On the surface, the Northcote by-election should be a walkover for National, which was held at last year’s election by Jonathan Coleman with a margin of 6210 votes. But things have changed since September.
UPDATED: Both National’s Dan Bidois and Labour’s Shanan Halbert are campaigning fiercely in the electorate on the North Shore of Auckland, open since the former Health Minister’s resignation in March. They have rolled out the big guns – a blooming Prime Minister for Halbert and believe it or not, John Key for Bidois. At stake is the launch of a political career for one of the two young candidates. For National, failing to retain the seat would be embarrassing. A Labour win would signal approval for the direction of the new Government.
The electorate is relatively young and a quarter of voters are Asian. While Northcote is often portrayed as part of the white and well-off North Shore, it has pockets of poverty and is ethnically diverse. Housing is expensive and young adults who grew up in the area are struggling to stay there.
Housing and education are Halbert’s priorities, and he believes the Budget’s signalling of money to be spent in those areas, and on health, will help his case. Bidois says the Budget was a big disappointment in those areas and will help his campaign.
Halbert, 36, says his door-knocking has revealed the Jacinda Ardern glitter hasn’t worn off yet, and that’s working for him. “Jacinda’s incredibly popular,” he says. “We are coming across people who voted National last time who like Jacinda. No one has anything bad to say about her.” Bidois says no one mentions it to him and it’s not a factor.
Both say the electorate demands a strong local voice, and both have taken that promise to their billboards.
Halbert: “The strongest thing that comes through here is that people really want the best representative for Northcote. That’s stronger than just National versus Labour.”
There is also the Jonathan Coleman factor. The electorate’s MP for 12 years, there is general agreement that he started off as a good local representative. But his failings as Health Minister saw his popularity wane, to the extent that during the September general election there was a campaign waged against him by mental health advocates. Then he quit after just six months on the opposition benches, triggering this costly contest. Bidois is at pains to point out he’s no Coleman clone.
“I think it’s a very blue seat, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” he says. “Yes I’m fresh faced but I think that’s good in the sense that I’m a break from the previous MP and I’m my own person.”
“There is certainly the aspect of red versus blue, but we are going out selling my own personal story as a born and bred Aucklander who has overcome some pretty big challenges in life.” His campaign leaflets tell that story – adopted at nine months, dropping out of school at 15, beating bone cancer, falling in love with education and eventually graduating with a Master’s from Harvard. “This is my opportunity to give back to the community that I call home – to represent and contribute to a part of Auckland I see as a fantastic place to live,” he says.
He sees the similarities between him and Halbert – about the same age, male, both Māori “and both reasonably good looking” – but says they are very different in terms of vision for the electorate. Bidois says Halbert is happy with the status quo for transport, while he says the electorate is bursting at the seams and congested. He wants to get all the various groups involved in transport to get together to solve the issues, and wants more investment in facilities such as park and rides. Intensification and the need for associated infrastructure and services is also on his agenda.
He also suggests crime could be on the increase with housing developments going up around the Northcote shopping centre, but then back-tracks on that when asked why more crime would be the result of housing intensification*.
Bidois, 35, says Northcote residents feel they’re paying their share of taxes but not getting a lot back for it, both from central and local government.
Both candidates make a big deal of being local. Bidois jokes about being born and raised “on the dark side” but he points out that in spite of the bridge dividing the city, he’s still from Auckland. He now lives in Onewa Rd, which probably has something to do with him seeing transport as the number one issue facing the electorate.
Halbert is from Hawke’s Bay but has lived in the electorate for eight years now. He works with youths in local colleges and has got to know the principals and their complaints with the education system. He cites Birkenhead College’s struggles with weather tightness as the type of stressful issues schools have been landed with after years of underfunding. “The facilities there are diabolical – rundown and leaking – it’s a great school but the poor principal is busy trying to get a decent roof job done. It puts a lot of pressure on them.”
His issues with transport are not so much about the right to drive to work down Onewa Rd, but about inadequate public transport and a lack of ferries for an electorate largely surrounded by water. “The ferry service at Beach Haven needs to be a priority – it has no frequency. We’ve had 12 years of a local MP and nothing’s been done.”
Halbert also wants to see more training opportunities on the North Shore for those who don’t take the university pathway out of school – there are no polytechnics in the region.
He is not buying into the idea that a large Asian bloc will vote National, saying the Chinese community will support the government of the day. Many of that demographic, particularly Filipinos and Koreans, live in the poorer pockets of the electorate. Labour has also concentrated early on motivating the large Māori and Pasifika population to get out and vote. It has convinced Election NZ to put advance polling booths in malls near supermarkets, and to keep some booths open until 8pm to allow for shift workers.
Can he turn the seat over? “Yes. I’m feeling a lot of warmth out there compared to the last election. I made a commitment in 2014 to win this electorate. And I will still be living here after the ninth of June.”
The last Labour MP to hold the seat was Ann Hartley, for two terms from 1999. She rode in on Helen Clark’s popularity and sees a parallel happening here with Ardern. She says Northcote is not a National seat – it’s a Government seat. She believes Northcote really does go for someone local, and believes Halbert has the edge there. “There seems to be a bit of a turning of the tide at the moment, and Shanan is certainly a very good campaigner
“I detect a really different mood out there,” she says. “People are thinking they can have a local (Labour) MP that’s part of the government, and is more likely to get things delivered.”
Advance voting opens Monday and polling day is June 9.
*This story has been changed to reflect the fact that Dan Bidois did not use the word “affordable” when talking about crime in relation to intensification of housing in Northcote.