Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsOctober 4, 2023

Napier race plays out in the shadow of Stuart and Gabrielle

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

This much is certain: the electorate will have a new MP after October 14.

Read the other battleground electorate profiles in our Hot Seats series here.

At the start of the year, senior Labour minister Stuart Nash was limbering up for a tilt at a fourth term representing Napier. Before long, however, he found himself embroiled in a set of rolling scandals centred on breaches of the cabinet manual including sharing confidential cabinet information with donors. 

Nash – great-grandson of Walter – was sacked from cabinet by prime minister Chris Hipkins and, after some reflection, announced he would not be standing at the 2023 election. 

The exit of Nash means there is no incumbent on the ballot for Napier voters this month. Polling points to a head-to-head contest between National’s Katie Nimon, who finished second to Nash in 2020, and Labour newcomer Mark Hutchinson.

The shape of the electorate

The southern border of the Napier electorate lies just beneath the city that gives it its name. It reaches up all the way to just below Gisborne and runs from Puketitiri in the west to Mahia on the east. Squint your eyes and you could be looking at a reptilian Kiwi. 

OK maybe it’s a stretch.

The electorate includes plenty of terrain that was clobbered by Cyclone Gabrielle in February, including Eskdale and Wairoa. While the recovery from the floods and the impacts of climate change more generally may have slipped off the radar in much of the campaign discussion nationwide, in the electorate of Napier swathes of countryside offer a constant reminder.

At a Hawke’s Bay Today election event in Napier last week, candidates were asked what they had done since the cyclone hit the region – and how voters could be assured they were about more than photo-ops.

Nimon had since gone into the “mode of connecting with community members. So I spent a lot of time going out and visiting people. I specifically didn’t take photos. Where you did see photos is where people wanted us to help tell their story.” She had travelled across the electorate and sought to “make sure that the National Party was very, very aware of what was going on, how we could fix it, what we could do better and what we could do to make sure that when we get into government, we can do the right thing by these people and make sure they have a faster and fairer of response.”

Immediately after the cyclone, Hutchinson was focused on “looking after friends and family, especially elderly members of the family”, he said. When he was selected as a candidate, “I had a real think about, well, what would you do if you were the MP? And so I got around a bunch of agencies and organisations and I started advocating for stuff that was needed.” That included supporting the recovery of tourism and business, he said, as well as working to ensure Wairoa was supported as people dealt with destroyed homes.

The state of the race

Napier was a Labour stronghold for the second half of the 20th century, but since 2005 has had three terms of National MP Chris Tremain followed (after Tremain’s retirement) by three terms of Nash for Labour. In 2014, Nash was helped by the candidacy of Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, who stood for the Conservative Party and split the vote on the right. 

Nash opened up a healthy majority in 2017 and held the seat in 2020, though Nimon came within 6,000 votes, swimming against the red tide. In 2017, National won the party vote with 46.2% to Labour’s 37.8%. In 2020, Labour took 50.6% of the party vote to National’s 27.9%.

The only public poll released in the current campaign put Nimon ahead, but left hope for Hutchinson. The Curia survey for the Taxpayers’ Union had Nimon on 37% among decided voters with Hutchinson on 28%. (Next was Laurie Turnbull for NZ First, on 5%.) There were, however, plenty of undecided voters in the poll of 400 people, with 18% at the time – on August 20, so more than six weeks ago – yet to make up their minds. 

On the party vote, among decided voters, National was at 35%, Labour 27%, Act a whopping 17%, NZ First 7% and the Greens and Te Pāti Māori both 4%.

The frontrunners

Nimon, 32, is standing for the second time in the seat for National and is ranked a healthy 22nd on the party’s list. She has worked in marketing and with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.

On, Nimon explains why she’s standing: “I grew up as a truck driver’s daughter and a bus driver’s granddaughter. I have seen the government’s impact on infrastructure, health and safety, the economy, and education. My values are National Party values, and I have always believed that a limited government, and competitive enterprise, sees the most positive impact on communities. To reduce the cost of living, and restore law and order, our region needs connected leadership and a staunch advocate. I’m here.”

Mark Hutchinson and Katie Nimon.

A clinical-psychologist-turned-consultant, 52-year-old Hutchinson describes his motivation this way: “I believe strongly in the core Labour values of running a strong productive economy for the benefit of all New Zealand’s people. I’m passionate about creating a society where everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential. At this election kiwis face a stark choice between a Labour-led government which will continue to invest in solving difficult long-term issues versus a National/Act government proposing cuts to pay for tax incentives for wealthy landlords.” 

At 60th on Labour’s list, Hutchinson is electorate or nothing. 

Other candidates include Pawel Milewski – a Polish immigrant and karate black belt – for Act, Julienne Dickey for the Green Party, Laurie Turnbull for NZ First, DemocracyNZ’s Martin Langford, and independent John Clive Smith. Read all the candidate pitches at

The big issues

The Curia poll found that cyclone recovery (21%) was the top issue for voters in Napier, followed by law and order on 19%, with cost of living ranking lower than in most of the country, on 8%. 

Looming large in the law and order concern is the place of gangs. On this issue, the rancour witnessed across New Zealand has surfaced in the Napier tussle, too. After Nimon posted an image on social media suggesting the Mongrel Mob was running “Labour Endorsement” meetings in the region, Hutchinson condemned “disinformation, smear tactics and gutter politics”.

Nimon defended the post, saying the Mongrel Mob’s Harry Tam had appeared at an election meeting in Napier in July and was encouraging people to vote for Labour. “Labour’s Napier candidate can keep campaigning for giving money to gangs if he wants, National and I will focus on tax relief for hardworking people,” she said. 

Picking up on the wreckage of Gabrielle, climate change was the first issue put to the would-be MPs at the candidates event last week. Hutchinson defended Labour’s record and took a swipe at National. “It’s not the right thing to do to take $2.3 billion out of the Climate Fund and give it to the richest landlords in this country when the planet is burning. We need to do something and we need to do something for our kids now,” he said.

Nimon pointed to biotech and renewable energy infrastructure as priorities, adding: “But we have got to stop punishing people that back up our economy and that is the farmers. So we are not going to put them into an emission trading scheme until at least 2030 where we can get some practical pricing for them, and we have to give them the tools to help them reduce their emissions.”

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