3 Dec 2022

Hamilton West by-election offers teaser for 2023

From Focus on Politics, 10:00 am on 3 December 2022
Candidates for Hamilton-West MP by-election

Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

"By-elections, they're a phenomenon in themselves," - Former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark

Hamilton West polling for a new MP closes on 10 December - a litmus test for next year's general election. 

Crime and the cost of living are top of mind for most voters, but so far they're not rushing to the ballot box. 

The by-election was prompted by the former Labour MP Gaurav Sharma's spectacular exit from Parliament, in the wake of his removal from the party's caucus. 

The electorate has historically sided with whichever party holds the majority and Sharma was swept into the role in Labour's red wave in 2020. 

The previous holder of the Hamilton West seat, Dr Gaurav Sharma, in Hamilton in the days leading up to the by-election.

The previous holder of the Hamilton West seat, Dr Gaurav Sharma, in Hamilton in the days leading up to the by-election. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

But Labour is down in the polls, and a spate of ram raids which have dominated headlines have been a big focus for those on the Waikato River's western banks. 

Te Rapa Mini Mart owner Anil Mushke is one of those who have been hit, and says he doesn't feel safe at work. The young offenders he's observed don't seem to care about the law, he says, but still thinks tougher penalties is the way to go.

"I was here doing the work and six teens tried to rob the shop, luckily nothing happened, I was successful chasing them out, but still ... if they get caught by the police nothing happens to them. The kids know, the teens know it, that's the thing that encourages them."

The rising cost of living also looms large: just down the road, charity store volunteer Gwen says everyone is feeling the pinch - from young families to pensioners - and it's lucky the op shops are able to provide cheap shoes for the kids. 

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There's 12 candidates but four real frontrunners, with polls giving National the edge. The party's candidate Tama Potaka is a lawyer and the former chief executive of Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki. 

He was talking tough love during a visit to a retirement village this week. 

"My parents, they were teachers - primary school teachers - and they were very focused on the community and focused on doing the work and getting the rewards - they didn't like people who didn't do the work and still got the rewards, like all the freeriders." 

National Party Hamilton West by-election candidate Tama Potaka. (November 2022)

National Party Hamilton West by-election candidate Tama Potaka. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

He fielded questions about crime and health, but most questions put to him were about co-governance. Most of those chatting over a cup of tea afterwards were impressed, describing him as a confident, dedicated businessman.

Labour candidate Georgie Dansey - a teacher turned business owner and union leader - also spent some time with pensioners, heading to an aged care facility with former Prime Minister Helen Clark after attending the launch of a mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless. 

She defended the government's record on health, quoting a 40 percent increase in spending; and on crime, saying a dairy owner she met with was expecting bollards to be installed in the next few weeks.

"Ram raids as you'll know have also reduced and we put that down to our strong policing ... 200 people have been arrested in regards to ram raids in Hamilton and 1200 people have been prosecuted - so with that as well as the community support we feel we are making progress." 

Labour candidate for the Hamilton West by-election Georgie Dansey.

Labour candidate for the Hamilton West by-election Georgie Dansey. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

Polling may put Labour behind, but Clark - who had driven over from Waihi Beach to join Dansey's campaign - said anything could happen in a by-election. 

"They take on their own character and I think they're also a chance for local people to raise their local issues more whereas in a general election the national issues are dominating more ... take nothing for granted and get out and work for every vote." 

ACT's candidate James McDowall, already a list MP, says that means he's best positioned to advocate for change - and the appetite for it is high.

"It's a huge opportunity - for those who are disgruntled with the government, and with the direction of the country, and sick of the cost of living, and sick of crime and sick of the Treaty being used to divide us - to have a solid candidate in myself, as I said, an experienced MP - a solid option there."

Current list MP and ACT Party candidate for the Hamilton West by-election James McDowall.

Current list MP and ACT Party candidate for the Hamilton West by-election James McDowall. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

Sharma, who was a medical doctor before he went to Parliament, is also pitching himself to return to the seat he vacated, under the banner of his new NZ Momentum Party. His chances, based on polling, are relatively slim - he says the main point for him is taking a stand. 

"What I want to say is I will not be silenced, that's something I'm hearing from a lot of constituents who have been bullied at work who have had issues for whatever reason and they've been silenced - so the message I want to send is if you believe in something, you've got to get your voice heard." 

But it remains to be seen whether the electorate will make their voices heard - just over 2000 had been cast after the first few days, tracking below the levels seen in the Tauranga by-election and well below the 2020 election.  

Many of those approached on the streets of Hamilton West did not even know there was a by-election on and for those that did it was background noise - the candidates largely unfamiliar.

Either way, they'll be voting again about this time next year. However the votes fall this time will serve as a taster for the general election to come, and may help sway National and Labour's political fortunes one way or the other. 

The candidates

  • National: Tama Potaka 
  • Labour: Georgie Dansey
  • ACT: James McDowall
  • NZ Momentum Party: Gaurav Sharma
  • The Opportunities Party (TOP): Naomi Pocock
  • New Conservative/One Party: Rudi du Plooy
  • Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party: Peter Wakeman
  • Vision NZ: Jade Tait
  • NZ Outdoors & Freedom Party: Donna Pokere-Phillips
  • Money Free Party: Richard Osmaston
  • Gordon John Dickson (independent)
  • Frank Fu (independent)

In today's Focus on Politics podcast, RNZ Political Reporter Anneke Smith takes the pulse of the bellwether electorate of Hamilton West. 

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