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PoliticsNovember 27, 2019

The very young Nat: Does the 17-year-old stand a chance in Palmerston North?


And how did William Wood, who is still at school, with the National Party candidacy in the first place? Liam Hehir, a Manawatu resident and former National Party electorate chair for the constituency, takes the temperature.

William Wood may not be elected for Palmerston North next year, but he has already made history in a way, since he is almost certainly the first parliamentary candidate born in the 21st century. In the remote chance an early vote is called before the 17-year-old’s next birthday, he won’t even be entitled to vote, let alone stand, in the general election.

Of course, we have been hearing a lot lately about how important it is for young people to be engaged in politics. The received wisdom is that young people are uncorrupted, far-seeing and preternaturally wise. In many ways, the cult of youth has never been stronger.

Woods is standing for the National Party, however. That’s an entirely different kettle of fish. So no doubt leftwing thought leaders are hard at work formulating the correct reason as to why it’s a good thing to ridicule this young man for his age.

While we await the inevitable breakthrough on that front, what do we know about the race for Palmerston North?

Well, no matter what Wood’s age is, the seat will be a tough nut to crack. Incumbent Iain Lees Galloway may not have had the most charmed run as a minister so far but he has been a relatively popular local MP, increasing his majority at every election since winning the seat in 2008. And when you dig into the profile of the seat, it’s not hard to see why.

I was actually the National Party electorate chair for a brief, undistinguished period half a dozen years ago. We used to call the constituency “West Berlin” because, unusually for a provincial seat, it is entirely surrounded by a neighbouring electorate – true-blue Rangitikei. Also unusually for the provinces, it is almost entirely urban. Finally, Palmerston North is the home of Massey University, bringing a large population of students and academics.

In other words, there is a reason the seat has been in Labour hands since 1978, when Joe Walding won it from National candidate and one term wonder John Lancelot Lithgow.

Despite that, National has targeted the seat in recent years. Back when it was Labour’s last redoubt beyond the main centres, losing it would have been a demoralising blow for the then opposition party. Such triumphalism is probably further from National’s mind now but the party has built up a solid party vote in the electorate in the last few cycles.

In taking the candidacy, Wood beat out three other contenders. I have had personal dealings with each of them and they all would have brought their own strengths to the table. Why did Wood beat them?

It’s impossible to know for certain, of course, and I have never met the guy. The word is, however, is that there were two appealing aspects to his pitch to delegates. The first was his age and the point of difference it represented. The other was his strong skills as a speaker and confident presentation style.

You should not underestimate the latter. Locally, Lees-Galloway is seen as highly competent on the stump and he is, without fail, articulate and confident in meet-the-candidate-evenings. He is an affable and likeable person who I have never seen wanting for an answer put to him in a meeting.

So Wood’s polished presentation will serve him well, although it doesn’t guarantee success, of course. Much will come down to whether he matches words with graft, his ability to build a team of volunteers and the fate of things like overall party performance and the economy.

More generally, the track record of political wunderkinds is pretty mixed. Sometimes they just don’t fire like they were supposed to (Simon Upton) and other times the failure is much more spectacular (Jami-Lee Ross). It’s not too hard to imagine Todd Barclay lasting much longer in Wellington if he had come into that world a touch older.

But there are successes, too. Chris Bishop meets most people’s definition of a career politician and has had a pretty good record as a legislator. Then there’s a little known politician named Jacinda Ardern, whose only experience in the real economy seems to have been taking the orders in a fish and chip shop as a teenager. I understand she has also gone on to achieve some measure of success in the political arena since.

That’s to say nothing of worldwide viral video sensation and Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has thrived under the spotlight since first came to attention with a strong showing in the 2016 Auckland mayoralty contest

Of course, Wood is younger than any of them were when they tried their hand at elective politics. Voters will be sceptical of Wood for his age. And rightly so, actually. Seeking the candidacy of a major party when you’re still in school is quite an audacious thing to do.

But if you’re going to try something audacious, an almost-if-not-quite-marginal seat like Palmerston North is probably the kind of place to try it.

Keep going!