19 Oct 2022

Hamilton West by-election: Labour, National play down chances of winning

6:00 pm on 19 October 2022
Gaurav Sharma's constituency office

Gaurav Sharma's electorate office in August, when he was expelled from the Labour Party caucus. Photo: RNZ / Leah Tebbutt

All bets are off in Hamilton West, with political parties largely tempering expectations of a by-election win.

The resignation of incumbent MP Gaurav Sharma yesterday - taking effect at midnight tonight - will see the bellwether seat contested twice in the space of a year.

Sharma's explanation yesterday for his shock resignation was to pre-empt Labour using the waka-jumping legislation against him.

He claimed to have been told by a reliable source within Labour's governing body - its NZ Council - there was a plan to have him removed in the six months before next year's general election, which would mean there was no requirement to hold a by-election in the seat.

Prime Minister and Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern and Labour President Claire Szabo have both rejected the claim.

Sharma was removed from Labour's caucus in August for breaching confidentiality and losing his colleagues' trust, and Ardern this afternoon said the next step - after the matter was referred to the wider party following his explusion - was whether to also remove his Labour Party membership.

"Ultimately my hope would have been that this wouldn't happen at all, it's a waste of taxpayers' money. Labour had no intention of using the waka-jumping legislation and triggering a by-election, particularly when there's a general election next year," she said.

"As far as we're concerned, the one final matter just to be resolved was his ongoing Labour membership. When it comes to his position here in Parliament his membership in Labour wouldn't have changed that. He was a member of Parliament for Hamilton West, nothing we were doing was undermining or changing that.

"I have no idea what has caused Gaurav Sharma to trigger his own resignation in order to simply run again in a by-election. We had no intention of using the waka-jumping legislation, you've asked me about it many times and I've given the same answer and my view hasn't changed."

Sharma won the seat for Labour in the 2020 red wave with 20,703 votes, well ahead of his National Party rival Tim MacIndoe on 14,436.

With Sharma set to contest it again as an independent centrist candidate, it's far from clear where the electorate's loyalties will lie. It has traditionally swung to the majority party - National winning seat in the four previous elections.

Ardern dampened down expectations of another clear Labour victory.

"I think it's fair to say that Labour has at least in recent times been an underdog in this seat ... in recent elections we've held it once out of five. So that's the history of the seat, and so I let that record speak for itself as to the kind of contest," she said.

She expected it would be a "tough" and "robust" contest - and put some blame on Sharma himself.

"We've had a Labour member who has not left on good terms, and that does not reflect well for the local constituency there."

Labour's campaign chair, Megan Woods, said she had not yet been involved in discussions about who to run as a candidate.

"I haven't been party to any of those kind of conversations about what that might look like," she said.

"Undoubtedly voters will have a view on how a former Labour member has behaved in that seat and we're not immune to the flow-on effect that could have for us."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon was not overly confident about his party's chances either.

"I think the reality here is this is a seat the Labour Party has a huge majority in, I mean let's be clear, it's a large majority," he said.

"As a consequence we're going to work incredibly hard, we're not going to take anything for granted, and we're going to make our case to the people of Hamilton as to why they would be better represented by a National representative."

The party's selection processes would begin once a date was decided on, he said.

ACT leader David Seymour said the party had not yet decided whether to stand a candidate.

"Our board will meet in the next couple of days and make a decision, I'd say we're leaning towards participating especially since in James McDowell we've got a very good candidate there.

"ACT's been very strategic: In Northland and Northcote and Tauranga we participated, we didn't run in Mount Albert or Mount Roskill."

"What I think is important is that voters are going to have a choice and we should try and focus it on the issues, and the issues I hear when I go to Hamilton are about crime, the cost of living, and concern about what is our true constitutional future."

The Green Party and Te Pāti Māori both said they had not yet considered whether a candidate would represent them in the race, or who that might be.

Ardern said she was still awaiting advice from the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office before making a call on when the by-election would be.

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