One Question Quiz
Nelson hot seat feature pic
Design: Archi Banal.

PoliticsSeptember 22, 2023

Can National reclaim Nelson after Labour ended its 24-year run?

Nelson hot seat feature pic
Design: Archi Banal.

In 2020, eight-term Nelson MP Nick Smith was unseated by Labour’s Rachel Boyack. He’s now the mayor, and National has a new candidate who’s going all out to repaint our oldest electorate blue.

Read the other battleground electorate profiles in our Hot Seats series here.

For a long time, former MP and current mayor Nick Smith was synonymous with the Nelson electorate – he was its representative for 89% of the MMP era. During his 24-year reign, Smith winning Nelson for the National Party was as safe a bet as any in politics. Since MMP came in in 1996, only Smith and Gerry Brownlee (in Ilam) have won eight consecutive electorate contests. In the seven elections before 2017, when Jacindamania brought Labour’s Rachel Boyack within 10% of Smith’s winning total, he beat the next closest challenger by an average of 20%. But on her second go, Boyack rode the red wave of 2020 to victory. 

Before Boyack’s win, Whakatū had historically supported Labour. The party held the seat consecutively from 1957 until 1996, and since 1946, Labour has won it 15 times, compared to National’s 12 – most of which came under Smith. Even during Smith’s eight-term run, Labour received more party votes than National in the electorate five times. But Boyack is far from guaranteed to retain the seat. Public support for the Labour government is waning, and Nelson could be one of many constituencies that Labour loses. If National reclaims Nelson, Boyack will likely be out of a job, given her middling list position of 46 and Labour’s abysmal polling numbers.

Outgoing National MP Nick Smith
Nick Smith, current Nelson mayor and former National MP for the electorate, pictured in the parliamentary debating chamber. (Photo: Getty Images)

Nelson is the country’s oldest surviving electorate (established 1853), stretching from Hope and Richmond at the bottom of the v-shaped Tasman Bay that defines the top of Te Waipounamu, northeast through Stoke and Nelson City to the easternmost tip of Tasman Bay. Not only is it our oldest electorate, but its voters are older than in other rohe pōti, with more aged over 45 and fewer under 44 than the national average. 

But just because Nelson is our oldest constituency with a relatively old population doesn’t mean it is stuck in its ways. Nelson City is quietly championing sustainable solutions under the effective mayoral pairing of mayor Smith – once National’s leading environmental advocate – and Green Party deputy mayor Rohan O’Neill-Stevens. After a devastating deluge in August 2022, Nelson implemented transport emissions reductions schemes set up by the last council by electrifying and expanding its public transport. The area also hasn’t ignored other significant issues like the housing crisis. Councillors recently voted unanimously to support housing intensification – however, not all members of the public are on board

Nelson City deputy mayor Rohan O’Neill-Stevens (Photo: Facebook)

Although Nelson has taken an ambitious approach to housing and transport, it has felt the economic crisis strongly. Stuff’s Katie Townshend reported that residents’ wallets are “superglued shut”, with data finding that Whakatū is the second-hardest-hit region in New Zealand in terms of retail trade. Simon Duffy, the manager of council-funded central city promotional body Uniquely Nelson, told Stuff that many local retailers were struggling to keep their doors open – an issue National and its candidate Blair Cameron are telling voters they’re best suited to solve. 

The confident challenger: National’s Blair Cameron

Raised in Canterbury but now living in Nelson, Cameron is National’s first-time 32-year-old candidate in the electorate. His main priority for the rohe pōti is reducing the cost of living to grow the local economy, he says. “Rising costs are hitting Nelson families hard,” states his profile on National’s website. Cameron has an impressive background in economic policy. Before running in Nelson, he worked at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Princeton and Stanford, researching how governments can be more effective.

Cameron says Labour’s economic management has worsened New Zealanders’ lives by fuelling inflation and rising mortgage rates. If elected, he says, “National will strengthen our economy so we can reduce the cost of living, lift incomes, build the infrastructure we need for the future, restore law and order and deliver better education and health services.”

National's Cameron Blair.
National’s Cameron Blair on the campaign trail, joined on the right by high-profile National MP Simeon Brown. (Photos: Facebook; design: Archi Banal)

Other priorities include infrastructure like the hospital and roads. “If you look at Nelson’s infrastructure, it’s outdated, you know, we’ve got a growing population, we need to have roads that are going to get people where they need to be on time,” Cameron told Stuff’s Katie Townshend. To start, he would like to see the Hope bypass constructed. On Nelson hospital, he says it is terrifying that it “might fall down if we have a decent-sized earthquake”.

Cameron admits he is a new face with less name recognition than his predecessor or opponent, so his campaign has focused on connecting with the community. Despite his valiant efforts to garner community support, Cameron received a cold reception at an August debate – although it’s worth acknowledging it was organised by the PSA union. Nonetheless, Cameron has appeared poised and confident on the campaign trail. He’s at number 35 on National’s list, meaning he’s not assured a place in parliament, so is pushing hard to win Nelson.

National’s Nelson candidate says filling Smith’s shoes is a big task, but he sees similarities between himself and the electorate’s eight-term MP. Cameron told Townshend, “When Nick Smith became an MP, he was a young guy from Canterbury, who came to Nelson and said, I’m aspirational for Nelson, and I want to be the best local MP I can be. And that’s what I’m saying as well.”

The incumbent who ousted Nick Smith: Labour’s Rachel Boyack

Perhaps parliament’s best singer (she sings at 16:13 in this video), Nelson MP Rachel Boyack’s journey differs from Cameron’s in that she has already served Nelsonians for much of her adult life. Getting her first taste of politics as Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology’s student president, Boyack then worked for First Union as its Whakatū organiser before becoming a health and safety coordinator for Nelson’s Anglican Diocese. At First Union, “she negotiated collective employment agreements with large companies like Nelson Pine, lifting wages for hundreds of workers in the Nelson region”, explains her Labour party profile. She also volunteered at Nelson’s Environment Centre, Women’s and Children’s Refuge and was the assistant music director at the Christ Church Cathedral

In her parliamentary maiden speech, Boyack outlined her priorities for Nelson: economic outcomes, education, employment, health, housing and mental health. She also pledged to bring local fights to parliament, like Pak n’ Save Richmond’s unionisation efforts. “Before I leave this place, I wish to see a fair pay agreement for all retail workers in New Zealand,” Boyack noted. Three years later, Boyack’s government has achieved that  – but National has promised to repeal the legislation should it be elected in October.

Labour's Rachel Boyack.
Nelson’s current MP, Labour’s Rachel Boyack, out and about in her electorate. (Photos: Facebook; design: Archi Banal)

An important issue for Nelsonians is their hospital – a focus for both Boyack and Cameron. Boyack can point out to her constituents that Labour didn’t just talk the talk but walked the walk, announcing a $73m cash injection in July to kickstart the hospital’s renovation. Initiating the hospital redevelopment was one of Boyack’s pledges in 2020, and she told Stuff that securing its funding was her crowning parliamentary achievement. 

Yet polling says New Zealanders want a new government, so Boyack’s hopes for reelection may rest less on vote-winning initiatives like hospital investment and more on her long-seated connection to Whakatū in comparison  to Cameron. Whereas National’s candidate has lived in the electorate for less than a year, during a raucous debate, Boyack told Newshub, “I’ve been the MP here for three years, but I’ve lived here for 15 years, and I’ve got deep connections into this community, and I know that’s what people are looking for – someone who actually gets this place and has been here through all the tough times.”

The longshots: Act’s Chris Baillie and Green’s Jace Hobbs

Considering Whakatū has a Green Party deputy mayor, it’s no surprise that the rohe pōti has a solid contingent of Green voters. The Greens have been Nelson’s third-most-popular party since 1999 – reaching as high as 24% in the electorate race (in 2017) and winning 16% of the party vote (in 2011). But those numbers position their candidate, Jace Hobbs, as a long shot to succeed during what he calls the most crucial election in a decade. 

Hobbs seems to understand that. On his profile on The Spinoff’s election tool, he asks for Nelsonians’ party – not electorate – vote to “ensure bold climate action, protection of nature and communities where everyone has enough to live a good life”. He told Stuff’s Katy Jones the Greens’ environmental and social expertise has led New Zealand towards productive policy, adding that a strong result for his party is essential to ensure tamariki have a promising future. 

Green's Jace Hobbs.
Green Party candidate Jace Hobbs. (Photo: NZ Green Party / Design: Archi Banal)

Outside politics, Hobbs aligns with the Greens’ kaupapa, being a zero-emissions transport advocate who previously ran an e-bike company. He is also a comedian in his spare time and provided welcome comic relief during the PSA union debate

Whereas the Green Party has a solid base in Nelson, Act has not been particularly popular in the electorate – 2020 being the first time they finished inside Nelson’s top four parties. In past elections, they lost to all other major and minor parliamentary parties, alongside many now-forgotten groups. Nonetheless, in 2023, Act’s general support is strong, so their candidate, current MP Chris Baillie, rounds out Nelson’s contestants worth mentioning.  

Elected in 2020 off the party list, Baillie’s parliamentary responsibilities mirrored his life experience. Before parliament, Baillie – Act’s spokesperson for education, police, small business and workplace relations – was a police officer, teacher and small business owner. 

Act's Chris Baillie.
Chris Baillie, ACT party MP and their Nelson candidate. (Photos: Facebook and Act website; design: Archi Banal)

He was once ranked fourth on Act’s list, but recently, Baillie was demoted to 17th – making him not only the lowest-ranking incumbent Act MP seeking reelection but also the recipient of the biggest demotion. Baillie told the Herald he isn’t bothered by that, nor does he feel animosity about it. But because polling suggests Act is unlikely to secure enough votes for 17 MPs, his demotion means he could be out of parliament. Given that context, Baillie’s hope to return to parliament – much like Boyack’s – may rest on the improbable outcome of winning the Nelson electorate. 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Keep going!