Opinion: Situated amid the vineyards and rolling farmlands of the lower North Island, the Wairarapa electorate is held by Labour’s Kieran McAnulty. After unsuccessfully contesting the seat in 2014 and 2017, McAnulty finally cracked the electorate in 2020, riding a red wave to an impressive 49 percent of the vote.
This election should be a much more challenging proposition. It is a more difficult environment for Labour up and down the whole country. Looking at Wairarapa more particularly, and all other things being equal, the electorate should be an inviting prospect for National.
Mike Butterick, a sheep and beef farmer from Masterton, is standing for National. He also stood in 2020, so he should know what he is doing. Butterick has lived in the electorate for three decades, and has good local connections and credibility campaigning on agricultural issues, which is important given the struggles of the sector and the rural nature of the electorate.
Another factor is the absence of the former NZ First candidate Ron Mark, now Mayor of Carterton. On the right of his party, Mark had stood in the electorate in the previous three elections. This reliably siphoned off a significant number of votes, most of which could be expected to go to the National candidate.
Against this, McAnulty is quite leftwing politically, bragging about being a socialist on the floor of Parliament in 2021. That kind of thing is not always well received in provincial seats, which tend to have a more conservative character. If we take the 2020 cannabis referendum as a proxy for the overall conservatism of the electorate, Wairarapa is more conservative than the national average.
That is consistent with Wairarapa’s age profile. With a median age of 43.5 years, compared with the national median of 38, the region is older than average. Because older voters tend towards conservatism, on paper this should be a National seat.
This is one of those races where candidate quality will make a difference. McAnulty is not invincible and a complete collapse in support for Labour would see him vulnerable. But if the party’s share settles in at around 30 percent, it seems probable that he will retain the seat
However, the voters of Wairarapa have a history of rewarding candidates who prioritise and respond to local concerns. This was the very electorate that in 1999 elected Georgina Beyer as the world’s first openly transgender MP. (The National candidate that year was Paul Henry.)
McAnulty has deep local roots in the electorate, and his commitment to the region is beyond doubt. He has managed to maintain a regular presence at local events and gatherings even while climbing the ranks of the Labour Party. He is a familiar face in the electorate and has cultivated a strong personal brand that we can expect to translate to considerable goodwill at the ballot box.
On top of this, he has cultivated a ‘Kiwi bloke from the provinces’ persona that has charmed the Wellington media. If he retains the seat but Labour loses the election, expect some chatter about leadership prospects. All of this has helped McAnulty to build the kind of solid media profile most candidates would kill for.
Changing demographics will also help. The population of the Wairarapa has been growing faster than average with much of the growth attributed to newcomers. This includes a steady influx of ‘gentry liberals’ from Wellington, many of whom are likely to bring their more liberal views with them. So, though Wairarapa may remain conservative overall, McAnulty can rely on having more solidly leftwing votes in the bank now than he did three years ago.
Butterick will undoubtedly benefit from the swing away from Labour. Against a weaker opponent, he would cruise in despite any demographic changes. McAnulty’s local and national profile, however, make Wairarapa a tough nut to crack for the opposition.
This is one of those races where candidate quality will make a difference. McAnulty is not invincible and a complete collapse in support for Labour would see him vulnerable. But if the party’s share settles in at around 30 percent, it seems probable that he will retain the seat.