Northcote by-election: A poll on Simon vs Jacinda

12:47 pm on 25 April 2018

By Brigitte Morten

Opinion - Politicians often say elections are the only poll that counts. And our politicians will be treating the upcoming Northcote by-election as a true poll on how well they are doing in the electorate.

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Brigitte Morten says this will be a poll on Simon versus Jacinda. Photo: RNZ

This by-election, triggered by the retirement of National MP Jonathan Coleman, is shaping up to be much more of a test of the major parties, than simply a fight for a local electorate seat. The similarities between the candidates of Labour and National means that the constituents of Northcote are more likely to be making their decision on national issues, than on the strength of the local candidates.

Despite the names on the ballot paper, this will be a poll on Jacinda versus Simon.

Labour has announced their candidate as Shanan Halbert, who is head of relationships at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, and ran against Dr Coleman in 2017. National has announced their candidate as high school dropout turned Harvard graduate and economist, Dan Bidois.

 Shanan Halbert

Shanan Halbert Photo: Labour Party

After some hesitation, the Green Party has opted to join in. Their candidate - who is not yet selected - has no chance. The decision to wade in is no doubt influenced by the Greens' fear that being part of the government could see them fall below the 5 percent threshold at the next general election.

The Greens will be running their campaign on the smell of an oily rag (or maybe a biofuel in this case). Elections, even by-elections, are expensive and the Greens have just been through a bruising general election and a co-leadership selection. However, this by-election will be a good test of new co-leader Marama Davidson and what she can bring to the party - in fundraising and in votes.

Marama Davidson addresses the crowd after winning the co-leadership race

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. The party announced yesterday it would contest the Northcote by-election. Photo: RNZ/ Sarah Robson

The major parties recognise that there is a lot on the line. For the Prime Minister, this electoral test will be the first hard test of her government and will come weeks after they deliver their first Budget. For new opposition leader Simon Bridges, this test comes early in his tenure.

Labour has already begun to manage expectations. A government hasn't won a seat off the Opposition in a by-election since 1930. Mr Halbert narrowed Mr Coleman's majority in 2017 to 6200 votes, a significant decrease from the 2014 majority of 9700. He'll be hoping to do the same again.

For National, the ghost of the Northland by-election campaign looms. That by-election was also meant to be safeish National seat but Winston Peters swept in to steal it off them. Simon Bridges will be keen to show that there will be no repeat under his leadership.

Dan Bidois.

Dan Bidois. Photo: Supplied.

In the most recent polling, Labour has slid back to once again put National in the lead. While many commentators have been quick to point out that based on the current numbers, Labour would still be able to form government with their coalition partners, this analysis is largely redundant.

What the polling tells us this far out from a national election is more about the voters response to recent announcements than who will be in government in two years' time.

Labour has struggled with over a month of tricky ministerial issues and tough announcements, and this looks to be reflected in the polls. What Labour will have learnt going into the by-election is that they can't rely on the Jacinda effect to carry them through.

It also tells them that they are going to have to be careful to ensure that national announcements will not adversely affect the constituents of Northcote, otherwise they are likely to feel the effects in the by-election results.

When the results roll in on by-election night, National will be hoping they have held the seat with a strong majority, Labour will be hoping to have knocked a few votes off the 2017 election majority, and the Greens will be hoping that someone paid them attention at some point in the campaign.

While the by-election result is unlikely to change the power that any party has in the Parliament, it will be treated by the political parties as a significant poll on how well they are doing out in the electorate.

* Brigitte Morten was a senior ministerial adviser for John Key's National-led government. Prior to that she was an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.

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