The timing is bad for the governing party and the place is, too. National will be licking its lips.
The revelation came – of course it did – in a Facebook update. This time Gaurav Sharma at least kept it shorter than the Tolstoyan posts of recent times, announcing in a crisp 1,500 words that he was (a) quitting parliament, so triggering a byelection, and (b) standing in that byelection, as leader of a new, to-be-announced party.
Any relief for Labour and Jacinda Ardern at the resignation of an MP who has levelled many, varied, and mostly nebulous charges of bullying and harassment will be outweighed by a groaning dread at the prospect of another byelection in 2022. Sharma, who was thrown out of caucus over breaches of trust, claimed that his party leader planned to invoke the waka jumping law to kick him out of parliament, but, he said, she was planning to do so next year, as soon as the election was less than six months away, obviating the requirement for a byelection. (What he didn’t mention was in such circumstances National would need to agree that no byelection was needed.)
Rubbish, said Ardern. She had no intention of pushing the waka button. The exiled MP “may wish to reconsider his decision given he is unnecessarily costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars to trigger a byelection he then intends to stand in,” she said.
Sharma’s plan? Well, he’s keen to “send a message to the government that you can’t silence the voice of the common man”, and he’s not stopping there. “My intention is to launch a new centrist party with focus on outcomes and action rather than on ideologies,” he declared. He said, “I will publish more details about the new party in due course,” and I believe him.
If Tauranga was a headache for Labour, a byelection in Hamilton West is a full-blown migraine – for reasons both of time and place. Time, because it’s about a year to the general election, the lowest (they hope) ebb in the cycle, a time of flux, cost of living crisis, and a pervading sense of disgruntlement. Practically, in the leadup to election 2023, this messes up the run sheet. Place, because, unlike Tauranga, Hamilton West is not unwinnable. As you should get used to hearing over and over again, this is the quintessence of middle New Zealand and a bellwether seat; 16 of the last 18 winning MPs have caucused with the governing party.
Labour will seek to play that down, to point up the anomalous parts of the contest, maybe even to affect a frustrated shrug of near-indifference at an unnecessary, expensive exercise. They need to do so because, though it is not unwinnable, it would take something extraordinary for them not to lose.
Byelections tend to favour expressions of protest and therefore the opposition, but that’s not the only unpleasant augury for Labour. The party has trailed National, both head to head and in left-right bloc terms, in opinion polls for months. The local elections, if nothing else, were a full-throated Down With This Sort of Thing. Three Waters will get another furious dousing. Fresh from a headline-grabbing conference in Christchurch, Winston Peters and NZ First will spy a chance to ruffle some feathers to the left of the Waikato River.
For National, it’s a chance to put a stake in the ground, to road-test approaches, and to draw confidence from winning back a seat lost by Tim Macindoe after four terms in the red tide of 2020. Christopher Luxon, eager for match-fitness, will likely set up camp in Frankton. Macindoe, an adept MP and former party whip, will want another run, and he’ll probably get it. At very least, however, National needs to illustrate, after the Uffindell debacle, that its selection processes are sound.
Leaving even to one side the questions around Sam Uffindell’s past and the disclosure of his teenage bullying, the National shortlist for contesting the Tauranga byelection fell short on diversity. As Tania Tapsell, the newly elected mayor of Rotorua, observed in the Gone By Lunchtime live edition on Sunday, the four finalists looked “very, very similar – dress codes perfectly on point”.
Once Sharma formally resigns from parliament, the date will be set by the prime minister, and the temptation will be to get it out of the way as soon as is practicable. The known unknown is the incumbent. Labour will be up against not just the National Party, but Sharma, too. It’s difficult to see how he finishes better than third – even that seems a stretch – but a vengeance-fuelled campaign offers the to-be-determined Labour candidate’s best hope: a split in the anti-status-quo vote. But that is a longshot. For Ardern and Labour, the priority will be damage limitation.