A bizarre allegation on the TV news and a scolding of party members by a top official set the scene for a highly charged National Party candidate selection 

The National Party has chosen Emma Mellow as its candidate for the Auckland Central seat with less than four weeks until early voting begins, but the controversial fight for the seat could leave scars within its party organisation nationwide.

Mellow won on the second ballot from the party’s already-selected Manurewa candidate Nuwanthie Samarakone, who had been encouraged by the hierarchy to go for the high-profile Auckland Central candidacy and who was then subjected to social media rumours and attacks from within the party.

National’s president Peter Goodfellow, widely thought to have backed Samarakone’s bid, was not at the electorate selection meeting last night at Westhaven, Auckland. Nor was the party leader Judith Collins, who had campaigned in Auckland through Monday but attended a party fundraiser in South Auckland.

The regional president, Andrew Hunt, opened the night with a strong speech critical of party members who had conducted campaigns of rumour and falsehood through the selection battle. It was easy for people to launch rumours but it diverted the party from its mission. He apologised for an error that had resulted in too few nominees for final selection and then a delay until last night in choosing the contender but rubbished claims officials had favoured one candidate over any other. Hunt said rumours he had personally been phoning delegates on behalf of one candidate were completely false.

“Stop it,” he scolded those present. “Join me in stamping it out. As the leader said, dirty politics has no place in the National Party.”

His comments came 90 minutes after Newshub had broadcast a claim a sitting board member of the National Party, Roger Bridge, was alleged to have made a late night call to NewstalkZB talkback radio using the name “Merv, from Manurewa” to question Samarakone’s abandoning of Manurewa for the Auckland Central contest. 

The identifying of the talkback call to media can only have come from someone with internal party motivations. If it was indeed Bridge, it would be an unprecedented and puzzling attempted intervention by a member of the party’s national board. The New Zealand Herald, which is under the same NZME banner as NewstalkZB, later reported the call allegedly came from Bridge’s phone number.

As for Mellow, after her victory was announced she saluted Samarakone and the other finalist Rob Thomas as “amazing people, and I cannot wait for you to join our caucus and being MPs one day.”

Nuwanthie Samarakone and Judith Collins. 

Samarakone spoke briefly about the importance of the party vote for the blue team but had to be prompted by Thomas to congratulate Mellow. “We will be right there behind you in supporting you,” she said to the victor. “I don’t want – and you don’t want – to wake up on the 20th of September and find this is a red seat.”

Mellow, 30, is a communications executive at ANZ Bank. She previously worked as a press secretary for a minister while in Australia and for Sydney Airport. In 12 years in the National Party, Mellow has been the northern chair of the Young Nats and serves on the young business committee. She describes herself as “a young liberal woman” and believes her National team, rather than her individual brand versus other individuals, will determine the seat.

She will begin campaigning Tuesday morning to hold the seat being vacated by retiring National MP Nikki Kaye. Kaye was present at the selection meeting but did not speak and left immediately after Mellow’s victory remarks. She posted on Instagram that Mellow was “articulate, smart, hard working and caring” and would make an excellent MP. “It was a competitive race with some outstanding candidates.”

Kaye’s departure has encouraged Labour’s Helen White to believe she can take the seat she contested in 2017, coming second by 1581 votes – and has the prominent Green candidate, MP Chloe Swarbrick, targeting victory to secure her party an electorate seat and guaranteed presence in Parliament.

Interestingly, the question posed to all candidates on behalf of the National Party president was how candidates would attack Green Party policies on asset taxes and income tax increases to “gain more National Party votes in Auckland Central.”

Mellow’s media conference after the event was a tentative, cautious start. She did not engage over the obvious division within the electorate and party over the selection, saying only the process had been fair and that she hoped her proud support for Kaye and her ambition for National helped get her the role.

“It is going to be difficult but I’ll be working every day, tirelessly on the ground to win. I think it’s going to be a tight race.”

On the broader battle, National MPs are becoming bolder in dispatching New Zealand First to electoral oblivion. List MP Paul Goldsmith spoke at the meeting, running through the tax intentions of National, the Greens, Labour and then said: “Who knows about New Zealand First? But who cares?”

Former Speaker David Carter said the polls might show National up against it, but “I’ll tell you one thing. New Zealand First are not going to make it” and in a drag race between Labour and National “we’ve got an even chance.”

After the upheavals in the caucus and now the party organisation and rank and file, an even keel might be needed first.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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