Election 2020

No need for a deal in Auckland Central

If Auckland Central voters want the Greens' Chlöe Swarbrick, they'll elect her irrespective of party political deals, writes Liam Hehir.

In early September 2005 Don Brash met United Future leader Peter Dunne at a Mt Eden café before the political media. This was the first in what became a series of such rendezvous by National Party leaders intended to convey an intention to work together. Brash had a coffee and, per reports at the time, Dunne went for some kind of herbal tea. 

The tête-à-tête was almost derailed, however, by the possible appearance of Rodney Hide. The ACT leader was seeking to win the seat of Epsom from National’s Richard Worth. Brash, not keen on this, was eager to avoid Hide gate-crashing the event.  

According to media at the time, the details were to be kept secret beforehand so Hide didn’t find out. When – possibly by coincidence – he turned up in the originally planned location it looked like disaster was on the cards. However, a last-minute venue change salvaged the historic summit. 

The point of recounting this little episode is to illustrate something all too often forgotten when outrage is expressed about the ACT Party in Epsom. The seat was not, contrary to popular legend, gifted to the party by National. It was won from it as part of an insurgent campaign by Rodney Hide. 

There is no point in arguing National has tried hard to win it back. While it has never gone to the extent of not running a candidate, the party has made it pretty clear to local voters that it is comfortable with their 2005 decision. Subsequent cups of tea – both literal and figurative - have included ACT, and many in National would be pretty annoyed if Paul Goldsmith, their man on the ground, somehow ended up taking the electorate. 

Nevertheless, the act of flipping a seat from one party to the other is an entirely different proposition to subsequently holding on to it. 

At the weekend, the Labour Party again confirmed it would not make way for the Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick in the Auckland Central electorate. The seat, which has been held since 2008 by now-departing National MP Nikki Kaye, is wide open. Victory by Swarbrick would give the Greens their first single electorate victory since 1999 and, more importantly, an alternative way into Parliament if the party wins less than five percent of the party vote this year. 

Swarbrick is a talented politician whose appeal, though not necessarily broad in terms of the wider electorate, is intense among the upscale, gentrified liberals who form the base of the Green Party’s support. A confident Green Party would want her travelling far and wide to meet with that demographic in the four corners of the country. That she intends to compete hard for the seat, supposedly with the party’s blessing, can plausibly be taken as a sign of concern about the Green’s chances in the national vote.  

Such worries are probably merited. Unskewing the polls is a dicey proposition. However, it is hard to ignore the tendency in years gone by of opinion polls at least slightly overstating the level of Green Party support as demonstrated in actual elections. Since most surveys have the party right on the knife-edge, a slight underperformance on election day could be catastrophic. 

So, a strategy to take the seat may be a sound one in the shorter term. Which isn’t to say Green supporters should be angry that Labour doesn’t throw them a bone. It is not, after all, Labour’s bone to throw. 

If Auckland Central voters want to have Chlöe Swarbrick as their representative, they will vote for her. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Apart from Epsom, we should recall that the various Māori electorates had in the recent past shown a similar flair for canny use of the candidate vote to keep the Māori Party in Parliament while giving their party vote to Labour. And Auckland Central itself was once won by Alliance MP Sandra Lee, at New Zealand’s final first-past-the-post election. 

In the interests of fairness, it’s worth noting Swarbrick hasn’t sought any deal to be helped into the seat. On the contrary, her public statements have evinced nothing other than a desire to win by campaigning hard. And she certainly has the profile and political skills to give it the old college try. 

Swarbrick will need to call on both if she is to stand a chance of beating Labour’s Helen White and whomever National ends up selecting to replace Kaye. Candidates from smaller parties can flip seats but it is rare. If it happens, it will be the agency of Auckland Central voters - not the wheeling and dealing of political parties - that makes the difference. 

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