One Question Quiz

PoliticsOctober 5, 2023

Hutt South: A bitter race in the ultimate bellwether


Ginny Andersen and Chris Bishop have each been the MP for Hutt South for a single term. Which one will convince voters to give them another go? 

The voters of Hutt South are good at picking winners. The winner of the party vote in Hutt South has also won the nationwide party vote in every election since 1999 – and they were off by less than 100 votes in 1996. It’s the ultimate bellwether seat. 

Despite the party vote flipping back and forth, the electorate vote has been more loyal. Trevor Mallard held onto the seat from its creation in 1996 until 2014. In his final run he outperformed Labour’s party vote by 16%. 

Chris Bishop and Ginny Andersen have been facing off in the seat since Mallard’s retirement. This will be their third time going up against each other – Bishop took the win by four points in 2017, but Andersen pipped him by eight points in 2020. Voters are in the rare position of having seen each candidate as their electorate MP for one term, and they get the chance to decide which of the two did the better job. 

The Hutt has a proud local identity and the people here like MPs who brand themselves as local champions. Perhaps it’s an underdog mentality from a city that is constantly comparing itself to Wellington across the harbour. That’s what the race is ultimately boiling down to – both candidates are desperately trying to claim they’re the best advocate for the Hutt. You get the sense Andersen and Bishop genuinely dislike each other, especially when they’re fighting over who deserves the credit for various local projects. 

Chris Bishop poses with Ginny Andersen (kind of).

I sat down with each of the candidates for separate interviews at Bellbird Eatery in The Dowse. 

There’s one thing both candidates agree on, and it’s an important misconception they want to clear up about the Hutt: “It’s not all bogans,” says Ginny Andersen. Chris Bishop gives the same answer: “The Hutt Valley is known for bogans but there’s so much more going on here than just so-called boganism.” 

Hutt South is a microcosm of Aotearoa: It’s a city in its own right and close enough to Wellington to have the benefits of urban living, but it’s also very suburban, with quiet winding streets and big driveways. Over the hill in Wainuiomata it’s easy to forget you are in a city at all; it feels more like a small town with a population similar to Feilding or Mosgiel. 

The Hutt Valley is going through a rapid period of growth, mostly driven by Wellingtonians fleeing the centre city for cheaper neighbourhoods. That has led to a big increase in house prices and rents, but there are a lot of new townhouse developments going up to handle the influx. The health system has struggled with some of that growth – there is a local midwife shortage and major repairs are needed at Hutt Hospital. 

High-tech manufacturing is a fast-growing industry. The industrial suburb of Gracefield was once dedicated to low-skilled employment like meatworks and car assembly plants, but is now focused on new science and research business. It hosts the Callaghan Innovation campus and will soon expand to become Science City, a $451 million research, technology and innovation park. 

There are several major infrastructure projects already underway in the Hutt, and others that are up for debate this election. 

The biggest one is Riverlink. It’s a three-part project that will cost nearly a billion dollars and will have a huge impact on the city. The regional council is building new stopbanks to protect the city from floods; the city council is building a beautiful new riverside promenade with public spaces that will centre the city around the river; and central government is paying for the transport bits: the Melling interchange and road bridge, a pedestrian bridge, and a new train station. 

A render of the Riverlink project with a new riverside promenade.

Andersen and Bishop have an ongoing spat over who deserves the credit for getting government funding for the Melling interchange. The project wasn’t initially part of the government’s transport budget, but it was added later in the NZ Upgrade package of Covid stimulus spending. 

National is campaigning to build a road from Petone to Grenada, which would provide a more direct route from the Hutt to Porirua than the current route around Haywards Hill, and unlock new greenfield housing. Labour says it would be impossibly expensive. 

Wainuiomata is the suburb to watch. It’s the fastest-growing area with a lot of new voters. In 2020, Bishop and Andersen ran at almost a perfect dead heat at polling booths in Hutt Central, but Andersen absolutely ran away with it in Wainuiomata, a more working class suburb and traditional Labour stomping ground. Andersen won the suburb 4070-1933, which accounted for over half of her total margin of victory

Chris Bishop: On the comeback

After three terms in parliament, Bishop has risen from a young backbencher to one of National’s highest ranking MPs. He’s third on the party list, in line to be a senior minister, and is the party’s campaign chair this election. 

To his credit, he’s built a reputation as a very present electorate MP. As the saying goes, he’ll show up to the opening of an envelope. The impact of that local presence was demonstrated in the 2020 election when, despite losing the seat, he pulled in 42% of the electorate vote while National only managed 22% of the party vote – a sign that locals liked him more than they liked his party. 

“Growing up in the Hutt in the late 1980s  and early 90s, our population was about 98,000. When I became an MP in 2014, the population was basically the same. The city hadn’t grown for the better part of 20 years, and that’s not a sign of success,” he says. The population has jumped to 112,000 in the past decade. “We’re on the cusp of going from a medium-sized city to being a relatively large city. There’s a lot of exciting things we can do to make that a reality, and I want to be part of those solutions.”

Bishop has been the party’s spokesperson for transport and housing at various points, and he is at his strongest when talking about infrastructure projects that will help the city grow. He was considered to be a proponent of the MDRS, the bipartisan housing deal to encourage townhouse developments. National has since stepped back from that deal, and instead wants to talk more about greenfield development (new suburbs built on old farmland). 

“I have a pretty simple view of housing, which is that we need to do everything,” Bishop says. “We’re lucky to have a rail line running right down the spine of the Hutt and we need more density around the train line. But we also need to do greenfields.” 

Wainuiomata North is one target area which could soon be converted from farmland to housing: “There’s vast swathes of land that could be converted to housing, and it should be,” he says. “If we’d made those investments in 2013 we wouldn’t have the housing problems we have now.”

Both candidates know voters in the fast-growing Wainuiomata area will be crucial for this electorate. Bishop is trying to secure new transport options for the area. “We need a second access. There’s only one road over the hill, and it’s vulnerable to slips and weather events. If there’s a crash on the hill in the morning, everyone is stuck in Wainuiomata.” He has also campaigned for a direct bus from Wainuiomata to Wellington. “Eastbourne, where I live, has a bus to Wellington, but Wainuiomata with seven times the population, has no bus. It’s totally unfair.”

National’s campaign manifesto this election includes a Petone-to-Grenada link road, to connect the Hutt to Porirua. It’s a project Bishop has been championing for years. “The corridor going east-to-west from Porirua to the Hutt is really important. Those areas should be developed. Petone-to-Grenada unlocks thousands of new greenfield houses, unlocks land for housing, significant resilience benefits, and it would have public transport benefits too – you could run a public bus to Porirua in 15 minutes.”

The real question isn’t whether the road would be good, it’s whether the road is financially viable. There’s some very steep hills in the way and roads cost a lot of money. “It’s an expensive project, there’s no doubt about that. I’m not denying it’s an expensive road, but in my view it’s critical to the future of the Wellington region.”

When I ask him about Ginny Andersen, he says he doesn’t want to talk about her – though he is keen to relitigate their biggest dispute: Who deserves the credit for funding the Melling interchange? 

“Ginny and I had a bit of a fight about this. The reality is, the GPS [the government’s transport budget] came out in 2018 and it pushed Melling to 2029. That funding track meant it wouldn’t be finished until 2034. Ginny doesn’t like that fact but it’s true. There was huge community outrage, and I did what any electorate MP would do, which is raise those concerns. We had a public meeting with 400 people, a rally at Melling, I organised a petition which got 10,000 signatures, and eventually the government re-did the funding settings.”

Polling projections would assume a swing towards National and against Labour compared to last election. That swing, combined with Bishop’s local popularity, should make him the favourite in this race. 

The question is whether Andersen has managed to improve her standing over the last three years. 

Ginny Andersen: An incumbent on the attack

Ginny Andersen has rocketed to prominence in the last 12 months. When she was elected as the MP for Hutt South in 2020, she was a one-term MP with a relatively low profile. Since Chris Hipkins became prime minister, she’s jumped up to cabinet and is one of his most trusted lieutenants. She became minister for small business and minister for the digital economy and communications in January, and added minister for police after Stuart Nash’s resignation. 

That makes this race a very different equation. She’s better known now, and has a much stronger track record to run on, both nationally and locally.

The thing about being in government is your party actually controls the books, and you get to claim credit for the money it spend. Andersen is using that to her full advantage this campaign. 

“I think I’ve delivered far more,” she says, comparing herself to Bishop. “If you think of projects that I’ve campaigned on and now have funded and underway, I’ve done way more, hands down.

“I got Riverlink funded, we’re rebuilding Naenae pools, fixing the two major high schools, every primary school is being fixed up or getting a new roof. The cycleway from here to Wellington is underway, the infrastructure of a basic cycle network has started in the Hutt, and we’ve committed to fixing up the hospital.”

And, she notes, she did it all in six years. “He was a list MP for three years in government, and nothing happened for the Hutt. All of the things that are happening for the Hutt have been funded by Labour.”

Andersen bristles at Bishop’s claim that Labour only buckled to fund the Melling upgrade and Riverlink after his local pressure campaigns. “When National promised Riverlink, the fund was oversubscribed. There was no money there, and they accused Labour of cancelling it when there was no money for it in the first place. We made sure there was money there in NZ Upgrade.”

Ginny Andersen at the Melling intersection.

Bishop is campaigning heavily on the Petone-to-Grenada road, but Andersen is pushing back equally hard, accusing him of promising something impossible. “I think Petone-to-Grenada is a good idea, but I don’t think it’s responsible as a politician to promise a project to voters without demonstrating how you can afford it. [Bishop] can’t tell us how he’s going to fund it. Where’s the money coming from? Is it going to be cuts to frontline government services? That has to be told to voters.”

Andersen is making an aggressive pitch, but it’s easy to see why. She needs to prove her credentials as a local champion in order to hold off the rising tide of Bishop and National. 

Despite the intensity of the race, this is an electorate campaign that might not really matter all that much. There’s a good chance both MPs return to parliament. Bishop is third on the party list and is guaranteed a seat. Andersen is in a slightly more precarious position ranked 17 with six list-only candidates ahead of her, but should stand a decent chance unless there is a true collapse for Labour. 

The real key to this seat on election night could be the party vote: eager election watchers might want to take a look at the early results from Hutt South. The results here could offer an early clue for the final nationwide result. 

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