Unless National chooses to force a by-election, the people of Mt Albert will be left unrepresented when Jacinda Ardern exits Parliament in April. Bonnie Harrison looks at what could happen in the electorate.
Chris Hipkins will replace Jacinda Ardern as the next Labour leader and prime minister.
After much speculation, the former minister for the Covid-19 response and current Police Minister was the only nomination received for the role and was officially endorsed by the caucus on Sunday.
But while the country’s attention has been focused on who will take the big jobs over from Ardern, a smaller decision will also have to be made on who takes on her electorate for the next three years.
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Ardern announced on Thursday that she will resign from the post of prime minister by February 7, but said she won’t be leaving Parliament altogether until April, a date that falls within six months of the October 14 general election and won’t automatically trigger a by-election in her electorate seat of Mt Albert in Auckland.
That means the more than 60,000 people living in the Mt Albert electorate will be without a dedicated representative in Parliament for six months, and it’s not yet known who Labour will stand as a candidate in the seat at the general election in October.
The Mt Albert electorate covers the Auckland suburbs of Kingsland, Grey Lynn and Sandringham. Census data shows it’s one of the most ethnically-diverse electorates in the country, with a higher proportion of young workers and migrants than the New Zealand population generally.
Electorate offices often serve as triage centres for a range of important issues, including visa and citizenship problems. Beyond the elected MP, offices often employ staffers that speak non-English languages common in the area or who can perform certain duties, such as justices of the peace.
Local MPs exist to both hear and solve constituents’ problems, says public law professor Andrew Geddis.
“If you’re having a problem with a government department, an MP writing to that government department to say ‘Hey, what the hell’s going on here?’ can get movement probably much better than you writing the letter individually,” says Geddis.
“Mt Albert for the past five years probably hasn’t had their local MP providing those services as much as you might expect, because the Prime Minister has to have her eye on the bigger prize.”
The Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward of Auckland Council shares much of the same boundaries as the Mt Albert electorate. Ward councillor and former National MP Christine Fletcher says while she respects the demand of Ardern’s prime ministerial duties, there has been a “void of leadership” shown in her local electorate in recent years.
Neighbourhoods in Mt Albert have played host to a spate of burglaries and ram raids in recent months, with the fatal stabbing of dairy worker Janak Patel in October taking place in the heart of Ardern’s home suburb of Sandringham.
Fletcher says the Mt Albert electorate has been uniquely affected by several large-scale infrastructure policies, including the Government’s new urban density rules and the City Rail Link, and constituents want to know what it means for them.
Fletcher says she has been inundated with calls from concerned members of the community, and that people are frustrated at a lack of local leadership.
Ardern only held the seat of Mt Albert for six months in 2017 before also becoming Labour leader, and shortly after, prime minister.
“There’s perhaps a good argument that the top few members of each political party should go list-only in order to free up their time fully,” says Geddis.
Incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins has been the local MP for the Upper Hutt electorate of Remutaka since 2008. It is yet to be announced whether he will stand in the electorate again in 2023.
“It’s a little ridiculous to expect the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, finance spokespeople, finance ministers, people with the really heavy portfolios to also be thought of as electorate MPs who can give their time and energy to individual electorate problems.”
List MP Melissa Lee, who has stood as the National Party candidate in Mt Albert since 2009, says any constituents with local issues or queries are able to contact the National Party’s Epsom electorate office for assistance during the six-month period without a dedicated Mt Albert MP.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to questions about whether the Mt Albert electorate office would remain staffed in Ardern’s absence, or whether neighbouring Labour MPs would offer their services out of their own offices in the interim.
While leaving an electorate unrepresented for six months is a departure from the democratic ideal, Geddis says it must be balanced against the high cost of holding a by-election when the general election is only a few months away.
When announcing her resignation, Ardern said she wanted to “spare [Mt Albert] and the country a by-election”.
By-elections are a drain on parties’ time and resources, Geddis says. Besides the expenditure on campaign materials, there’s the public cost of staffing election booths and printing and distributing voting papers.
“And it’s not really worth it for the voters to say ‘Come and vote now and then in six months’ time, come and have a re-vote.’
“You’ll just annoy voters.”
By-elections attract historically low voter turnout, which Geddis says adds no legitimacy to their outcome.
However, there is still a chance that a by-election will be forced in the seat, Geddis says.
Under New Zealand’s Electoral Act, for a by-election to be triggered, the speaker of the House must declare an electorate seat vacant, usually following the sitting MP giving notice of their own resignation, or in the event of the MP’s death. The speaker then makes an official call for a by-election.
Where a vacancy happens within six months of a general election, the House can resolve to not hold a by-election if a motion passes with 75 percent of MPs in support.
If the motion passes, the seat is instead left vacant, and the electorate is without a representative in Parliament until the next general election.
If it fails, the by-election must be called.
“What it means is National and Labour have to agree we won’t have a by-election,” he says.
Geddis says that while in the past both parties have agreed that a by-election isn’t worth it and want to instead focus on the upcoming general election, National could decide there is political capital to be gained in forcing the by-election.
“It would be open to National … to say the people of Mt Albert deserve to have a member of Parliament, we think we’ve got a chance to do really well in the seat, so we’re going to not back the resolution.”
This is a process unique to electorate MPs. When a list MP resigns (someone who was elected to Parliament based on party vote alone), whoever is next on that party’s list is invited to take their place. The resignations of Labour List MP Kris Faafoi and speaker of the House Trevor Mallard in 2022 brought new MPs Dan Rosewarne and Soraya Peke-Mason into Parliament from their positions on the Labour List.
Ardern’s comments in her resignation implied there would be no opposition to a motion to leave the Mt Albert seat open.
A short-term vacancy isn’t unprecedented. Six other MPs have resigned within six months of an election in recent years: Brian Connell (National) from the Rakaia seat in 2008, John Carter (National) from the Northland seat in 2011, John Banks (ACT) from the Epsom seat in 2014, David Cunliffe (Labour) from the New Lynn seat in 2017, and Andrew Falloon (National) from the Rangitata seat in 2020.
Ardern isn’t the first prime minister to leave a seat vacant either. John Key resigned within six months of the 2017 general election, ushering Bill English into the top job but leaving his seat of Helensville empty.
Avoiding a by-election might be a tactical move from a shaken Labour Government. A by-election in an election year could be seen as a straw poll for the real thing, and if the seat flipped to National’s Melissa Lee (who confirmed to Newsroom she had won the party’s nomination to contest the seat again), that’s heaping fuel on the perception that Labour will suffer in the general election.
All by-elections since Ardern’s Labour took government in 2017 have been won by the National Party – and while two of the three were seats vacated by outgoing National candidates and unsurprisingly returned to new National candidates, the recent by-election caused by Gaurav Sharma’s resignation saw swing seat Hamilton West flip from red to blue, a small but precious victory which could only have galvanised National and its supporters for 2023.
Labour’s candidate selection process for the country’s 72 electorate races is already underway, with the party’s 2023 election line-up looking to be shored up internally in the coming months.
Labour could want a proven pair of hands in Ardern’s wake and look to stand an existing Auckland-based list MP, such as first-termer Camilla Belich or previous Auckland Central candidate Helen White.
Local party members will also be able to throw their hats into the ring, an opportunity for Labour to launch any talented newbies in an auspicious way. Former Auckland councillor Pippa Coom, elected to the Waitematā and Gulf ward from the left-leaning City Vision ticket in 2019, may be one to watch after being ousted in the 2022 local body elections.
But the title of MP for Mt Albert is a heavy crown to bear. The seat is a party stronghold that in its more than 80-year history has only ever been held by Labour MPs. In 2020, Ardern won by 21,000 votes – the largest margin in the country.
And not just any MPs: Jacinda Ardern is only the latest in a list of Labour leaders to come from the Mt Albert electorate seat, once held by Prime Minister Helen Clark for almost 30 years, followed closely by Labour leader in opposition David Shearer for almost a decade before his 2016 resignation triggered the by-election that saw Ardern step in.
Former Labour Party president Mike Williams says there is a large, well-established local party organisation in Mt Albert, and they will already be looking at potential successors to Ardern.
“Obviously, they usually choose well,” said Williams, who was a Labour Party organiser when Clark won the Labour nomination for the Mt Albert seat back in 1981.