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The Tāmaki electorate is one to watch on October 14 (Image: Tina Tiller)
The Tāmaki electorate is one to watch on October 14 (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsOctober 6, 2023

The most exciting two-party race this election isn’t between Labour and National

The Tāmaki electorate is one to watch on October 14 (Image: Tina Tiller)
The Tāmaki electorate is one to watch on October 14 (Image: Tina Tiller)

The affluent Auckland electorate of Tāmaki is the backdrop for a hard-fought battle between two candidates from the same side of the political spectrum.

Can you remember the last time the race for Tāmaki was interesting? When was the last time there was even a race to be had? For decades, Tāmaki has been as blue as you can get. It’s the absolute antithesis of a bellwether seat. 

Tāmaki takes in much of Auckland’s eastern suburbs, bordering the central business district. It includes some of the wealthiest parts of the super city – and in fact the country. A quarter of workers in the electorate are “managers”, according to the 2018 Census, the highest share in New Zealand. Almost a third, 32%, earn personal income over $70,000 – the second-highest share among general electorates. Just over 70% of the electorate identifies as European, with 19.3% of the population Asian. Less than one in 10 (8%) identify as Māori, roughly half the New Zealand average.

Tāmaki has been a stronghold of the National Party since Robert Muldoon won it in the 1960s. He held the electorate for more than 30 years and there’s barely been a threat of it changing hands ever since.

But this election is different. There is a race, and if the (albeit limited) polls are to be believed, an incredibly tight one. What makes it interesting, however, is that this isn’t a race between National and Labour. It’s a race between two candidates from two parties that are likely to be working very closely together after October 14: National’s Simon O’Connor and Act’s Brooke van Velden.

Can Simon O’Connor hold on again?

Simon O’Connor has been the MP for Tāmaki since 2011. In what has, until this election, been one of the safest blue seats in New Zealand, he’s trounced his opponent every time. In 2020, when many of his colleagues were put out of work, O’Connor retained a comfortable majority of 8,000 votes.

During his tenure, O’Connor has become widely known as one of the most staunchly conservative MPs within National’s broad church caucus. It’s increasingly seen him at odds with newer members of the party, such as when he celebrated the overturning of the Roe v Wade ruling – the law that legalised abortions – in the United States last year. While National’s leader Christopher Luxon is also “pro-life”, he has pledged to resign rather than tamper with New Zealand’s existing abortion rules. 

On other occasions, O’Connor has opposed homosexual law reform and, last year, was one of only eight MPs to vote against legislation that outlawed conversion therapy. During the debate over end of life choice, a bill that his 2023 Tāmaki competitor helped shepherd, O’Connor said it was “strange” for former prime minister Jacinda Ardern to be concerned about youth suicide but “happy to encourage the suicide of the elderly, disabled, and sick”.

Throughout these controversies, O’Connor has remained a popular local representative in Tāmaki. O’Connor went into this race claiming he was still the favourite. He told Stuff earlier this year that Tāmaki voters would “throw their support” behind any National candidate. And at a public meeting in June attended by The Spinoff, O’Connor told the crowd that while he wasn’t complacent about the battle to retain his seat, he wasn’t feeling particularly nervous either. 

“Act’s just, to be honest, causing harm to the centre-right vote out of vainglorious desire,” he said. “All it’s going to do is mix up the vote between National and Act. It’s a cheap attempt and they’re welcome to give it a crack… Your worst case scenario is because of that, Labour comes back through the middle.”

Simon O'Connor
National incumbent Simon O’Connor has been the MP for Tāmaki since 2011 (Image: Tina Tiller)

New polling from Curia for the Taxpayers’ Union this week revealed no sign of a Labour breakthrough. Instead, it showed a statistical tie between O’Connor and van Velden – 40% to 38% respectively – comfortably within the margin of error. It’s about as close as you can get, and while electorate polling is notoriously fickle, it’s roughly in line with the numbers being leaked out of Act’s camp.

O’Connor wouldn’t speak to The Spinoff about his campaign this week, nor did he answer supplied questions. However, in a statement provided by a spokesperson, he said he was running a “positive and active” campaign with a great team of volunteers. “I am proudly a local, living here with my family and I bring a depth and breadth of experiences from the private and public sector,” he said. 

“From day one of being an MP here in Tāmaki, I have served the community, listened and advocated for their views, and helped thousands of locals with their needs.” 

O’Connor said he had never taken his popularity in Tāmaki for granted and would spend the final days of the election campaign “working hard to earn my community’s support and ensure the community has a National Party MP in a National-led government”.

At number 54 on the party list, O’Connor’s political career rests on a win in Tāmaki on election night. Whether he can pull through remains far too close to call.

The energetic newcomer 

From a behind-the-scenes political operative during the earliest days of the End of Life Choice Bill, to becoming Act’s deputy leader – Brooke van Velden has had a sudden rise through the ranks over the past few years. She’s only been in parliament for three years but already has her sights firmly set on another notch on her political belt: becoming a fresh face for Tāmaki. 

“I’m motivated to keep campaigning until the very last moment that I can, but I’m not going to take anything for granted,” van Velden told The Spinoff off the back of this week’s poll. “It is very close and every vote counts. So I’m going to be out in the community every day as I have been for the past four months.”

Van Velden’s positioned herself as a contrast to O’Connor. She’s young, female and, while retaining the fiscal conservatism that’s popular in the electorate, socially liberal. She’s banking on being both similar and different enough to O’Connor to clinch the seat.

The close poll result isn’t denting her confidence. It’s compelling her to campaign harder. “For me it’s making sure that I’m meeting people in as many places as possible,” van Velden said. “So we’ve done 120 street corner meetings, public meetings, coffee catch-ups, we’re doing sign-waving incase people are only going to see me while going from A to B – but importantly I’m also doing a few hours of door knocking to find people who may be working from home or who have their kids during the school holidays. I’m trying to be in as many places as possible.”

Act's Brooke van Velden in Mission Bay
Act’s Brooke van Velden is campaigning hard in Tāmaki (Image: Tina Tiller)

It’s been clear on the ground that there is momentum behind van Velden’s bid. Her face is plastered on practically every fence, her pamphlets in every letterbox. Those I’ve spoken to in the electorate, even those firmly backing one of her competitors, all say they’ve seen her out and about – normally wearing her vibrant pink coat. Van Velden says the wind in her sails hasn’t faltered. “When we first started this campaign, nobody said it was possible. Even until about a week ago, the incumbent was completely writing me off,” she says. “The momentum is continuing to grow. There is a sense of a need for change in Tāmaki.”

Her pitch to voters in the final days of the campaign is to support that bid for change. “This seat switching from O’Connor to myself will have no effect on the make-up of the government, but it will have an effect for the local community,” she says. “This year I’m providing choice for the local community who haven’t had choice for nearly 63 years. You can have something different, something fresh and vibrant and that means you’ll get a hard-working local MP who will advocate and be accessible and accountable to the people.”

“Two-horse race” is one of the most overused expressions in politics. But in Tāmaki, it’s probably accurate. The only question now is who will nudge ahead when polling closes in just over a week?

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