The Mt Albert by-election should have been a fascinating and dynamic campaign. Instead, it’s been a bit of a borefest. Nonetheless, despite the relatively subdued and predictable campaigning over the last month or so, tomorrow’s by-election result could be more crucial than many realise.
Wilson says, “Mt Albert might be quiet but it’s far from unimportant. Everyone, even National and NZ First, even though neither is standing, has a lot to lose. Because the by-election is a contest of the left, it’s an indicator poll: how strong are the various progressive parties that could form the next government?”
Although Jacinda Ardern is certain to win the electorate for Labour, the degree to which she does well will be very important for herself and her party. As Wilson says, “Labour is holding its breath for a big confidence booster on Saturday. But if she scrapes home, or worse, the party will immediately be in trouble. This poll is not just a measure of the value of Jacinda Ardern – it’s a checkpoint for the leadership of Andrew Little. The biggest prize of all, for Labour, will be for her to do well in the polling booths that have swung strongly National in recent times – the booths around Mt Albert itself and in Pt Chevalier, Westmere and parts of Grey Lynn and Kingsland. If that happens, Bill English will have work to do.”
Wilson outlines what a good win for Ardern would be: “At least 65 per cent. With a good ground game, which Labour has, she could get to 80.” Similarly, a good vote for Green candidate Julie Anne Genter is crucial for her: “a poor result on Saturday will damage her personal credibility badly. What’s a good result for Genter?... Mt Albert has become one of the Greens’ best electorates.This time Genter should expect at least 30 per cent. She could go over 40.”
And the only other candidate who seems to be taken seriously in the race – Geoff Simmons of Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party – also has a lot riding on his performance: “TOP is the bold new voice in New Zealand, or is it? Success for them will be anything over 10 per cent. At five per cent they may think they have enough to stay in the race. Less than that and it’s time to get back on the motorbike, Gareth.”
The importance of a good result for Jacinda Ardern and Labour
A good win for Jacinda Ardern could propel her further up Labour’s rankings. In fact, I’m quoted today in Stacey Kirk’s article, Could Jacinda Ardern's star rise further on a Mt Albert by-election win?
, saying that “The win comes at a crucial time, when Labour needs to decide who to take into the election campaign as it's deputy leader… Of course [deputy leader] Annette King will be very reluctant to be replaced, and there will be arguments made that it's too late in the election cycle to have a new deputy and that Labour would risk appearing unstable… But with National changing its entire leadership team so recently, Labour will have no problem bringing in a new deputy, and in fact probably needs to, in order to compete with National's refreshed line up."
The natural time for a deputy leadership change in Labour would be next week, in the wake of Ardern’s victory. It can be presented as an appropriate revamp, recognising Ardern’s victory, and it can be sold as Labour’s final refreshing of its campaign line-up before the election.
It will be difficult to quantify whether Ardern’s win tomorrow is successful or not – you obviously can’t compare by-election results with the 2014 general election results. And, of course, National isn’t running a candidate, which will reduce turnout.
However, given there was a by-election in Mt Albert back in 2009, when David Shearer came in, it will be worth using his win as some sort of benchmark. He won with 63 percent of the vote. So a poor result might be seen as less than this. But perhaps more importantly, Shearer received 13,260 votes. And this time Labour is boasting of much stronger campaign on the ground, so she should be able to mobilise a large Labour support base, despite having no National candidate to campaign against. For more on Labour’s campaigning strategy, see Isaac Davison’s Candidates brace for the polls ... wait, what? There's a byelection?
What if Labour actually lost the seat? According to the NBR’s Rob Hosking, “The prospect for Labour of losing this seat would have been catastrophic. If Labour cannot hold Mt Albert – one of its safest seats – with one of its most popular MPs, then it would have to be all over for the party as a major political force” – see: Mt Albert by-election: Barring a solid tactical vote, Ardern looks home and hosed
Labour’s campaign has also been a chance for the party to show New Zealanders what it now stands for. An editorial in The Press argues that “Labour cannot afford to squander what is, in electoral terms, a free kick before an open goal. While National's new leader is still finding his feet, and is learning that the political skills of his predecessor do not come naturally to him, Labour has a golden opportunity to define itself again on its own terms in a highly visible electorate, using one of its most popular politicians. Another easy victory would further motivate the base. If Labour has lots of fresh, bold and innovative new ideas to help New Zealanders, this is the perfect time to start telling everyone about them” – see: The election starts in Mt Albert
In particular, The Press pointed to the need for Labour to use the by-election to move beyond some of the internal struggles it has recently faced: “Some recent discussions of Labour's prospects in 2017 have suggested that the party lacks a firm and coherent vision. What, they ask, does Labour actually stand for now? Can it be boiled down to one sentence? Coverage of Labour in the media has tended to be about either the party's regular leadership challenges or possibly exaggerated perceptions of a tug of war between identity politics factions on the Left and post-Rogernomics stalwarts on the Right.”
Ardern is obviously a very strong candidate, due to her communications skills and persona. In an age where the public seem to want leaders that they can connect with, she’s much better than nearly all other Labour MPs. And more than any other MP in Labour – if not the wider Parliament – she knows how to utilise the soft media such as the Woman’s Weekly. In fact, she’s regularly in non-political media, with references to her lifestyle – whether it’s her home life or involvement in the music scene. For recent examples of this, see Kim Knight’s The politics of life: The truth about Jacinda Ardern
, and Stuff’s At my place: Jacinda Ardern's 1990s brick and tile
But there are those who seriously question her political or intellectual abilities, especially challenging whether she has actually achieved much in her political life, and whether she has won any policy debates or damaged the National Government in any serious way in her portfolios. This is raised by John Minto in his blog post, The problem with Jacinda
Minto says he’s “heard her speak in public many times and have shared the platform on various panels with her”, and he’s come to the conclusion that “Jacinda has perfected the political art of sounding good while saying nothing of substance.”
This criticism is put to Ardern by Finlay Macdonald, and she responds: “I have had this thrown at me a couple of times – what have you managed to achieve? Well, in opposition, yes, that’s tough. But there is a list of things that I feel proud of. I don’t go around printing them on the back of flyers and I don’t have a checklist that I pop into people’s letterboxes, because for me what I’ve done isn’t enough yet” – see: More of a mandate: Labour’s Jacinda Ardern on the Mt Albert by-election
Julie Anne Genter’s “conversation” campaign
Ardern’s main challenger has been the Green candidate, Julie Anne Genter. But they have both been at pains to point out how harmoniously they are working together in the campaign, rather than against each other. Genter is quoted today in Richard Harman’s article, A conversation not a contest
, saying “This isn't a fight to the death. It's actually a conversation, and we both have things to offer."
Similarly, Isaac Davison reports: “The least bitter rivalry in New Zealand politics has broken out in the Mt Albert by-election, with the two leading candidates striking up a new friendship. The Greens' Julie Anne Genter and Labour's Jacinda Ardern have been car-pooling to events together and handing out leaflets side by side. At a debate hosted by the Spinoff website last week, the pair even showed off matching dance moves” – see: Greens' Julie Anne Genter and Labour's Jacinda Ardern strike up friendship in Mt Albert
There is very obviously a strong attempt being made to show how well the Labour and Green parties can work together, given their intentions to present a united front for the general election this year. This has meant that forecasts of great friction between the parties have not come to pass.
A boring campaign
The decision by Labour and Greens to play nicely – as well as National’s decision not to participate – has acted to make the campaign one of the driest in living memory. This is well conveyed in Isaac Davison’s Candidates brace for the polls ... wait, what? There's a byelection?
, who says the “byelection is shaping up as the quietest and most inconsequential on record.” Former Labour Party president Mike Williams is also quoted as it’s "the most low-key byelection I've ever seen".
Even the debates have been rather subdued, with little real disagreement or indications of difference amongst the candidates. For example, you can watch the Spinoff debate that was hosted by Simon Wilson – see: The Great Spinoff Mt Albert By-election Candidates’ Debate
. Pointedly, the debate was summed up like this: “the three candidates agreed that child poverty is bad, public transport is good, and property is both good (people want places to live) and bad (those places are too expensive to buy and rent).”
The most interesting policy debate actually came out of an NBR debate hosted by Susan Wood, in which the three main candidates discussed developing new places in the electorate for housing. The Chamberlain Park golf course came up, with Ardern favouring “a controversial proposal to reduce the course to nine holes while the Green Party's Julie Anne Genter thinks it's time to rip up the course completely and build houses instead” – see: Duncan Bridgeman and Hamish Colman-Ross’ Screw the golfers, let's build houses instead – Green MP
The injection of Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party into the race changed the dynamic of the race, but not by much. According to Rob Hosking, their candidate, economist Geoff Simmons “has not really sparked”.
And Simon Wilson questioned TOP’s whole approach, in which they positioned themselves as anti-establishment yet tried to win over the votes of National Party supporters: “And so the argument is TOP will effectively be the opposition party vote; the opposition to the mainstream of Labour and the Greens – which is kind of odd, because I don’t think you could really argue that TOP policies line up very closely to National. So it becomes a kind of opportunistic, spoiling kind of approach. And that kind of opportunism is what Gareth Morgan has always said he’s against. He’s said he wants to get rid of that sort of thing in politics. But he does appear to be indulging in it” – see Chris Keall’s Morgan has blown it in Mt Albert: commentator
Simon Wilson gives advice to Mt Albert residents about how to choose who to vote for, and he draws attention to Carolan’s campaign: “If you want to give a shout out to the unions who really do lead the fight for the poorest, vote for Joe Carolan.” And for those on the centre-right, Wilson suggests that perhaps they shouldn’t vote – given that there’s no National Party candidate.
Finally, as this is the second by-election in Mt Albert in recent years, perhaps it’s time to find a better way to deal with MPs who leave Parliament during their terms. The answer is easy, according to Victoria University of Wellington’s Nigel Roberts: “New Zealand could do what the Germans do: we could simply fill parliamentary vacancies by appointing the ‘next-in-line’ list candidate from the same party to the position for the remainder of the parliamentary term” – see: We should do away with by-elections