The Lay of the Land: Thoughts on Taieri Candidate Selection
New Zealand has its general election scheduled this October. This means the various parties are currently selecting their candidates, and as of yesterday, we now know the two major party candidates for the seat where I live (Taieri) – Ingrid Leary (Labour) and Stephen Jack (National).
Leary’s the incumbent, and thus an unremarkable choice for Labour. Jack is the more interesting one, and the real reason I’m writing this blog post. You see, Jack is a farmer from Balclutha, in the rural Clutha portion of the Taieri electorate. And based off his press release, he is pushing the rural angle for all it is worth:
The section that jumped out at me?
Our rural communities, like Balclutha, Milton, Mosgiel, Lawrence and Middlemarch understand this contribution. We must support our exporters and rebuilt their confidence to a level where they can take on the world.
No doubt Mosgiel will be fascinated to discover that they are now rural, rather than a satellite adjunct to Dunedin.
But there is a giant hole in Jack’s grasp of the Taieri electorate. Namely, South Dunedin – which is never mentioned once in that press release.
You see, even under the current boundaries, Taieri is actually still 70% urban, in terms of population. Only 30% could charitably be described as rural. National has selected a candidate from the 30%, which is fine. The problem is that he is also laser-focused on winning the 30%… while utterly ignoring the bulk of the electorate. This, of course, is a recipe for a very strange-looking result in October, and one not overall favourable towards Jack.
I think there are really three possible explanations for National’s reasoning here:
(i) They do not understand who actually lives in Taieri
National got quite excited about the boundary change that turned Dunedin South into Taieri. Understandably. The change turned the most Labour seat outside South Auckland into a Labour seat that could conceivably flip in a National landslide.
Better yet for National, due to Dunedin’s godawful population growth, Taieri will have to eat into more and more conservative farmland as time goes on. It might take decades, but eventually Taieri will one day become competitive, if current trends continue. The notion of this electorate stretching from South Dunedin to Gore is grotesque, but that might be the future.
Unfortunately, in 2020 National got ahead of itself. The candidate, Liam Kernaghan, genuinely acted as though he thought the seat was winnable, and the North Island Nats seemed to agree with him. Thus the actual 2020 result must have come as a disappointment – though objectively, Kernaghan did as well as could reasonably be expected. Really, an OK result for National was considered a disaster, a matter of mistaken expectations rather than a uniquely poor performance.
But if you are one of those who believe Kernaghan bombed, you would blame him for not running up the numbers in the rural part of the seat. Therefore, in order to turn the seat blue, National must select a candidate that appeals to those rural areas. Hence Stephen Jack. The problem is that Kernaghan did not bomb (relatively speaking), and such a conclusion can only come if you think Taieri is more rural than it really is. Running up the numbers in Clutha will not help when you get wiped out in the 70% urban part.
Ergo, Stephen Jack’s efforts might reflect a party who doesn’t know where the voters actually live.
(ii) They are responding to Ingrid Leary
A more charitable possibility is that National knows it can’t win, but it has seen Ingrid Leary spend lots and lots of time building up a presence in rural Clutha. That is a part of the country that had literally never had a Labour MP before 2020 – but Leary has been pouring all her efforts into winning them over. And to be fair to Leary, Clutha is redder than rural Southland, so it is not as if she is working in a desert. And she’s been doing this for three years.
Under this scenario, National is simply fighting back against Leary’s efforts. If Leary were to turn Balclutha and Milton and even Lawrence towards the other team, that makes any long-term National dreams of flipping the seat that much harder. So they are confronting Leary with a Balclutha farmer to hold the rural ground against Labour. Never mind South Dunedin and its Red Hordes – Jack is just focused on keeping Clutha blue.
(iii) They are responding to ACT
If battling Ingrid Leary’s rural adventures would imply long-term thinking, a response to ACT’s surge would imply more immediate concerns. You see, ACT did very well in South Otago in 2020, even managing an above-nationwide-average result in Kaitangata. ACT in 2020 transformed itself away from being the party of Posh Auckland, and into a party of rural rebellion. And based off the opinion polls, there is every reason to think that ACT will do even better in 2023. Hence the “culture war” nonsense attached to Labour’s Three Waters policy.
Thus Jack’s efforts to appeal to the rural part of the electorate might simply be seen as a means of dampening down the threat from National’s right flank. Keeping the farmers voting blue, rather than yellow – and ignoring those reds in the city.
Of course, Jack’s selection also speaks to where, exactly, National has a functioning party infrastructure in Taieri. Logically, they would have more members in the rural portion than in Dunedin. And, in a strange sense, National selecting a local farmer – the sort of thing you used to see fifty years ago, if not so much these days – suggests that those rural portions are actually having their way for a change, as compared to when they were part of Clutha-Southland.
When Clutha was part of Clutha-Southland, those rural portions had National candidates from Queenstown imposed on them. Now that Queenstown is in a different electorate, and the only competition is whatever ramshackle organisation National has in Dunedin city? The Clutha can basically select one of its own again. Even if they’re stuck in an overall electorate they won’t win.