7 Dec 2022

'Incredibly difficult' for National to win Hamilton West by-election - Luxon

12:57 pm on 7 December 2022
National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National Party leader Christopher Luxon is playing down a poll showing the party's Hamilton West candidate well in front less than a week before the by-election.

Voters in the bellweather seat go to the polls on Saturday, following former Labour MP Gaurav Sharma's messy split from the party and resignation in October.

A poll published earlier this week had National's Tama Potaka on 46 percent, well ahead of Labour's Georgie Dansey (33 percent), ACT's James McDowall (12) and Sharma (4, running under the new Momentum Party banner). Recent nationwide polls have also not been great for the left, with the Labour-Green bloc consistently falling behind National-ACT.

But with turnout in Hamilton West expected to be low, the poll's margin of error high (4.9 percent) and a significant chunk of those questioned - 28 percent - still undecided, Luxon told Morning Report on Wednesday it was "actually really close".

"I've spent a couple of visits in Hamilton and I can just tell you, a by-election on December 10 as people are doing the rundown of the end of year and lead-in to Christmas is really difficult.

"People have just gone through local government elections and many people in Hamilton West frankly are unaware there's actually a by-election going on, so it's a really difficult time."

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

Tama Potaka. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

Luxon said Hamilton West was an "incredibly difficult" seat for National to win, calling it a "big stronghold" for Labour. While Labour did win 52.2 percent of the party vote in the seat at the 2020 general election - slightly ahead of its nationwide percentage - since its creation in the 1960s, Hamilton West has almost always been won by the party with the most seats (1993 the only exception). National has won it 10 times so far, Labour eight.

Voter turnout is typically low in by-elections. The Tauranga by-election earlier this year saw only 40.5 percent of registered voters show up - half the number that took part in the 2020 general election.

"It's really difficult with voter turnout likely to be low, because people are so distracted with other things going on in their daily lives," Luxon said. "It's going to be really, really close."

Peters 'pretty straight-up and pretty direct'

So might be the 2023 general election. While the National-ACT bloc is polling well, there is a good chance they might still need the backing of New Zealand First and Winston Peters to form the next government. NZ First polled at 4 percent in the latest 1News Kantar Public poll, published on Monday - up 1 percent, and just shy of the 5 percent threshold needed to get into Parliament.

While previous leaders John Key, Simon Bridges and Judith Collins all ruled out working with Peters well before New Zealanders went to the polls, Luxon said it was too early to make that call.

"I don't know him that well," he told Morning Report. "I used to deal with him a little bit in my old life, and I always found him pretty straight-up and pretty direct to deal with, frankly. But I find that with relationships that I have with other political leaders as well."

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Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He said speculation on potential coalition arrangements this far out from the election was "just commentator stuff".

"We'll obviously talk about that and get clear about that as we get closer to the election next year."

TVNZ and RNZ to be 'demerged' if National win

If National does win the general election next year, Luxon said it would move to "demerge" the new public media entity, should it already be in place by then.

While this has been National's position since Labour first announced the planned merger of TVNZ and RNZ in March, in October the party's broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee said they might not if doing so would be too costly.

Since then National's position appears to have hardened against the new entity. In November, the party obtained documents suggesting it would need more than $6 billion over the next three decades in taxpayer funding. Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson said this was because of forecast declines in advertising revenue, which the TVNZ half of the new entity relies on. If advertising revenue did not fall as much as that business case predicted, Jackson - who called it "out of date" - said not as much would need to come from taxpayers.

Luxon said TVNZ's revenue had actually been rising in recent years, and RNZ operated solely with taxpayer funding already. TVNZ is not forecasting any decline in the next few years, with online ad revenue offsetting declines in TV.

"The question is, what problem are we trying to solve?" Luxon said. "It's not an economic thing because the value of these two enterprises is less than the restructuring cost and the $6 billion going on for the next [30] years. It's not a plurality of media voices, right? Because it's actually less media voices than more."

He said whatever it cost to "demerge", the new entity would be a "good return on that investment and avoiding that cost". If National formed the next government before the merger was complete, Luxon said it would be cancelled and both TVNZ and RNZ left to operate as they have been, with no tinkering.

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