly may have gone to Uffindell.
But Grey ran an energetic high profile campaign, unlike Labour’s Jan Tinetti, whose strategy was obviously to present as small a target as possible to Uffindell with only minimal public meetings and appearances.
Grey’s party candidate, Tracy Livingston-Pooley, got only 188 votes at the 2020 general election.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern who talked down Tinett’s chances of winning, did not even make an appearance during the campaign.
The boost for the Outdoors and Freedom Party might also be partly explained by the collapse of the New Conservative party, whose candidate got only 92 votes compared with 785 at the general election.
Nevertheless, on a percentage basis, particularly if Grey can do a deal with the Freedom and Rights Coalition’s Brian Tamaki, the Outdoors and Freedoms Party stands a chance of getting over the five per cent threshold based on the by-election result.
They may not need even to get that if the current electoral reform proposal under review lowered the threshold to four per cent.
The other “small” party in the campaign, ACT, poured resources into the campaign and ran their 2020 general election candidate, Cameron Luxton. Their spending return will be interesting because, on the surface, it appeared that they spent a lot and sent a constant trail of MPs in to assist in the campaign.
They campaigned for “real change” and came away with just over 10 per cent of the vote, which though it was well up on their general election tally of four per cent, may have been disappointing given the resources they put in.
The one caveat that needs to go on the results is that Tauranga is a safe National seat ranking up with seats like Botany, Pakuranga, Tamaki and North Shore as a blue citadel though because of its heavy retirement population, its average income levels are relatively modest.
For that reason alone, Labour was never going to run a big campaign there. Indeed there was some surprise they ran a candidate at all. National did not run in the Mt Albert by-election in 2017 against Jacinda Ardern just before she became party deputy-leader.
National leader Christopher Luxon, on the other hand, made two visits to the city and deputy leader Nicola Willis was there last week.
National’s pollster, David Farrar, argued yesterday that the overall result was devastating for the centre-left.
“To properly analyse the Tauranga result, we should look at it from a centre-right vs centre-left prism as the Greens did not stand, while ACT did stand and did well,” he wrote on his a blog.
“So last night, the CR got 67%, and the CL got 25%, a 42% gap.
“In 2020, the electorate vote was CR 47% and the CL 43%, so a 4% gap.”
Even the National Party understands that Tauranga is not New Zealand, and one of their strategists suggested to POLITIK that maybe the best way to look at the result was that it suggested there was likely to be a big swing against the Government in North Island provincial urban seats.
That would indicate that Tukituki (Anna Lorck), New Plymouth (Glen Bennett); Whangarei (Emily Henderson); Otaki (Tessa Ngobi); Hamilton East (Jamie Strange) and Hamilton West (Gaurav Sharma) all look likely losses to Labour.
And Tauranga has not given any real indication of how the party vote might go.
Last election, though National’s Simon Bridges won the seat, Labour scored 43 per cent on the party vote against National’s 33 per cent.
But standing back, the by-election will be a morale booster for National, ACT and particularly Brian Tamaki and Sue Grey.