The by-election in Hamilton West is heating up, with both major party leaders swinging in to lend some star power to their candidates’ campaigns

With just over a week to go before ballots close, the candidates in the Hamilton West by-election are pounding pavement, pressing palms and making rugby analogies.

New National Party candidate Tama Potaka said he felt like he had a team of indeterminate size counting on him.

“I feel like I’m the half-back and there’s a whole team, not of 15 but of 1500 – maybe five million – people around me who really want National to get back in government.” 

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The former CEO of iwi Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki and general manager for Tainui Group Holdings was joined by his own rugby coach on Thursday morning – National Party leader Christopher Luxon, who made the trip to the Waikato to show his support for Potaka.

A visit to the summer-postponed Fieldays is also on order for the two, where they are likely to receive a warmer reception than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did on Wednesday when television cameras caught jeers being flung at her and her retinue from the crowd.

Ardern is also in Kirikiriroa to sign off on her party’s own potential new Hamilton West MP, Georgie Dansey, who she will be hoping has the popularity to replace former Labour MP Dr Gaurav Sharma, whose resignation from the party triggered the by-election.

Dansey also had Helen Clark down to give her seal of approval earlier this week. Clark told RNZ that by-elections were a “funny beast”, taking on their own character and difficult to call.

Indeed, there has been some jostling for the position of polticking’s own favourite ‘funny beast’, the underdog, with Sharma and Potaka both giving themselves the label and ACT leader David Seymour saying the party and its candidate James McDowall will have to fight hard to be in with a chance in the electorate.

But why are all the big names in New Zealand politics flying into Hamilton to do what they can for their team?

Roughly making up the chunk of Hamilton west of the Waikato River, the electorate comprises around 80,000 people. 

It’s more than a drop in the bucket democratically speaking, but probably not more than a few drops in the bucket.

The importance of a victory in Hamilton West is more abstract and symbolic – perhaps bordering on superstitious. There have been 18 elections in Hamilton West since the electorate was drawn on the map, and in all but one of those, West Hamiltonians managed to go with the winning party.

Whether or not there’s something in the waters of the Waikato that lend soothsayer-like abilities to the populace may remain up for discussion, but it is clear that Hamilton West is a kind of New Zealand writ in miniature.

It’s a smaller city with strong ties to trade and agricultural industry. The urban is balanced out by the provincial – in a sense, it’s what you get if you take the whole country and blend it up into an even slurry.

So for National and Labour, capturing the hearts and minds of the residents of that slurry one year out from what is shaping up to be a nail-biter of an election would be a valuable win.

When asked how crucial a by-election win was to the party, Luxon said they were doing everything they could to win.

“This is a really difficult seat for us to win,” he said. “This seat is a very very strong stronghold for the Labour Party.”

National Party leader Christopher Luxon and National’s Hamilton West candidate, Tama Potaka. Photo: Matthew Scott

While it’s true that Gaurav Sharma won comfortably in 2020 with half of the vote, and around the same going to Labour in party votes, it hasn’t always been so cut and dry.

In 2017, National’s Tim Macindoe took the seat with similar numbers, and party votes for National outstripped those for Labour by around 4000.

That was the one time the country didn’t go the way of Hamilton West, and the years before show an electorate that like the country as a whole, swings like a slow pendulum between red and blue.

It was clear which issue was on the top of the political agenda for Luxon.

“The number one issue that people in Hamilton West are concerned about is crime,” he said. “What we have is a Government that is soft on crime, that actually hasn’t shown enough care for the victims … and people in Hamilton West are over it.”

He said a vote for Potaka would send a message to the Government, and encouraged people to show up at the polls.

“A lot of people can talk about it and be … frustrated with the Government, but the only thing that changes it is voting.”

It’s a line of messaging that suggests Luxon’s been thinking about the potentially low turnout for the by-election. 

It’s a fair worry – without the extra bells and whistles of voting for the next government, people will have less immediate desire to get their voting papers in. The country has also just gone through a local body election, and just a few weeks before Christmas, there are always going to be people who’ve entered into holiday mode a bit early.

Despite that, Hamilton West is covered more with political hoardings than tinsel this week, with Sharma’s face leering down on motorists from huge, pink billboards over intersections on Greenwood St and both Potaka and Dansey’s faces visible on the front fences of suburban homes in the area.

A double dose of Sharma on Greenwood St. Photo: Matthew Scott

Luxon and Potaka took to the pavement outside Carl’s Jr to join a team waving signs at oncoming traffic, where a volunteer on Potaka’s campaign said the honks of support had been pretty constant.

“People are hungry for change,” he said.

It’s the roughest form of polling, however, and it’s the honking cars that stick in your mind rather than the silent ones.

Like Clark said, the by-election is a funny beast – and the true nature of this beast will only be clear next weekend, once the votes have been counted.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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