The Tauranga by-election will be like a mini-general election. National need to win and create positive momentum, while Labour needs to hold its vote at or near its 2020 level to avoid being on the back foot  

Opinion: Simon Bridges will formally resign from Parliament on May 6. Because he represents the Tauranga electorate, there will need to be a by-election to elect a replacement. That will take place on June 18. By contrast, when Louisa Wall resigns as a list MP on May 1, her replacement will be the next available person from Labour’s 2020 party list, who will be declared elected almost immediately without the need for any external endorsement.

Over the years, by-elections have been a reasonably common feature of the New Zealand political system. The forthcoming Tauranga by-election will be the 13th since the introduction of MMP in 1996, and the 21st since 1980. However, by-elections were more frequent in earlier years – for example, between 1961 and 1980 there were 20 occurring at a rate about twice that currently.

Historically, by-elections occurred to replace the often elderly sitting Member who had died. An interesting feature of the past 40 years though is that only three of the 20 by-elections have been the result of the death of a sitting MP. However, in the preceding period, 1961-80, all but three of the 20 by-elections were because of the death of a sitting MP. (And in one of those instances the resigning MP was in such ill health that he died a few months later anyway.)

While there have always been cases where a sitting MP could leave Parliament during a term for reasons other than death or personal scandal, it has become a common situation only comparatively recently. It has accelerated since MMP, possibly a consequence of the fact that list MPs can leave and be replaced without any great drama.

Whereas previously when MPs whose time had passed or who felt the call of other options would be expected to wait around until the next election, it is much more likely nowadays that they will go as soon as a convenient date can be arranged.

A new feature which began with Matiu Rata’s resignation in 1980 has been when an MP who has formed a new party wants to get early public endorsement of that via a by-election in their electorate. While it did not work for Rata when he left Labour to form Mana Motuhake, the tactic did work for Winston Peters in 1993 when he forced a by-election in his Tauranga seat after being banished from the National caucus, and before the formation of New Zealand First.

It also worked for Dame Tariana Turia in Te Tai Hauāuru in 2004 when she left Labour to form the Māori Party, and Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau in 2011 when he left the Māori Party to form the Mana Movement. However, in both the Tauranga and Te Tai Hauāuru by-elections the incumbent party (National and Labour respectively) chose not to contest the by-election to try to minimise the significance of the result. But, in Te Tai Tokerau, the Māori Party did put up a candidate, who ran a distant third.

Occasionally, a seat that is fully contested changes hands at a by-election. Labour won Palmerston North in 1967 and Marlborough in 1970 both from National; Social Credit won Rangitikei in 1978 and East Coast Bays in 1980 also both from National; National won Timaru from Labour in 1985, and New Zealand First won Northland from National in 2015. In all these cases, the party losing the seat was in government at the time, and the result reflected an anti-government swing, although there were also contributing local factors in many cases. However, there was no risk of the government falling because of these changes in party fortunes, which may have further emboldened electors at the time.

The last occasions on which an opposition party lost a by-election were in 1913. Then, Sir Joseph Ward’s waning Liberals lost the Grey and Lyttelton by-elections to the then emerging Labour Party. The new Labour MPs went on to have illustrious political careers of their own. Paddy Webb, the new MP for Grey, was a legendary, roguish figure and colourful minister in the first Labour government. James McCombs represented Lyttelton until his death in 1933. At the by-election that followed, his wife, Elizabeth McCombs, became New Zealand’s first female MP. Their son Terence, who succeeded her, served as a minister in the last term of the first Labour Government, and was later High Commissioner to Britain during the Kirk government.

Against that backdrop, the overwhelming likelihood is that when National Party members in Tauranga select their candidate for the forthcoming by-election they will in effect be selecting the next MP for Tauranga. If they are astute enough, given that the last Labour MP for Tauranga was defeated in 1938 after just one term, they will also be looking to select a candidate who can make a long-term contribution not just to the Tauranga electorate, but also to future National-led governments as well. Just over half the MPs elected at by-elections since 1980 have gone on to have significant ministerial careers. Three of the MPs elected at by-elections in the 1961-80 period – Rowling, Lange and Palmer – became prime ministers.

This does not mean that National can afford to take Tauranga for granted. It most certainly cannot and any hint of complacency on its part will be punished by voters. Although Labour has been saying publicly it does not expect to win the seat, it has already selected Cabinet Minister Jan Tinetti as its candidate. Having been written off as unlikely to win, she now has nothing to lose so can mount another strong campaign in the seat in which she did so well in the 2020 election, losing then by little more than 2,000 votes. And then there is the question of whether Winston Peters decides to have another crack at his old seat, something he is only likely to do if he feels confident of winning against the odds, or at least having a major influence on the result.

For National and Labour, the stakes are particularly high. For both, it is like a mini-general election. National’s imperative is not just to win, but to do so as well as it can, creating positive momentum through to next year’s general election. Labour’s imperative, despite already having publicly dismissed its chances of winning, is to hold its vote at or near its 2020 level. Anything less than that, or worse, a heavy drubbing, will put it on the back foot as it approaches the election next year. The smaller parties are under less direct pressure – they just need to do as well as they can, so it is a chance for them to road test new policies that can be fine-tuned before the general election.

One thing is certain though. The six weeks of the by-election campaign will see Tauranga crawling with visiting MPs from all sides, with the accompanying media throng, especially during the Parliamentary recesses from straight after the May 19 Budget till just after Queen’s Birthday Weekend, and the 10 days immediately before the by-election. Once the by-election has been and gone, this swarm of visiting MPs and media will go too, letting things get back to normal, and leaving the new MP for Tauranga to settle quietly into the role.

By then, Louisa Wall’s replacement from the Labour list will not only already have been in Parliament for several weeks but will probably have given their maiden speech as well!

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