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Down to the wire

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New Zealanders will go to the polls on 14 October in what is predicted to be one of the closest nationwide elections in the country’s history.

The key concerns for Bay of Plenty businesses, according to our soundings, are that whoever wins the government should show strong leadership in such key areas as developing effective infrastructure to service the region’s continued growth.

Tauranga Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt told Bay of Plenty Business News (BBN) that the Bay of Plenty had an important role to play in the country.

“But we lack the infrastructure to support that – we need to make sure politicians provide the infrastructure we need, and to support that infrastructure,” he said. “Obviously that helps ease congestion and frees up the need to spend all our time on travel.”

Polls narrowing

As we went to press, the most that could be said about the potential result was that the outcome was still uncertain, with polls on who might lead the country essentially showing the main parties were virtually level pegging.

Election polling has become increasingly sophisticated and accurate in its predictions. But as often noted, in politics the only poll that really matters is the result on election day.

A Chinese friend of mine is currently one of many people who has been in jail without sentence for more than a year in Hong Kong – where I lived for many years – because of their protests against mainland China’s heavy-handed attempts to squash democracy in Hong Kong.

To reiterate a point I make in my opinion column this month, New Zealand media reflects a wide range of views and, compared to many countries, casting a vote here is easy and fair. So make sure your vote counts.

A recent Taxpayers’ Union – Curia poll report in the New Zealand Herald showed Labour crashing to below 30 per cent and National and Act with enough support, just, to form a government.

It also showed the public re-emergence of NZ First leader Winston Peters who elevated Labour to governing in 2017. NZ First showed up above five percent.

There are those who feel he lost much of his political mana when he sided with Labour, but Peters remains a long-time favourite of many in the Bay.

The recent poll showed National up 1.6 percentage points from August to 34.9 per cent, while Labour was down 4 points to 27.1 per cent. Act was on 13 per cent and the Greens – where most of the Labour supporters appear to have moved after Labour ruled out the Greens’ proposed wealth tax, were up 3.1 points to 12 per cent. Te Pati Māori, which also supports Labour, was on 2.5 per cent. Both Peters and Act leader David Seymour were on 7 per cent in the leadership rankings.

Seymour is generally seen to have done a good job in building what was basically a one seat party into a political force. 

Any of these manoeuvrings might succeed and could deliver a very slim majority government to either Labour or National. 

What are our options?

So in one corner we have the governing Labour Party, led by Chris Hipkins, an experienced member of parliament and debater. And in the other the National Party, led by relative political neophyte Christopher Luxton, an experienced former senior businessperson who is beginning to find his feet as a politician.

There was some enthusiasm in the reported opinions of New Zealand’s political pundits when Jacinda Ardern stepped down slightly earlier than expected at the beginning of this year. The plaudits basically praised her smooth transfer of power without incident to Hipkins.

The reality is that Ardern was the best leader Labour has had for many years. She was astute enough to read that the popularity polls were heading away from the party and knew it was time to pull the plug.

But simply ensuring Hipkins had been front and centre for months of the generous allocation of blanket Covid-19 advertising, did not in itself make him a leader. Indeed, passing on the Labour leadership to Hipkins could be seen as a poisoned chalice.

After all Hipkins has been at the centre of Labour policymaking for years. To differentiate himself from Ardern and put a new face on Labour he was obliged to perform an undignified U-turn and attempt to walk back from several key Labour policies that were now proving unpopular.

The vagaries of MMP politics

ACT is expected to side with National if it is needed to topple Labour. As well, thanks to Labour’s significant recent past political success, they have a number of unelected List MPs, a quirk of the MMP List system. Obviously, failure to deliver a large nationwide party vote could cripple any party’s chances of governing.

For example Jan Tinetti, a long-term local resident and former school principal who is currently Labour’s education minister, has been granted a high place on the List, so will make it back into Parliament assuming voters turn out for Labour. But she will also again attempt to win a candidate’s seat in Tauranga.

In Rotorua, long serving National MP Todd McLay will again stand, and Tamati Coffey, who had been planning to retire from politics, has been offered the chance to succeed Kiri Allen in East Coast, who is one of several senior MPs who have been obliged to leave the Labour Party’s front benches for various breaches of Parliamentary behaviour.

Major political changes in the Bay

This is a good point to thank Todd Muller for his lengthy service to the Bay of Plenty. As is well known, he tilted for the National leadership and won from then Tauranga MP Simon Bridges, only to resign soon after.

As a result of going through that process he has provided valuable exposure of the mental health challenges of serving in Parliament. He has made it clear that his several years in Wellington were enough and that his family requires more of his concentrated time.

Todd Muller

Muller was generally regarded as a very capable MP who knew his briefs and worked well with colleagues on all sides of the House. As he noted in his recent valedictory address to Parliament, a copy of which he passed on to me, Muller began by thanking his wife Michelle for her support during what had not been “the smoothest of rides”.

He added that it had been a genuine honour to represent the Bay community he had lived amongst for 50 years.

Amongst other remarks, Muller, a long-term advocate of the need to face the challenges of climate change, noted New Zealand would bear significant costs in attempting to adapt to it over time.

“We must reduce our gross emissions and seek efficient ways to offset them in the short-term,” he told Parliament.

His role as the National candidate for Bay of Plenty has been taken by Tom Rutherford.

Rutherford told BBN that National was focusing its campaign on “the three c’s – the cost of living and the need to get inflation under control, reducing crime, and congestion.

“Congestion is limiting our ability to get around our community and is stifling at the moment,” he said. “We need to do something about our transport and roading networks. We’re one of the largest cities in the country and we need to support that. There’s a mood for change.”

Rutherford said the biggest problem was how to go about unwinding the damage that has happened, while putting forward policies to go forward.

“It will be a big challenge and there’ll be a lot of work,” he said. “We must have a realistic expectation that things will take time.”

Sam Uffindell, who replaced Bridges in Tauranga, also told BBN National would be focused on the economy, reducing the cost of living, improving infrastructure, restoring law and order, and on improving schools and education.

“Those are the main issues voters are concerned about and the main challenges voters face at the moment,” he said.

”We have to just keep working hard on the things that matter to voters and gaining trust.”

Rising costs of doing business

According to Matt Cowley, chief executive of the Tauranga Business Chamber, the common issues experienced by Chambers across New Zealand are the rising costs of doing business, the tight labour market, and the shortage of infrastructure needed to address the housing and transport issues.

“There are a range of pressing issues, but long-term, the key economic issue is re-balancing our trade deficit where New Zealand is importing more than we’re exporting,” Cowley told BBN.

There are a range of pressing issues, but long-term, the key economic issue is re-balancing our trade deficit.” – Matt Cowley, Tauranga Business Chamber chief executive

“A key future focus needs to be improving New Zealand’s economic productivity. Businesses will need to innovate and focus on research and development to stay competitive in a world facing skills shortages, artificial intelligence, deglobalisation, and climate change.”

Priority One’s Nigel Tutt adds: “I think the challenge is that the New Zealand economy has become less and less affordable. Certainly National has shown its intent in their policies and I guess other parties will need to follow suit.

“Any party with a long-term plan for infrastructure is going to find it beneficial for voting support,” he said. Tutt added that while he understood the government’s approach towards growing centralisation, that policy approach made it harder to operate at regional level as well.

“As a growing region we should have the ear of government and the response of government,” he said. “We need to have that long-term agreed infrastructure plan. The reality is that politicians don’t manage infrastructure very well.”

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