Analysis: It’s been nearly four decades since a National Party MP last represented the Ōhāriu but Nicola Willis thinks she can change that.
In fact, since 1984, the northern Wellington seat has only been represented by two MPs. First, Peter Dunne (wearing a Labour hat, then an independent one, then Future, then United NZ and finally United Future) who held the seat under a variety of names until 2017 and then Labour’s Greg O’Connor who has held it since.
There was a fierce battle in the affluent and leafy suburbs here in 2017, when O’Connor narrowly beat National’s Brett Hudson. In 2020, it was a landslide – 23,000 votes for O’Connor to Hudson’s 11,000.
Despite National’s long absence from the seat, it’s still tended to go blue for the second tick. In the MMP era, just twice have more party votes from Ōhāriu gone to Labour than National, in 2002 and 2020.
Both Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon hit the pavement in Ōhāriu in recent days, with their respective electorate candidates in tow.
On Friday, O’Connor took Hipkins to the Quay Marine ferry repair shop in what he called “heartland Ōhāriu”. That description isn’t quite accurate, as more than half of workers in the electorate are managers or professionals and just 15 percent are labourers, technicians, tradies or machinery operators.
It clearly wasn’t friendly ground, with a bit of a tense discussion with the workers behind closed doors over a cuppa and some sausage rolls. Afterwards, Quay Marine manager Alan Collins said the discussion centred around tax. Income tax cuts, he said, would help out his employees while allowing him to keep afloat.
The next stop was more rewarding, with Hipkins and O’Connor joining Labour campaigners displaying hoardings to drivers in Johnsonville. A few supportive toots from passing cars buoyed the pair as they walked to youth development organisation Challenge 2000. Along the way, O’Connor pointed out the dilapidated mall he had campaigned on getting fixed six years ago.
“I thought the bulldozers would be in by now,” he told Hipkins, a bit of a sad echo of a 2018 Facebook post in which he said, “I’ll be waiting anxiously for the bulldozers to get down there!”
Asked later what the big issues in the electorate were, O’Connor led with the mall.
“One of them’s across the road here, the Johnsonville shopping centre and mall. I’ve been working closely with the owners and really that’s something that, being in the heart of the electorate, I’d like to think the bulldozers will be in there sooner rather than later.”
On Monday, Willis agreed the mall was an issue but said voters would note it’s still standing around despite O’Connor’s 2017 election promises.
“Greg should be careful because in 2017 he campaigned on fixing Johnsonville Mall and the people whose doors I’ve knocked on remember that commitment and have seen nothing happen.”
She was speaking after a campaign stop at the Malvina Major retirement village in Khandallah, where she gave a short speech to residents before handing over the mic for one of Luxon’s stump speeches. A Q&A session followed, with no hardballs for Luxon, but opinion in the room afterwards was mixed. Some Green voters, some Labour as well, alongside the National supporters who had turned out to see Willis and Luxon.
Both of the National MPs declined to say much in response to a resident’s assertion that O’Connor was the “village idiot” in the area, though Luxon couldn’t help but let out a grin.
“I’ve been very careful throughout my campaign to speak well of my opponent. I think that we can disagree agreeably and be civil towards each other,” Willis said diplomatically.
She said she’d heard about different issues than O’Connor – namely, the cost of living and the sluggishness of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving transport programme.
O’Connor said he hoped his omnipresence in the community would get him across the line.
“I’ve been on the ground here. This is an electorate that want their MPs to be on the ground. I’ve been on the ground, omnipresent, and I’m just hoping that being available to the people of Ōhāriu will be enough to entice them to vote for me.”
Partially, that’s a reference to the fact that Willis is new to the electorate, having previously tried her luck at the Wellington Central seat. O’Connor has been representing Ōhāriu for six years already and is a true local. The implication, not stated, is that Willis is only here as a political opportunist.
Ōhāriu is a highly professionalised electorate. One in three workers is paid more than $70,000, the highest such proportion of any seat in the country. A greater percentage of employees in Ōhāriu works in financial services than anywhere else and the number of those working in government administration is second only to Wellington Central.
In 2018, that was 16.2 percent of the workforce, a figure likely to have grown as the size of the public sector has grown.
That means National’s pledges to cut “backroom bureaucracy” translate to some residents here as pledges to cut their jobs.
While that could backfire for Willis, who is the face of the proposed cuts, she does have an advantage in being the shoe-in for finance minister if National is able to govern after the election. One thing Dunne’s long reign in Ōhāriu showed is the value of having a local MP with outsize influence in government. Willis, who is also National’s deputy leader, is certainly more influential than backbencher and deputy speaker O’Connor.
The other lesson from Dunne’s 33 years as the local MP is that personality matters. That’s true in any electorate, but that a minor party MP held on for so long here shows the sentiment may be stronger in Ōhāriu.
In other words, it will ultimately come down to how the voters judge O’Connor and Willis – village idiot or a true local; political opportunist or a representative with influence.