Labour’s Kris Faafoi, after being elected to parliament for the first time in the Mana by-election (Getty Images)
Labour’s Kris Faafoi, after being elected to parliament for the first time in the Mana by-election (Getty Images)

PoliticsFebruary 9, 2020

Faafoi goes list only: What it could mean for the government and his electorate

Labour’s Kris Faafoi, after being elected to parliament for the first time in the Mana by-election (Getty Images)
Labour’s Kris Faafoi, after being elected to parliament for the first time in the Mana by-election (Getty Images)

Labour’s rising star has decided that he won’t run again in his electorate, and will instead go list-only at the next election. So what will it mean for Kris Faafoi’s burgeoning role in government? And who might step up in the Mana electorate? 

Only a select few get the privilege of going list-only. When one of the most difficult aspects of electoral democracy is the time spent doing on the ground organising, the decision confers something of a status in the hierarchy of government. To put it bluntly, it can indicate that their talents are needed upstairs.

National has had several high profile MPs take this option in recent years. There was Steven Joyce, the minister for everything. Paula Bennett is going list only to run the party’s election campaign this year. And Bill English did the same while finance minister, and then PM.

It also whisks away a precious safety net for a political career. Do poorly at the election, and the party is out of power. Do really terribly, and there may not be any free list spots. It’s a trade-off that comes with government decisions being heavily influenced by an inner-core of ministers. On the other hand, it can also give MPs a bit more freedom to duck out if they don’t end up in government, without having to force a by-election.

Kris Faafoi is one such minister who has steadily added new responsibilities to his pile. Since coming into parliament in a 2010 by-election, he has slowly but surely risen into cabinet. By many accounts, he’s sure-footed and competent, and in roles like Consumer Affairs and Civil Defence, he’s had to face the sorts of challenges that can cause massive public backlash if something goes wrong. Right now, he’s in the midst of a huge piece of work that has the potential to reshape the entire media landscape, a fairly noisy sector when offended.

It was telling that one of Faafoi’s promotions this term has been into an Associate Housing role. When Phil Twyford was shuffled off to the side to make way for a new bunch of ministers, he and Megan Woods appeared to be hand-picked because of their abilities at managing complex and difficult problems. He even came out alright from the one major screw-up that he’s faced public humiliation over – when Opshop singer Jason Kerrison released text messages in which Faafoi promised to help out on an immigration matter, and then didn’t actually help. It underscored his status as someone the PM would really rather not sack.

The rationale for Faafoi’s decision isn’t necessarily clear. If it is the case that he’s being lined up to spend the next three years as the government’s brain, his upcoming list ranking could offer some evidence of that. In 2017 he was as far down as 20, and a rise is almost certain – the question will be how high he gets.

Kris Faafoi and Jason Kerrison. Photos: Dom Thomas/RNZ; supplied

So with Faafoi on the list, what happens to his seat? It’s a pretty safe one for Labour, and has only ever been held by them. Having said that, National MP Hekia Parata ran Faafoi very close a couple of times early in his career. His last opponent, former Porirua deputy mayor Euon Murrrell, did not come particularly close. There aren’t any electorate boundary changes on the horizon for Mana, so an upset becomes less likely. It would be interesting to see if Porirua mayor Nick Leggett gets into the race for National – since leaving Porirua and Labour to run unsuccessfully for the mayoralty in Wellington, he has been heading up the Road Transport Forum lobby group, and could make for a strong challenger.

Labour’s release made it very clear that they intended to bring a new MP in, and there will be plenty of considerations in play. They will want that MP to represent where the party is going for the next decade. But in a seat like Mana, they desperately need a candidate who can drive huge turnout, because that will favour them in the overall balance of parliament. That probably means someone with a lot of local networks already in place, or a massive celebrity candidacy from someone who already has ties to the electorate.

Speculation on the latter can probably be put aside, on the grounds that it’s not clear if any celebrity candidates are in fact running for Labour this time around. There aren’t any obvious sitting Labour MPs who would go for it either, though it couldn’t be ruled out. In either case, voters may not look kindly upon someone if it feels like they’re just being parachuted in. Interestingly, Porirua’s mayor Anita Baker offered a view on that, posting on Facebook that she hopes a Porirua local becomes the MP. “Too often good locals have been overlooked and now is the time to remedy that.” Faafoi grew up in Christchurch, and a local source indicated that the first choice of many members for the 2010 by-election was political commentator and activist Josie Pagani, rather than Faafoi. Pagani could not be reached for comment about whether she’d consider having another crack.

Labour’s Porirua councillors Josh Trlin and Geoff Hayward (image via Facebook)

The challenge for any candidate – local or otherwise – is that Mana is a large and very diverse electorate, with very different communities of interest to appeal to. It skews young, and there is a far higher share of Māori and Pacific voters than the country at large. But it also includes some large suburbs brimming with boomers, who vote regularly and reliably.

The electorate roughly covers the areas of two local Councils – Kāpiti Coast and Porirua. Within those ranks, there are some who could be in a position to put themselves forward. Rob McCann might have been one such figure, having recently been elected in Kāpiti to a district-wide spot. He’s had a significant involvement with anti-violence group White Ribbon, and has stood twice for Labour up the road in Ōtaki. However, McCann says he’s not going to go for the seat, and has plenty to be getting on with in the Housing portfolio in Kāpiti.

In Porirua, a very different sort of candidate may put themselves forward. 25 year old climate activist and lawyer Josh Trlin came first out of four councillors elected to the Northern Ward in 2019, though Anita Baker probably would have won were she not elected mayor. But an interesting wrinkle in his win was that one of those he beat was former National candidate Euon Murrell. He told The Spinoff he was “strongly considering putting my name forward, but there are lots of people I need to talk to before making a decision. I haven’t decided yet.”

Geoff Hayward is also a Labour member on the Porirua Council, and has both a very long association with the party and deep roots in Titahi Bay. Hayward is currently understood to work part-time out of Faafoi’s office, and be close to the MP. He could not be reached for comment.

Independent councillor Izzy Ford, a former Black Fern and the current Porirua deputy mayor, is another name that came up in conversations with watchers of local Porirua politics. She’d have rock-solid credentials in Porirua East, which will be a really important constituency for Labour to turn out. Ford said it was “a matter for the Labour Party to decide, but there are definitely people who are capable.” She wouldn’t rule out running, but said she “would need a few more conversations before any decisions are made.”

Regardless, the nomination will suit someone ambitious. An MP there would know that they only need to maintain their position in the electorate to survive reversals of fortune for the wider party. And those that stick around during defeats tend to get real opportunities after victories – after all, it worked for Kris Faafoi.

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