Invercargill Labour candidate Liz Craig and Invercargill National candidate Penny Simmonds ran a close race in Saturday’s election.
ANALYSIS: It was the political equivalent of the sun rising in the west – Labour outpolled National for crucial party votes not only in Invercargill, but in what was previously the Nats’ rock-solid Southland heartland.
Yet although not a single South Island electorate resisted the red tide for party votes, two blue corks did pop up in the deep south among the electorate votes.
The two southernmost electorate MPs lining up for Parliament are both National newcomers – Penny Simmonds and Joseph Mooney.
In Invercargill, Simmonds on 16,372 votes is 685 ahead of Labour’s candidate and present list MP, Liz Craig. Close enough for neither to have claimed victory or accepted defeat until special votes are counted.
Given that slender margin, Green candidate Rochelle Frances may have drawn more personal support than she wanted, drawing 900 votes even though she had encouraged supporters to give their electorate vote to Craig, where they could have made all the difference.
Either those Green voters weren’t listening, or weren’t biddable and instead decided to vote simply for what and whom they wanted.
(A third possibility – though surely the least likely – is they voted under a clever-clever tactic on the basis that the south stood to gain the most MPs if they Simmonds to win the seat and Craig was again returned, as now seems more likely, on the high-polling Labour’s party list.)
The Southland electorate, formerly Clutha-Southland, put National’s Joseph Mooney clear of Labour’s Jon Mitchell by 5000 votes. Even after boundary changes this was a striking narrowing of the historic distance between National candidates and anyone else.
Without putting up a candidate, the previously modest-polling ACT emerged as the third most supported party in each of the two electorates, picking up 3470 party votes in Invercargill. Where did those voters put their electorate votes? Most likely they wound up in Simmonds’ basket, as the minor parties were left, in the end, to splash around the shallows of the red tide.
But Act’s ascendency in the Southland electorate is even more striking. Having taken a grand total of 141 votes and 122 votes in the two previous election, the party took 4371 votes this time.
So National clearly bled party votes to the left and the right.
As it stands, the deep south does lose at least one MP for the next Parliament as New Zealand First disappears from the political firmament taking with Lawrence-based list MP Mark Patterson, who fruitlessly contested the new Taieri electorate that was taken by Labour’s Ingrid Leary.
National’s Jacqui Dean is another blue cork still bobbing, having retained Waitaki, though once again the party vote swung to Labour.
It’s likely the south will be more heavily represented in the Opposition benches than in Government itself, though Craig campaigned on the basis that she would continue to prioritise electorate work in spite of her list status, albeit that she tends to emphasise a role of bringing decision makers, and the people affected by those decisions, together, ahead of the more combative aspects of advocacy.
The post-Covid economic recovery of the south remains the key issue for the MPs heading into the class of 2020, with water quality measures, housing, the future of the Tiwai smelter, and healthcare all vivid concerns in their electorates.
In their campaigns the MPs have collectively tended to come across as faithful representatives of their respective parties’ views, rather than independently minded firebrands.
Headed now to a Parliament firmly under Labour’s control, the south’s novice and seasoned representatives alike face the challenge of finding ways to distinguish themselves from the standard choruses of lament or approval about inner-sanctum decisions.