Friday, November 11, 2022

What a tangled web

New Zealand’s Hamilton West Electorate for Parliament is about to have a byelection. This is so utterly stupid, expensive, and unnecessary, but here we are, anyway. For the first time in my life, this is a byelection that affects me personally: I live in the Hamilton West Electorate.

The saga began August 11 when Auckland’s right-leaning newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, ran an opinion piece by the then-MP for Hamilton West, Gaurav Sharma, alleging widespread bullying in parliament, and singling out leadership within the New Zealand Labour Party’s parliamentary caucus, which he was a member of at the time. In the days that followed, he made allegation after allegation, but never provided credible evidence or corroboration in support of his allegations. The Caucus voted to suspend him from Caucus until the end of December.

Sharma continued his accusations, accusing the prime minister of “lying every step of the way”. On August 23, the Labour Caucus voted to permanently expel him from Caucus, making him an Independent MP for Hamilton West. At the time, the prime minister ruled out invoking the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act (also called “the waka jumping act”) to expel him from Parliament because a byelection would be an “unnecessary burden” on taxpayers.

On August 29, Sharma wrote a very, very long Facebook post alleging that he “was the one who raised concerns re staff, not the other way around” before going on to make serious allegations about alleged misdeeds by his staff, and in very specific details. Although he didn’t use their names, using only initials, to refer to them, one of his former staff members told The NZ Herald, "This is a breach of our confidentiality. It's bringing up past trauma—we've already lived it once." The former staff member also said that Sharma should “move on”. Sharma should’ve taken that advice.

Finally, on October 18, Sharma announced in another Facebook post that he’d resigned from Parliament and said he’d stand in the byelection he was causing by resigning. He alleged—yet again with no evidence—that Labour planned to invoke the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act six months out from the election because then a byelection wouldn’t be needed. The prime minister was unequivocal: "We have not, and are not, considering invoking the waka jumping provisions, nor do I know the basis of Gaurav Sharma's speculation." She added, "Gaurav 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. We consider it unnecessary and wasteful given the general election is scheduled for 2023."

The byelection will be held on December 6, with early voting opening November 28. There are 11 candidates standing, and they’re certainly a motley assortment (listed, as on the Elections NZ site linked to, in alphabetical order by surname):

DANSEY, Georgie, Labour Party. I will be voting for her.

DICKSON, Gordon John, Independent. He ran in the Tauranga byelection in June, and he finished in last place out of 12 candidates. He also ran as the Labour candidate for the Selwyn Electorate in 2014, finishing in third place.

DU PLOOY, Rudi, running as the candidate of both the far-right christianist New Conservative Party and the utlra-far right theocratic christianist One Party. The two parties had separate candidates in the Tauranga byelection, coming in 8th and 6th, respectively, out of 12 candidates. This candidate won’t fare much better this time out, either.

FU, Frank, Independent. I know absolutely nothing about him except that in the recent local government elections, he ran for Auckland Councillor in the Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa Ward and came in dead last (out of six candidates; two were elected in that Ward). He, too, won’t fare much better in this election.

McDOWALL, James is the candidate of the neoliberal ACT New Zealand party, and currently an MP elected on the party’s 2020 Party List. I’d never heard of him until this election, so I know nothing about him, but his party has recently been promoting elements of right-wing populism.

OSMASTON, Richard, Money Free Party. In the recent local elections, he ran for mayor of SIX different councils. He promotes anarchism, in the classical sense, as part of the “Money Free movement”. He’s another candidate unlikely to do very well.

POCOCK, Naomi, The Opportunities Party (TOP). I know nothing about the candidate, but I’ve never thought much of the party. They style themselves as “centrist”, and are often associated with “radical centrism”, a political philosophy that I personally find too conservative, which is something I’d say of the party, too. Still, they’re likely to do better than the independent candidates or the radical rightwingers.

POKERE-PHILLIPS, Donna, the candidate for the extremist NZ Outdoors & Freedom Party. They are probably best-known for being opposed to vaccinations and the measures to combat Covid, and its supporters were part of the loons, goons, and cartoons illegally occupying Parliament grounds earlier this year. As for Pokere-Phillips, she came in fourth out of eight candidates in her run for Mayor in Hamilton’s recent local elections, however, that meant she only got 1248 votes out of 32,354 ballots cast citywide, and was eliminated in the first round (Hamilton elections are conducted under the Single Transferable Vote system), so being fourth isn’t as significant as some might think based only on her finishing position. She also ran for City Council as one of two Councillors from the Kirikiriroa Maaori Ward, and ended up in third place. That does mean she made it to the final iteration of the vote under STV, but lost to the second-highest ranked candidate. That, too, sounds more impressive than it is: There were 1951 ballots returned citywide, and only among voters on the Māori Electoral Roll. She’s likely to finish low in the rankings, but may make it as high as the middle, as she did in the Mayoral election.

POTAKA, Tama, National Party. I know nothing about him, but I don’t support the National Party, so he won’t get my vote.

SHARMA, Gaurav, the former Electorate MP, now running on his own party label, “New Zealand Momentum Party”. I know nothing about the party, or even if it exists, but apparently his campaign is being funded by a wealthy businessman. Whatever, I won’t vote for him again.

TAIT, Jade, of the ultra-far right christianist Vision New Zealand. The party is Christian nationalist in nature, and is affiliated with a fundamentalist “Christian” “church” in New Zealand. The party leader is one of the leaders of the church, and her husband is its self-proclaimed “apostle”. This candidate will do about as poorly as the other radicals running.

WAKEMAN, Peter, of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party. Candidates from this party run in all sorts of elections in order to promote and advance the cause of legalisation. I support their goal, but no one takes the party seriously.

That’s it—the whole list of the candidates on the ballot, along with my genuinely and sincerely held opinions about it all. But, of course, there’s one more thing about this sorry mess: Political games.

The National Party is pretending to be the “underdog” in the race, even though their candidate is actually the clear and obvious favourite to win. They say that the then-Labour Party candidate had a 6,000 vote majority in 2020, and that’s a lot to overcome. That’s bovine excrement, something that a party favoured by farmers knows very well.

The truth, which National knows very well, is that the wind is still at their back: Times are tough for a lot of people, the far-right has stirred up a LOT of anger toward the government, and the prime minister personally, some of which has been vicious and advocating violence. National is the likely beneficiary of all that, despite not being the specific source. However, the complicating factor is that ACT, an even more rightwing party than National, and one that’s in Parliament already, could siphon off votes from National. The far-right parties could also siphon off some rightwing votes, but probably only a tiny amount that they might have received if the far-right candidates had not been in the race. Collectively, the extremists might take at most 2-4% of the total vote. The Opportunities Party, being “centrist”, may also take some votes from National.

Labour may also lose some votes to The Opportunities Party, and some of Sharma’s voters in 2020 will likely stick with him. However, there’s no party on the centre-left or left to take votes from Labour, so the biggest obstacle for Labour is likely to be the fact that supporters of Labour may not bother to vote at all. Actually, hardly anyone will vote, regardless of who they support.

While the Opportunities Party could take votes from both National and Labour, perhaps just as a protest vote (a sort of “a pox on both your houses” kind of thing), it’s also possible that, as no doubt has happened many times, some protest votes may go the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis party. The independents are unlikely to play any role.

Finally, journalists have insisted on referring to Hamilton West as a “bellweather” electorate because the electorate supposedly “always” elects the candidate of the party that wins the general election nationwide. I should say first that I haven’t been able to verify that’s actually true (the research for this post was already talking far too long). More importantly, though, this is a byelection, something Hamilton West has never had before. Even if the journalists’ truism is, in fact, true, it only applies to general elections, and that’s nearly a year from now—a very, very, very long time in politics. So, whoever wins the election will not necessarily be a “bellweather” of anything whatsoever. Mainly, I just loathe sloppy and lazy citation of banal truisms rather than using hard data and actual numbers, but there’s also been little polling, and no poll results at all released since the final candidates were announced.

The bottom line for me is that this never should’ve happened. I don’t know Sharma, I don’t know what his motives might be, or even if he has any. I don’t know what his future agenda might be, or even if he has any. But as a taxpayer, I resent him causing us taxpayers to have to pay for this byelection for no good reason whatsoever. Even though I couldn’t have known how things would turn out, I nevertheless regret giving him my vote in 2020. I won’t make that mistake again.

Disclosures: I’m a member and supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party, but have absolutely no position of any kind with them, nor am I in contact with party leaders. All opinions expressed are entirely my own, based on some 50 years closely following politics and election campaigns (obviously I started when I was an infant…), as well as my personal values. I voted for Gaurav Sharma in New Zealand’s 2020 General Election, the first election I was able to vote in the Hamilton West Electorate.

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