Hutt South played host to a visit by the Prime Minister on Tuesday where she was swamped by supporters unlike anything seen on the 2017 campaign trail. Could the electorate return to Labour?

Bill English reportedly moved a metre a minute when he hit Lower Hutt’s Queensgate mall during the 2017 campaign, but it was a sprint compared to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s near stationary mosh pit on Tuesday afternoon.

“Turn around, turn around,” murmured one on-looker.

His phone was aimed at the back of Ardern’s head from 10 metres away. Which is no photo to brag to the relatives about if you want to claim you “saw” the PM.

To get a photo or a selfie with Ardern at Queensgate you had to be more like Michael Conway. 

“I thought I had a good place to see. Then all of a sudden when she walked in the door I just saw a sea of bums.”

Wheelchair-bound Conway has spina bifida and was in prime position for a selfie request at the entrance to the mall until the Prime Minister actually showed up.

“I thought I had a good place to see. Then all of a sudden when she walked in the door I just saw a sea of bums.”

He wasn’t deterred. On the advice of a Labour Party volunteer he lined himself up outside Pagani so the PM wouldn’t be able to avoid running into him. 

“Even before she was elected I wanted her to become the leader. Three years I’ve been wanting to meet her and I got a bit star-struck.

“I’ve met people that know her and have met her and stuff and I’m so jealous. All I wanted to do was meet her in person.”

Lost amongst all of this was a key reason why Ardern was visiting this mall with Hutt South labour candidate Ginny Andersen in tow less than week out from a general election. 

Michael Conway proudly shows off his selfie with the PM. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

That reason being that with polls showing a major nationwide swing to Labour, sitting National MP Chris Bishop’s electorate seat of Hutt South is ripe to be taken back by the party, and Andersen.

Bishop won it by just 1530 votes in 2017. Before he took it, the seat had never before elected a National MP to represent it.

Conway is one of those voters who has likely made Bishop’s task harder this year by casting his electorate and party votes for Labour in advance.

Even so, Conway is less certain about who will win the electorate contest than he is about who the next Prime Minister will be.

“[Bishop is a] nice enough dude. I haven’t actually met him personally, but so far so good.”

Chris Bishop is best known outside of Wellington as National’s transport spokesman. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

His partner, Nicki, chips in to say while the electorate race was a tougher one to predict, she still believed Labour would take the seat.

The slight uncertainty is echoed by Labour Party local electorate committee member, Derek Wilshere, who is also not really sure how the electorate contest will play out. 

“We’ve got no idea to be honest because the incumbent he’s everywhere.

“He works very hard. He’s not a bad guy. I don’t agree with him – we disagree on a number of things – but he’s worked hard and he’s been a good local MP.

“It’s just the philosophy’s not there for me I’m afraid.”

Another onlooker, and Labour-supporter, Cathy, elicited a horrified look from her friend when she made the prediction Bishop would actually hold onto Hutt South.

“The sad thing for me is Ginny Andersen has followed him everywhere he’s been. She’s not there first,” Cathy said.

“He’s always there and then she always seems to attend. It’s like she follows him. So I think Chris Bishop will take Hutt South again.”

Taking back the Hutt

After losing to Bishop election night in 2017, Andersen told Stuff she’d do exactly what Bishop did to the previous Hutt South MP Trevor Mallard: spend the next three years campaigning for the seat.

“I’ve worked really hard to advocate for the Hutt over the last three years. There’s clear deliverables that people can see that we’ve got,” Andersen told Newsroom.

She lists a planned mental health unit for Hutt hospital and another maternity unit refurbishment which should be completed by 2021. 

She also worked with Bishop, former mayor Ray Wallace and then-councillor Campbell Barry to keep the Airport Flyer bus service operating to and from Lower Hutt. 

Most importantly of all – at least when it comes to twisting the knife into her opponent – Andersen got the Melling Interchange funded.

Bill English at the same Queensgate mall in 2017. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Midway through the electoral term Bishop and Wallace seemed to be getting quite a bit of traction on the issue after NZTA announced the roading project would only be eligible for funding in 2028 due to a reset of transport priorities in the Government Policy Statement (GPS)

Progress on the Melling Interchange was promised by English during the 2017 general election campaign with funds to come out of the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF).

While no construction funds had been allocated to it before the election a Newsroom factcheck found design work for it started in 2017 and community feedback continued under the new Government in 2018 before everything was paused under the reset.

Bishop, with his dual role as the party’s transport spokesman, has made quite a bit of hay out of this GPS reset.

“I spent all my time at secondary school – or almost every day – taking the train to and from school so I’ve got a deep love for the Hutt Valley train system and the Wellington Metro rail system more generally.”

Many of National’s proposed roading projects in the Wellington region were ones delayed or postponed during it all. One was announced by National Leader Judith Collins in nearby Ohariu just before Ardern made her way through Queensgate Mall.

The link road from Petone to Grenada once carried a benefit-to-cost ratio as high as 4 to 1 under some NZTA assessments, but Bishop acknowledges it’s a difficult project in terms of the topography and its cost could vary greatly depending on different aspects like its gradient.

“The key point I’m making is the road has to be built. It’s really, really important for resilience. It’s really, really important for housing.”

Nationally, Bishop has become known for these roading announcements. National has rolled out a relentless stream of them as the election campaign has unfolded. 

However, he has also presented a more rail and public transport-heavy platform than his predecessors have. Likely owing to his own origins as someone who didn’t own a car until he was 27 years old (he was elected to Parliament just after he turned 31).

“I spent all my time at secondary school – or almost every day – taking the train to and from school so I’ve got a deep love for the Hutt Valley train system and the Wellington Metro rail system more generally.”

Make a go of it a second time

This is a very different campaign to last time for Andersen. Last time she was having to build her brand from scratch after having taken extended leave from her previous job at the New Zealand Police. 

Now she has the benefit of a full term in Parliament where she’s been able to make her presence known in the electorate. 

“I could probably be a bit slicker in terms of promoting myself, but I think when I meet someone and talk to them they get a genuine sense of what I believe and what’s important.

“And that’s important to me in politics. To be who you are and not be anything else.”

Then there’s the support and enthusiasm for Labour which she said has so far doubled the number of volunteers working on her campaign. 

Ginny Andersen says she’ll benefit this time from having had one term of Parliament under her belt. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Her criticism of Bishop’s and the National Party’s transport plans for the electorate are centred on the fiscal holes (one admitted to, the other disputed by National) of several billion dollars which she said meant there just weren’t the funds to build them.

“They’re promising roads which have not been costed and that is a dangerous game to play.”

However, they share a lot of common ground – even on transport in the electorate.

Both want to see a greater emphasis on rail, more integrated planning, and something done about the housing issues in the region. 

Andersen said she wants people to be able to use public transport services for families and everyday life. She thought there was a long way to go on that yet.

Bishop said he wanted to enable more housing to be developed through regional planning, which integrates road-building with house-building and sees more housing intensification along the major rail lines that run through the Wellington region. 

“Things will only start to get worse in terms of housing affordability in the Hutt Valley until we build new houses and open up land for housing.

“We’ve got to go up and out. There’s no doubt about that.” 

Readying for the summer

The shoppers at Queensgate Mall weren’t the only ones Ardern visited as she passed through the electorate.

Jane and Chris Baxter of Abstract Designs were excited to hand out copies of the laser-cut pop-up designs they’ve been creating – including of PM herself – during an early-morning visit to their Petone-based business. 

Laser-cuts of both Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson were designed to be put together behind a mock-lectern inside a made-up TV set.

Why not? It’s the way NZ has come to know both.

Laser cuts of Ardern and Robertson were designed to go inside a TV set. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

However, the conundrums thrown up by Covid-19 – and the headaches that await the government next term – were lurking below the surface here too – despite the excitement of the campaign trail. 

Chris said some of the tourism shops they supplied had really struggled without international tourism or visiting cruise ships (“It’ll come back,” he said hopefully).

Their own business had to let one staff member go, but thankfully their ex-employee was able to find an apprenticeship position as a welder. 

They were grateful for having made it through with the help of both rounds of the wage subsidy. In recent weeks – after the second lockdown – a lot of business had bounced back.

“Even the tourist shops that we supply…- [and] it’s been hard, really hard – they all rang us saying ‘What have you got, what else can you give us?’

“The New Zealand summer could be fantastic this year.”

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