The West Coast-Tasman electorate – home to the spiritual birthplace of the Labour Party – is one electorate few pundits picked to change allegiance this election.

It’s due to go blue if National’s candidate Maureen Pugh’s majority of 915 isn’t flipped by the special votes.

Yes, that’s the Maureen Pugh of Simon Bridges’ “f…ing useless” insult; the same Pugh who was told by her leader to go and do some reading on climate change after she said she hadn’t made up her mind on the evidence that humans caused it; the Pugh who says she doesn’t use antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals. The struck-by-lightning Pugh.

Long-serving MP Damien O’Connor will remain in Parliament despite being unseated in West Coast-Tasman, thanks to his place on the Labour list. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It’s a big deal that Labour’s lost a lot of support, and Damien O’Connor’s majority in the electorate in the 2020 election of over 6000 will be massively overturned.

The party vote has changed, too. This year, National has about 12,000 votes to Labour’s 8000. In 2020, Labour had 20,000 to National’s 11,000. 

The electorate is the largest by land area of any general electorate in the country. The main centres are Greymouth, Westport and Motueka. More than half the population is over 45 years old.

Newsroom journalist Lois Williams tells The Detail the region is mainly focused on primary production. 

“Farming is the mainstay, but it’s got the highest percentage in the country of people working in mining industries – that’s gold and coal and mineral sands and quarrying. Obviously, tourism’s become a major player in recent years.

“There are a lot of families here who’ve been here since pioneering days. They respect hard work, they tend to call a spade a spade, they can be quite blunt and they are fiercely protective of their right to make a living from the land.”

The roots of the Labour Party come from Blackball, near Greymouth, where the first proper New Zealand strike happened in 1908.

“The Blackball miners were getting a bit fed up with their working conditions,” Williams says.

“They were unhappy because the employers – the private mine owners – wanted them to work 10 hours a day instead of eight and they were adamant that they could only have 15 minutes for their lunch break.”

The miners rebelled and eventually won, and some of the group’s leaders went on to be crucial in forming the New Zealand Labour Party eight years later.

Since the West Coast-Tasman seat’s creation in 1996, Labour MP Damien O’Connor has won it eight times – nine if you include its previous electorate iteration as simply the West Coast seat. It’s only been blue once before, in 2008.

But Williams isn’t surprised by this year’s result.

“There’s just been this feeling in the last year or so. A lot of frustration I think, an underlying hostility.” 

She also talks about independent candidate Patrick Phelps splitting the vote. Preliminary results show him in third place, receiving 5246 votes, Damien O’Connor with 10,722 votes and Maureen Pugh with 11,637 votes.

Buller District mayor Jamie Cleine. Photo: RNZ/Nate McKinnon

Despite being a National Party member, Buller District Mayor Jamie Cleine tells The Detail he was taken aback by the switch.

“I’m genuinely really surprised at the level of change that we’ve seen,” he says.

“Damien has always enjoyed quite strong majority wins in the electorate vote, and to see that swing, to not only gobble up that majority, but then to actually swing to blue, is quite a significant change.”

O’Çonnor was Labour’s trade and agriculture minister, but those duties have kept him from home a fair bit. Meanwhile, Pugh has been doing the leg work.

Cleine talks about changes rumbling in the region in the past six years: changes in the farming sector, Covid, and rising unaffordability for councils and residents.

“What I think we don’t want to come across as is ‘the West Coast wants to just keep everything how it always used to be’, because that isn’t actually the feeling. There is quite a mood and an appetite to embrace change and adapt … but it’s the pace of change, I think, that has been problematic for the Coast.”

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