Bryce Edwards: Here comes an unpredictable and intense by-election

Bryce Edwards: Here comes an unpredictable and intense by-election

Get ready for a hard-fought and intense by-election in Hamilton West, triggered by the resignation from Parliament of former Labour MP Gaurav Sharma. Both Labour and National are going to throw everything at winning this by-election. Complicating matters, there will be a number of minor parties and fringe elements – Sharma included – that might have a big impact on the result.

At this stage, the outcome is entirely unpredictable, with both Labour and National having good reasons for desperately needing to win it, and with some good reasons to expect success. But it’s likely to be a very close race, and a number of vital factors could determine which way victory goes.

The National Party is the frontrunner

National is surely seen as the frontrunner in the by-election, due to the party’s hold over the seat in 4 out of 5 preceding elections, together with the fact that the Labour Government is currently in the doldrums.

As always, Opposition parties seek to turn by-elections into referendums on the current performance of the incumbents – and at present there is a lot about the Labour Government for the public to be dissatisfied about. This was evidence by last week’s local government elections, which have also been described as a referendum on the current government. Various successful mayoral and council candidates prospered through their campaigns against the status quo and by being anti-Government. Expect to see much of this again in Hamilton West.

National has been dominating the seat – although Sharma won it for Labour in 2020, this was an aberration after National holding it for the previous four terms – by Tim Macindoe.

Macindoe is apparently keen to win the seat back and so wants the National Party nomination – although last night he was refusing comment on this. There are plenty of other potential National candidates – for example, Andrew King, the former mayor of Hamilton indicated in April that he planned to run for the party nomination for the seat.

The campaign and the chance to win the seat back off Labour is being described as a “godsend” for National. It certainly would be a major psychological boost for National’s current resurgence. As the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire says today, “National will be licking its lips.” He says that “it’s a chance to put a stake in the ground, to road-test approaches, and to draw confidence from winning back a seat”. It’s also a chance to put the selection problems of the likes of Uffindell behind the party.

National is doing well in the polls at the moment – generally a couple of percentage points ahead of Labour, so there are plenty of reasons to believe that National should win the seat. If they don’t there will be some serious questions about the party’s organisational capacity and leader Christopher Luxon’s pulling power.

Labour is set to be the underdog

The Labour faces a likely “bloodbath” in Hamilton West according to the Herald’s Audrey Young. She says: “Labour will be campaigning against a tide in a famous weather-vane seat. Byelections are a chance for voters to give a Government a bloody nose, at the best of times. We are not in the best of times.” She concludes it will take “a miracle” for Labour to retain the seat in the by-election.

It would indeed be highly embarrassing for Labour to lose the seat – it would make them look vulnerable, especially in the lead up to election year. Losing a seat in a by-election isn’t the best way to start their campaign for re-election. Toby Manhire doesn’t rate Labour’s chance of success very highly, saying that “though it is not unwinnable, it would take something extraordinary for them not to lose.”

Unfortunately for Labour they don’t have a lot of obviously strong contenders to stand in the seat. Top of the list is probably the Labour Party parliamentary employee Dan Steer, who recently stood for the city council. Media have been unable to reach him for comment on standing for the nomination.

However, there are other reasons for Labour to be more optimistic about their chances. Although the 2020 Labour win in Hamilton West was indeed an aberrant high vote for the party, Labour has won the seat plenty of times before.

This is why Hamilton West is regarded as a “weathervane” or “bell weather” seat. In the past, the seats have tended to be won by whatever party is in Government. Manhire describes it as “the quintessence of middle New Zealand and a bellwether seat; 16 of the last 18 winning MPs have caucused with the governing party.”

What’s more, Labour’s current majority is incredibly high – 6500. In theory this makes Hamilton West a very safe seat for Labour. As National pollster David Farrar points out, when looked at the parties as ideological blocs, in 2020 “the left vote was 58% in Hamilton West and the right vote 34%.” So, it would take an extreme swing against the Government for the seat to change hands.

Labour’s best hope of retaining the seat is for Sharma’s campaign to split the anti-Government vote. If enough anti-Labour people back the incumbent-dissident, viewing a vote for Sharma as the best way to give Labour a bloody nose, then National’s candidate might struggle to win. A split vote could be Labour’s saving grace.

A circus of minor parties and issues

Whether Labour or National win Hamilton West might be partly determined by the minor parties standing in the campaign, as well as which issues rise to the top of the agenda on the campaign trail. On this, David Farrar says: “If Act and/or NZ First stands and Greens do not, that helps Labour”.

According to journalist Richard Harman, National could be disadvantaged by these other rightwing and minor parties splitting the vote. He says, National “will have to beat off Act and a resurgent NZ First, as well as a host of small parties like TOP and the Freedoms and Outdoors Party”. And in terms of campaigning issues, Harman says: “Act and NZ First will undoubtedly end up emphasising the same issues; co-governance, crime, and, if the weekend conference is anything to go by, NZ First will also want (like Act) to talk about education.”

Harman suggests that Act has an obvious candidate for the campaign – their current MP James McDowall, who “lives in Hamilton and, as a fluent Cantonese speaker, has strong connections with the Chinese community there.”

In terms of by-election issues, Audrey Young points to the following: “It may be about Treaty of Waitangi issues if Winston Peters and David Seymour decide to campaign there hard. It will definitely be about inflation, mortgage rates, rents, and the cost of petrol, power and fuel.”

And what about Sharma’s chances? No one thinks the incumbent has much of a chance, and he may struggle to win third place. But whatever he does will be interesting. He has said that he has a new centre party to launch, and will “send a message to the government that you can’t silence the voice of the common man”. There will be plenty of colourful allegations.

Audrey Young is right to suggest that Sharma won’t be at the centre of the campaign: “It is possible Sharma has some pockets of personal loyalty but his story is not the stuff of martyrdom. He has no great following or cause in the way that Winston Peters, Tariana Turia or even Hone Harawira had when they forced byelections. Ultimately, it was Jacinda Ardern in a Covid crisis, not Gaurav Sharma who won Hamilton West for Labour in 2020.”

The Government is now having to decide when exactly the by-election should be held. They will be torn between having it quickly to get it out of the way, or else leaving it until December, when it can be largely ignored by the public in the busy leadup to the Summer Xmas holidays.

Whenever it occurs, it’s likely to be something of a circus, and the strength of the fight between National and Labour to win will make it particularly intense. At this stage, it is true that a “bloodbath” for Labour is certainly a possibility, but it’s probably too soon to say. A lot will depend on the candidates selected, the minor parties that run, the issues that arise, and ultimately whether a split vote allows Labour a chance to hold the seat.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on the Hamilton West by-election and Gaurav Sharma

Audrey Young (Herald): Labour to campaign against tide in Hamilton byelection(paywalled)
Jo Moir (Newsroom): The National Party gift that keeps on giving
Rachel Moore (Stuff): Who will step up in Hamilton West after Gaurav Sharma’s resignation?
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Gaurav Sharma and the migraine for Labour in Hamilton West
Richard Harman: The critical numbers for the Hamilton West by-election (paywalled)
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Dr Gaurav Sharma: Labour MPs blindsided by rebel MP’s shock resignation
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Gaurav Sharma resigning from Parliament to trigger by-election, Jacinda Ardern calls move ‘wasteful’
Grady Connell (Today FM): Gaurav Sharma claims credible source told him Labour’s plans to oust him
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Gaurav Sharma resigning from Parliament to trigger by-election, Jacinda Ardern calls move ‘wasteful’
Glenn McConnell, Bridie Witton, and Anna Whyte (Stuff): Gaurav Sharma says he has resigned as an MP, triggering by-election
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): New Sharma Drama now in by-election Nirvana
Adam Pearse (Herald): Former Labour Party MP Gaurav Sharma quits Parliament
RNZ: Labour Party confirms investigation into Sharma’s conduct recommended expulsion
David Farrar: Sharma resigns – by-election in Hamilton West
David Farrar (Patreon): Who will win Hamilton West? (paywalled)
1News: Resignation ‘not at all’ personal pushback against Govt – Sharma
Mike Hosking (Newstalk): Sharma drama exposes PM’s disappearing political nous
Adam Pearse (Herald): Labour party confirms it recommended Gaurav Sharma be expelled for misconduct
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): Gaurav Sharma has stuck it right up the Govt by jumping ship
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Gaurav Sharma defends lumping cost on taxpayers after resigning, forcing by-election


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Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): Why it’s harder than ever to predict the economic weather
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Damien Venuto (Herald): Recession, mortgage shock, inflation – How hard will economic storm hit Kiwi families?
Herald: Government rules out additional inflation relief as Kiwis’ cost of living soars
Rob Stock (Stuff): Here’s why the inflation figure is bad news for home loan borrowers
Ben Leahy (Herald): Home buyers potentially paying $500 more per week in interest repayments
Liam Dann (Herald): Ugly inflation data awakens worst fears of economists (paywalled)
David Hargreaves (Interest): Huge inflation shock – now we wait for Orr
RNZ: Cost-of-living crisis: Robertson says govt to support low and middle income earners, banks not making excessive profits
Robert MacCulloch: The latest inflation data proves the government was misleading us by blaming Putin & global factors
Dana Wensley (Stuff): We need to see child poverty as a human rights issue
Richard Prebble (Herald): Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng – a modern morality tale(paywalled)

John MacDonald (Herald): I’m listening to Wayne Brown’s Three Waters noise
Niva Chittock (RNZ): Three Waters: Industry representatives agree reforms are long overdue
David Hill (Local Democracy Reporting): Government seeks to offer Three Waters certainty
Felix Walton (RNZ): PM, minister respond to Wayne Brown’s call for Three Waters work to stop
Tom Hunt (Stuff): Unsafe in the city: Wellingtonians deliver scathing review
RNZ: Auckland’s first wāhine Māori councillor Kerrin Leoni wants mana whenua to have more say
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Wayne Brown’s red letter days
David Burton (Stuff): The employment laws Wayne Brown faces as he pushes his platform of change in Auckland
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Jane Nixon (1News): Brown slams Ports of Auckland in letter outlining expectations
Rachael Kelly (Stuff): Councillor proposes two co-chairs for regional council

Jacqui Van Der Kaay (Democracy Project): The Barbara Kuriger controversy raises further questions about political integrity
Maiki Sherman (1News): Under-fire National MP Kuriger dodges questions over resignations
Russell Palmer (RNZ): MP Barbara Kuriger spoke with minister about MPI dispute
Bridie Witton (Stuff): National’s Christopher Luxon unaware Barbara Kuriger met agricultural minister over family MPI dispute
1News: ‘Door open’ for National MP in conflict of interest case – Luxon

Jamie Ensor (Newshub): National would create new fund for early-intervention services that wealthy Kiwis could invest in
RNZ: National announces social investment fund policy aimed at delivering ‘positive social change’
Michael Neilson (Herald): National social investment fund could allow wealthy New Zealanders, charities and philanthropists to support welfare system

Herald: Editorial: High stakes inquiry into donations (paywalled)
Brigitte Morten (NBR): When minors are a major (paywalled)
Dita De Boni (NBR): Luxon, tax off: beware the iron weathercock (paywalled)
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): I can’t go past Oranga Tamariki’s failings, again, more failings
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): Electoral review far from bipartisan, says National(paywalled)
Acumen: Election pathways & leadership capital
Bob Edlin: NZ-Aust defence agreement draws attention to the need for strengthening our military capabilities

RNZ: No city emergency departments meeting treatment target – Health Minister
Emma Russell (Herald): Middlemore Hospital: Leaked letters reveal doctors warning need to stop teaching junior doctors
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Health NZ needs 650 mental health staff to fill gaps
Stephen Forbes (Local Democracy Reporting): ‘Crazy’ wait times continue at Middlemore ED after damning report
Emma Clark-Dow and Gabrielle McCulloch (Stuff): ‘System-wide solutions’ needed to fix ‘unsafe’ Middlemore ED, doctor says
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): Health NZ acknowledging issues and mistakes doesn’t actually fix them
David Farrar: Emergency waiting times getting worse

Amelia Wade (Newshub): Royal Commission? Chris Hipkins hints at COVID inquiry on horizon
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Government signals Covid-19 inquiry in the works
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Covid virtue signalling promises false certainty
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William Hewett (Newshub): Christopher Luxon hits back at Jacinda Ardern’s comments comparing him to UK Prime Minister Liz Truss

Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): Human Rights Commission launches push to hold Government and councils to account on housing crisis that has people sleeping in laundromats
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Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Environmental watchdog: ‘Show me what the money’s achieving’
Kirsty Frame (RNZ): Concern over value for money of govt’s $2b annual spend on environment
Brent Edwards (NBR): Uncertainty about effectiveness of environmental spending(paywalled)
Karl du Fresne: Making pests of themselves for our own good
Bill Hickman (Stuff): Transport Minister blasts Wellington protesters as stupid and dangerous
RNZ: Protesters block southbound traffic on Wellington’s Transmission Gully

Sam Hurley (Stuff): Media firm Stuff proposes changes to newsrooms but won’t say if jobs will be lost
Hayden Donnell (RNZ): Stuff proposes cutbacks in regional newsrooms
Herald: Stuff employee ‘horrified and offended’ by lack of communication on major restructure that could result in regional cutbacks

Luke Kirkness (Herald): Why it’s time to arm our police (paywalled)
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Justice Minister Kiri Allan stops $120 payment for legal aid lawyers on early guilty plea
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Lack of discipline in young people behind rising gang numbers, rehabilitation leader says
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Lincoln Tan (Herald): ‘Not cultural Talibans’: Creative NZ appalled at racially charged attacks on Shakespeare funding decision
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Jake Kenny (Stuff): Cheat Sheet: Why did Creative NZ cut its Shakespeare funding?
RNZ: Creative New Zealand speaks out after Shakespeare programme funding controversy
Michael Bassett: Labour’s Shakespeare moment
Sam Brooks (Spinoff): How one online rant about Shakespeare became a near fact-free global news story

Piers Fuller (Stuff): Intelligence agency told to ‘be careful’ about how it issues security warnings
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Michael Morrah (Newshub): Hundreds of airport workers, contractors getting airside access not screened for weapons, explosives – audit
Juha Saarinen (Herald): There’s gold in them thar Internet addresses (paywalled)