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Image: Archi Banal
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PoliticsAugust 21, 2023

These are the box-office electorate battles in election 2023

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Hundreds of candidates are competing across 72 electorate seats. These are the contests we’re watching with popcorn.

Let this be said, right off the bat: it’s the party vote that determines the share of seats each party gets in parliament, and therefore who gets to govern. The days when a clutch of marginal constituencies exacted wildly outsize influence are a thing of the first-past-the-post past. No longer do the parties pour their attention, resource and pork-barrel temptations into a handful of swing seats. 

Good. But MMP still gives us electorate seats, 72 of them, as it stands, including seven Māori seats. On a rare occasion, they can be important in the composition of parliament – most often when a small party candidate wins an electorate seat and turns the 5% threshold requirement to dust, potentially bringing in a clutch of other MPs swinging from their coat-tails. And irrespective of that, they can contain their own whirl of character and plot, squaring up dynamic personalities, crystallising policy debates.

Which of the six dozen seats are we excited about? We’ve pared it down to 12, from north to south. 


Willow-Jean Prime has a mountain to climb in the northernmost general seat, having recorded the slimmest victory in 2020 when she beat National’s Matt King by 163 votes. Given that was in the fabled red wave, the favourite this time will be National’s new pick, Maungaturoto farmer Grant McCallum. Prime will be back in parliament irrespective of the result, thanks to her ninth placement on Labour’s list. McCallum is down in the part of the National list where they go alphabetical, meaning its electorate or nowt.

The orator forged in Northland and polished at Harvard, Shane Jones, is back contesting the seat for NZ First, and will be looking to improve on his 11.4% share of the 2020 vote, while one of the Act Party’s most effective sitting MPs, Mark Cameron, is also in the mix (and seventh on Act’s list).

King has since quit National and is standing as leader of his new political vehicle, DemocracyNZ, born out of the anti-vax, anti-mandate movement. King’s long shot has been made only longer by disputes among his candidates and broader internecine loathing in the so-called “freedom movement”. 

Fun fact: The electorate has the highest number of people – 22% according to the census – who do voluntary work. 

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The general seat in the affluent eastern suburbs of Auckland, previously held by Rob Muldoon for an eternity, is this time hosting a contest pitting two distant edges of a potential National-Act coalition against one another. The National incumbent, Simon O’Connor – who won more than 50% of the candidate vote in a comfortable win in 2020 – is being challenged by Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden, as her party looks to bank the party’s resurgence by winning a second seat to go alongside Epsom, where David Seymour now has a lock and requires no nods or cups of tea. 

The campaign will tease out the differences between the Christian-value, socially conservative flank of the right, in the form of the outspoken, four-term O’Connor, who has eschewed climbing the caucus ranks in favour of speaking his mind on everything from social issues to China and is way down in 54th on the National list, and a younger, dramatically more socially liberal small-state mindset in the form of Act deputy van Velden. 

Fun fact: Brooke van Velden will turn 31 on election day, but that still won’t be as long on earth as Rob Muldoon was MP for Tāmaki. 

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Te Tai Hauāuru

In 2020, Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe won this Māori seat which encompasses the western part of the North Island from Otorohanga down to Porirua, taking in New Plymouth, Whanganui and Palmerston North along the way. He’s now speaker of the house, and list-only. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer wasn’t far behind him – just over 1,000 votes – last election. Having further lifted her profile as a list MP and co-leader of Te Pāti Māori, she’ll be confident of victory, though Labour’s Soraya Peke-Mason, who came in as a list MP in 2022 when Trevor Mallard departed for Ireland, will give her a run for her money. 

Another familiar name is Harete Hipango, the former MP for Whanganui flying the flag for National.

Fun fact: Adrian Rurawhe’s uncle was Koro Wetere, who held Western Māori (forerunner of Te Tai Hauāuru) for 27 years.

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East Coast

In 2020, Kiri Allan romped home for Labour by a 6,000 vote margin over National’s Tania Tapsell. Today, the former has quit politics after a nightmare on Evans Parade and the latter is the mayor of Rotorua. Allan’s exit prompted list MP Tāmati Coffey to reverse his own decision to resign, but as the tide of 2020 recedes, it promises to be a tight race with National candidate Dana Kirkpatrick, a communications executive. 

Fun fact: The largest general electorate by land mass in the North Island, to drive the coast from one end (Maketu) to the other (Gisborne) currently takes just over six hours.

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If you’d read four months ago that the incumbent, Meka Whaitiri, was standing for re-election in the Māori seat that forms a thick line down the east of Te Ika-a-Māui from Hicks Bay to Wellington, that would be no big deal. What almost nobody predicted, however, was that she’d be doing it as the candidate for Te Pāti Māori.  

Whatiri’s shock defection meant a scramble for Labour to find a new candidate, and they’ve come up with a real contender in the form of Cushla Tangaere-Manuel, whose credentials include having been CEO of the Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby union. The tactical case she’ll be making is that, like Soraya Peke‑Mason and Nanaia Mahuta (Hauraki-Waikato), she has foregone a place on the party list and is running seat-only, and with TPM doing well in the polls, electors could get two MPs for the price of one.

Fun fact: Ngāti Porou East Coast is New Zealand’s only iwi-founded rugby union.

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This sprawling North Island seat takes in the bright lights of Bulls, Taihape and Taumarunui, with the enclave of Palmerston North carved out. The highly respected National MP Ian McKelvie has had a lock on the electorate since 2011, but he’s retiring this election. It’s been a National stronghold since 1938, with the exception of a couple of terms for Social Credit’s Bruce Beetham, and Turakina sheep farmer Suze Redmayne will very likely continue that pattern. 

There is, however, a wild card in the form of Act’s Andrew Hoggard, the former president of Federated Farmers, the powerhouse lobby group of the rural sector. After David Seymour saw his name on the paid member list and persuaded him to stand, Hoggard insisted on running in this electorate. In the party vote in the electorate last time Act did comparatively well – 11% to National’s 30% (Labour won 44%); could Hoggard shake it up?

Fun fact: Bulls has a sister town on the Isle of Wight: Cowes.

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Hutt South

Sitting MP Ginny Andersen has in recent months found herself a very senior minister, holding both police and justice portfolios simultaneously. Up against her is Chris Bishop, a very senior minister in waiting, as well as being National’s campaign manager. Both are very busy. Both are near certain to be back in parliament, with their respective spots on their party lists three and 17. But both are teeth-grindingly determined, too, to win the electorate, and sure to be stalking the streets of Petone and Wainuiomata in the weeks to come.

In 2017, Bishop beat Anderson by 1,530 votes. In 2020, Anderson won by 3,777. This could be a new bellwether.

Fun fact: Trevor Mallard, MP for the first seven terms of the electorate after its creation in 1996, dreamed of resurrecting moa and watching them stroll the streets of Wainuiomata.

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Wellington Central

Three of New Zealand’s highest profile MPs contested this seat in 2020, and now all three are gone, at least from the list of candidates. Labour’s Grant Robertson, who won the seat for the fifth time and by a massive margin, has gone list-only. So has Greens co-leader James Shaw. Both are high on their party lists; both are likely to resign pretty swiftly if the election as a whole doesn’t go their way. National’s Nicola Willis, meanwhile, is standing this time in Ōhāriu. 

Which means three new candidates from those parties. Eritrean-born list MP Ibrahim Omer is on the Labour ticket. Scott Sheeran has returned from Abu Dhabi, where he was senior legal counsel to the UAE government, to stand for National. Sitting councillor Tamatha Paul is there for the Greens. How close could it be? Each of those three parties has topped 30% in the party vote in at least one of the last two elections. All to play for. 

Fun fact: The electorate with the highest proportion of voters with a postgraduate degree.

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Over the hill to the east is Rongotai. Paul Eagle won in a landslide for Labour in 2020, but after a nosedive effort for the Wellington mayoralty, he’s off to head up the council in the Chatham Islands. It’s another of the seats in which the Green Party performs well on the party vote, and sitting MP Julie Anne Genter has been going hard since January in the hope of repeating Chlöe Swarbrick’s Auckland Central feat. (Swarbrick’s effort since pulling off that upset is such that she’s near certain to retain it, so – shockingly – it doesn’t even make this shortlist.)

It would nevertheless be an upset if Genter could beat Fleur Fitzsimons, who is standing for Labour with the benefit of council experience behind her. Also in the mix: Karuna Muthu for National and sitting MP Nicole McKee for Act.

Fun fact: List MP Chris Finlayson, who used to stand against Annette King in Rongotai, used to say that if he were ever to win the seat he’d instantly demand a recount.

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Rachel Boyack managed to unseat the eight (eight!) term Nelson MP Nick Smith in 2020, sending the National stalwart into the civic arms of the mayoralty. She won by a margin of about 4,500, and Labour scored 54% of the party vote to National’s dismal 21%, but even that won’t leave her relaxed going into the election against Blair Cameron, who has returned from a stint at the IMF at the young age of 31 seeking to pick up where Smith left off. 

Act’s Chris Baillie is also on the ballot but he is not in serious contention for the seat, and on course to lose his list seat, having been dropped to 17th in the party rankings.

Fun fact: There is a Maurice Gee chair on the bank of the Maitai River.

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Raf Manji has pinned the hopes of the party he now leads, TOP – and perhaps its future as a whole – on pulling off a victory in the Christchurch seat and so obviating the need to meet the dastardly 5%. He spied the opportunity after Gerry Brownlee was stunningly unseated by Labour’s Sarah Pallett in 2020, prompting the National veteran to opt for a list-only position. 

Filling Brownlee’s electorate boots is Hamish Campbell, who stood last time in Wigram; he’ll be trusting that with the 2020 aberration out of the way, the seat will come home to blue. Does Manji have a chance? Not a big one, but the former Christchurch councillor will at very least leave an imprint on the race.

Fun fact: Heat pumps are the principal source of heating for 79.2% of Ilam households – more than any other electorate – presumably because when Stephen Fleming speaks, these people listen. 

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Labour is going to lose plenty of seats at this election. The question – among others, sure – is how many? A sign that the red tide has receded fully and a blue wave is crashing to shore is Rangitata, the Canterbury electorate in the shape of a boot, the Italy of the mainland, from Methven (Ancona) to Timaru (Sicily).

Jo Luxton won the seat in 2020, with a margin of 4,400 over National’s Megan Hands. The party this time has selected James Meager (Ngāi Tahu) a 35-year-old Ashburtonian lawyer. The swing across the country may count against Luxton in a traditionally blue seat. She is, however, 19th on the Labour list. If Luxton is not back in parliament one way or another, things have gone really badly for Team Hipkins. 

Fun fact: There is a lovely Phar Lap statue at his birthplace just outside Timaru.

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Wait but also …

There are other tussles that just missed out on that list. It was a close thing in Tāmaki Makaurau last time, with Peeni Henare winning by just 927 votes over John Tamihere of Te Pāti Māori. With neither Tamihere nor Green co-leader Marama Davidson running in the seat this time, the cabinet minister should hold on, but it’s not to be taken for granted.

Northcote, Maungakiekie and Upper Harbour are all Auckland Central seats National will be expecting to claw back. A similar story in Whangarei and Hamilton East (Tama Potaka is expected to consolidate Hamilton West after his byelection victory). In Auckland Central, Chlöe Swarbrick should hold for the Greens, but it is bound to be fun along the way. 

Rawiri Waititi won Waiariki by just 836 votes last time; that will surely swell for the TPM co-leader. Sam Uffindell will win Tauranga, but will voters send him a message? In Hawkes Bay, Anna Lorck has her work cut out to hold Tukituki for Labour. Stuart Nash had a 6k majority in Napier. It could be very close between his replacement, Mark Hutchinson, and National’s Katie Nimon. 

On the other side of the island, New Plymouth is a reclaim target for National. So is Otaki. If things really head south for Labour, Steph Lewis and Kieran McAnulty could be biting their nails in Whanganui and Wairarapa

Keep going!