Hamilton was once considered a sure bet for the National Party, but could ‘Jacindamania’ turn its two ‘bellwether’ seats?
The country’s most youthful city would seem an unlikely place to launch the National Party’s senior citizens policy, but there was a lot more behind the leader’s visit there than a commissioner for seniors.
Hamilton city has the lowest median age of all 67 territorial authorities with half of its residents younger than 30.
Judith Collins’ visit there on Wednesday was likely less about launching a policy for the elderly than about supporting the party’s two sitting MPs David Bennett and Tim Macindoe.
Hamilton’s two electorates have traditionally favoured the largest party on electorate night.
So with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern mobbed in Hamilton at the country’s largest shopping mall and polls showing a surge in support towards Labour, National is reportedly nervous its majorities in both seats are under threat.
“They’ve put more resources and got people ringing. So it’s on the radar and it wasn’t a week ago.”
At a press conference after her announcement in Hamilton, Collins batted away the question of whether the announcement was recognition her party was in trouble there (she was originally scheduled to speak in Tauranga).
“Hamilton has two seats here which are always really tough seats actually.
“They’ve lost from having the current government. Whether it’s roading or anything else, all the promises that were made haven’t actually been delivered on.
“And it’s really important that we look at this fourth-largest city in New Zealand and give it some time.”
If the National Party isn’t seeing a recent change in fortunes, Labour seems to be confident one is emerging.
Political commentator Shane Te Pou said Hamilton – and both of its electorate seats – recently jumped into the “Labour leaning” category for the purpose of Labour’s voter-calling operations.
“They’ve put more resources and got people ringing. So it’s on the radar and it wasn’t a week ago.
“That’s why the PM was there.”
Labour’s candidate for Hamilton East Jamie Strange said the party began to get some signs of a swing towards them in the electorate even earlier than that during a poll run after Todd Muller assumed the leadership.
It showed the gap between him and Bennett in the electorate had narrowed significantly (Strange won’t say if it put him ahead).
On paper Macindoe faces the tougher task to hold onto his majority and admits it.
“If I wasn’t grey already I would be now.”
He won his seat by a larger margin (7731) in 2017 than Bennett did (5810), but a heavily-blue rural section of it has been carved off this time around and integrated into the Waikato seat.
The Greens are also not standing an electorate candidate there while smaller parties on the right like the New Conservatives are.
Hamilton West has also more reliably reflected popular mood than its eastern counterpart. The candidates put this down to the West having a little bit of everything: it is home to both the city’s central business district, both affluent and high-deprivation areas, along with manufacturing and the city’s largest big box retail space.
Voters in the electorate have traditionally picked the electorate candidate representing the largest party in Parliament in 16 of the last 17 elections.
As an electorate it is close to national averages on a whole host of measures from religious beliefs (36.1 percent of the electorate is Christian while 36.5 percent of the country is), university education and income.
When Macindoe first won the seat he was up against the only person to defy a party swing against him – Martin Gallagher.
I’ve got one patient who’s a paranoid schizophrenic so he thinks the Government is watching him the whole time. So when he came to practice he’s like ‘Why are you on every billboard?’.”
Gallagher is a cousin of Sir William Gallagher, whose surname is on almost everything in Hamilton with naming rights for sale.
“There were several names when I thought I wonder if I can change my name to Perry or another famous Hamilton name,” Macindoe joked.
“I even wondered if I could change my name to Hamilton.”
Macindoe’s opponent Gaurav Sharma is more confident and settled this time around.
Things were a bit more chaotic when he was drafted in as a candidate in the lead-up to the 2017 campaign.
The previous candidate Sue Moroney was not selected for a winnable position on the Labour Party’s list and decided not to contest the electorate race less than a year out from the election.
Sharma – a doctor – didn’t even live in the electorate initially.
He’s now bought a house, started a general practice clinic and even swabbed a few people for Covid-19 during lockdown. Although it’s arguable whether voter experiences of him conducting the latter will prove to be a vote-winner.
“My own practice has 12,000 patients and last time I got 11,000 votes,” Sharma said.
“There’s also the negatives. I’ve got one patient who’s a paranoid schizophrenic so he thinks the Government is watching him the whole time. So when he came to practice he’s like ‘Why are you on every billboard?’.”
His team have made 13,000 contacts this week – having knocked on 1800 doors and called 2400 people.
Still, Gaurav’s level of name recognition is unlikely to be as high as Macindoe’s.
Macindoe will be hoping a little bit of loyalty from the electorate will allow him to defy an expected swing to Labour the way his former opponent Martin Gallagher avoided one to National.
“He [Martin] was very highly regarded and managed to attract quite strong support across the political spectrum. I used to know National Party people who would vote for him and give National their party vote because they respected him.
“He did have a real heart for the electorate and was very accessible and personable and I made it clear when I was elected I would try very hard to emulate that style.”
Hamilton East is the seat Te Pou believes is more in danger of falling. It’s a question of ground-game and he believed Labour’s Jamie Strange had more of it in the seat this time around than other Labour candidates contesting the seat had in the past.
“It’s probably in play more so than the other Hamilton [seat] simply because Jamie’s been a very effective shadow MP for three years, but both are locally respected in terms of getting out and about,” Te Pou said.
“David Bennett was famous for it early on. It’s probably waned off a little bit.”
Many attributed Bennett’s win in the seat against national trends in 2005 to an intense campaign where some joked he was so eager to attend events in the electorate he would probably turn up to an envelope-opening.
Up until that point, the seat had reflected national electorate trends in all but one year (1993).
Strange said his own operation wasn’t matching Bennett on the physical door-knocking front, but he was reaching out to a lot more people via telephone calls and social media.
“Due to Covid we focused more on the phone-calling than the door-knocking. People are still wary of strangers turning up at their door.”
On policy the two have been engaged in a back-and-forth over which party has actually delivered more for Hamilton.
Bennett’s contention is highway projects like the Waikato Expressway were largely delivered under National while promises of a commuter rail link between Hamilton and Auckland, promised by Labour, haven’t materialised yet.
“Hamilton’s got the most to lose from a continuation of the current government.”
A third medical school – likely to be located in the Waikato under the previous National government – was also scrapped by the Labour-led Government.
There were also plenty of roading upgrades to be made, but the city of Hamilton hadn’t benefited from the Labour Government’s roading spend-up in the NZ Upgrade Programme.
“Hamilton’s got the most to lose from a continuation of the current Government,” Bennett said.
Strange said Labour had done plenty for the electorate and while it may have lost a medical school, it had been selected as the headquarters of the NZ Institute of Skills & Technology.
“I believe it’s the first time Hamilton’s ever posted the headquarters of a government agency so it’s an example of Hamilton coming of age in the city.”
They were also only three years in, while Bennett had the benefit of nine.
As for commuter rail between Hamilton and Auckland, Strange said Covid-19 had gotten in the way of that in more ways than one.
“We had a global pandemic and during the lockdown, construction of the Rotokauri transport hub stopped and then during Auckland’s second lockdown we weren’t able to get contractors down from Auckland to work on that project.
“Secondly KiwiRail are doing some upgrades on their Auckland line.
“So those have been the two key factors that have elongated that timeframe, but I’m feeling optimistic for early next year – likely February.”
Not the provinces any more
All the major electorate candidates accept Hamilton voters are more influenced by policies at a national level than they are by local promises. It’s all down to the city’s urban makeup.
Urban voters are less concerned than rural ones about local issues like getting specific bridges and highways built and more concerned with national policy settings.
“I would strongly reject the idea that we’re the provinces … it’s very much a city, not a provincial seat.”
Macindoe said the movement of people in and out of Hamilton was another factor which made it more prone to change and less loyal to particular parties or candidates.
“Hamilton has quite a nomadic population. A lot of people have traditionally moved here – perhaps for one position and moved to another area – it doesn’t have maybe as settled a population as Auckland or Christchurch.”
Te Pou said there was less of a community connection in an urban seat than a rural one – which could make people less loyal to their electorate representative in a heavily urban seat like Hamilton.
Macindoe agreed with that to a point, but said he didn’t believe people in urban seats behaved significantly differently when it came to their electorate MPs than those in rural ones did.
Regardless, mistaking the fourth-largest city – and one of the country’s fastest growing – for a province was a major error people made when assessing the seat and city itself.
“I would strongly reject the idea that we’re the provinces … it’s very much a city, not a provincial seat,” Macindoe said.
“It does reflect a bit of a misconception or a failure to realise just how quickly Hamilton has grown over the last 20 years.”