The war for the Wairarapa

Updated

The Wairarapa is usually a safe blue seat, but the candidate vote could be close this election. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Forget Ohariu, one of the real political battles looks set to happen across the Rimutaka ranges in the Wairarapa. Shane Cowlishaw explores what’s shaping up to be a tight race in the rural electorate.

Down at the Featherston RSA on a Tuesday night, jugs of Tui are flying off the taps.

There’s about 120-odd people jammed into the lounge and with all due respect, it’s busier than normal.

With just over two weeks to go until the election, the locals have come to see those vying for their vote explain why they should represent the Wairarapa community.

There is a real crackle in the air, a sense of tension that soon boils into shouts, jeers, and a little anger. One candidate later remarks that it’s the fiestiest he’s ever seen a local meeting.

Walking around towns such as Featherston, Greytown, and Carterton, you get the sense that things are going to be a bit tighter than usual on 23 September.

Wairarapa is a sprawling electorate, the fourth largest in the North Island, stretching from Cape Palliser to Central Hawke’s Bay.

It has a slightly lower average income than the national average and about one-fifth of the population work in the primary industries.

New Zealand’s economic boom has also benefited the Wairarapa. Business is good, with Featherston the perfect example. Just five years ago the town was derelict, full of empty shops and with a declining population. Today the windows of new cafes and restaurants glow.

But the benefits have also brought challenges. Migrating Aucklanders and first-home buyers fleeing Wellington are driving up house prices. On the day of the debate, an article in the local paper reveals prices in Greytown are at their highest ever.

The seat has long been blue, with only three Labour MPs winning it since 1946 – the last being Georgina Beyer in 1999 and 2002.

First-time MP Alastair Scott won the last election race comfortably, with a majority of 6771 over Labour’s Kieran McAnulty.

But rumours have been strengthening that the race will be tighter this time around, as some criticise Scott’s commitment to the region.

Last week Labour released the results of a survey it commissioned of more than 2000 people (the validity of which was questioned by other candidates) that suggested the race would indeed be close.

It put Scott at 33.6 percent, McAnulty at 29.9, and the third horse Ron Mark at 18.5. The automated phone survey of 2,051 people used touch tone responses to get its results, which included 10 percent who said they were unsure and 4.2 percent who nominated other unspecified candidates, according to the Times Age.

Backing up the sentiment has been the tone of the Wairarapa Times-Age, which has run several columns criticising Scott’s maiden performance.

In one particularly scathing piece entitled “Do we deserve better?”, the paper said locals had become resigned to the fact that their MP couldn’t get much done for the region – something that was unacceptable.

“When delivering his maiden speech in parliament three years ago, our current MP, National’s Alastair Scott, didn’t mention Wairarapa once when detailing what he wanted to achieve (but he did mention Richie McCaw three times).

“Mr Scott doesn’t live in our region, and presumably never has, although he does have a business here. Surely this is far from ideal, even for the staunchest of National supporters.”

Scott, of course, has replied to these criticisms stating the local economy was benefiting greatly from New Zealand’s positive direction (although in one he unfortunately mixed up the Wairarapa DHB with the Taranaki DHB, something the paper took great glee in pointing out).

This general apathy towards Scott, combined with the rise of Labour under Jacinda Ardern, could see the electoral vote go either way.

It is likely the party vote will stay with National (it received almost three times as many as Labour at the last election) but with NZ First’s Mark running a strong campaign and potentially stripping more votes from Scott things will be interesting.

In the afternoon before the Featherston debate, Newsroom sat down with the three main candidates to hear how they thought the election would play out.

“I think they’ve had enough”

Sitting down for coffee at Carterton’s Wild Oats cafe, NZ First candidate Ron Mark has already been stopped by a fan.

The woman asks how he has been, before mentioning she has just been up to Auckland. She didn’t enjoy it.

“It’s just like Beijing now, just like Shanghai,” she says.

Mark, the former mayor who is sporting his trademark cowboy hat, smiles politely and makes his excuses, conscious of a journalist in tow.

When asked how he feels about comments of that ilk, which are surely not unexpected given NZ First’s stance on immigration, Mark says it’s not an uncommon view.

“That’s a silent voice that’s all over New Zealand, that people seem somewhat disenfranchised in their own land.”

But he quickly pivots away from the topic, suggesting immigration’s effects on house prices are more often raised with him.

Mark is a seasoned campaigner. After time in the Defence Force he first stood for the Labour Party before switching to NZ First and entering Parliament in 1996.

After the party was booted in 2008 he became Mayor of Carterton in 2010, stepping down in 2014 after his return to NZ First. He is now the deputy leader behind Winston Peters.

He is campaigning hard to win the Wairarapa, despite knowing its an uphill battle against the two major party candidates.

His main carrot to offer the public is his high list ranking. With NZ First poised to play a role in shaping the next government, Mark says the region has been suffering for too long under a backbench MP.

It has also struggled under the representation of Scott, who Mark believes could face the wrath of the people after a lacklustre display.

“An MP who goes to Parliament to represent an electorate is expected to ask questions in the house about the electorate, push their electorate. I think Mr Scott has asked more questions about other electorates and general patsy questions about the general state of the nation than about the Wairarapa.

“National Party people, you’ve got to respect them. They keep their counsel close, you tend to know more from their facial expressions than what they’ll actually say but I think they’ve had enough of the fact they’ve been taken for granted, this is the second National Party MP that has been parachuted in from outside.”

He has little time for Labour either, railing against its recent survey that he claims was undertaken using shonky methods by a party sympathiser whose business is registered to a marina berth in Auckland.

But despite this he knows he’s a long shot. All he’s asking for, he says, is three years.

“It’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna be close. You’re dealing with entrenched tribal voting, you’re dealing with a Labour party that’s cockahoop and thinks it’s in with a chance, so it’s going to be tough.”

“If I lose, I would act as if I was the MP”

Up the road in Masterton it’s time for tea across the road from Labour candidate Kieran McAnulty’s workplace.

As the local council’s economic development manager, the 32-year-old says reinstating the rural affairs ministerial portfolio would be one of his main aims if elected to Parliament.

Giving off a preppy, confident air (one of the first things he mentions is that he was head boy at high school), McAnulty lists off his ties to the Wairarapa.

His family has been in the region for 171 years. He is a trustee of the local licensing trust, a proud member of the volunteer fire brigade and on the board of Wings Over Wairarapa.

Following his resounding loss to Scott in 2014, McAnulty set out to demonstrate his commitment to the community. It appears to be working.

Many of the people spoken to on the street who support National do so with the caveat that they have been impressed by the young Labour candidate’s work in the region.

He himself says he’s frustrated at seeing the Wairarapa being used as a ticket into Parliament, and seeing it miss out.

“Alastair and I get on fine, there’s no question he’s a nice bloke but he’s totally disengaged and people are frustrated at the seeming disinterest from him towards this seat.”

That disinterest, McAnulty says, has even seen members of the National Party donate to his campaign. “I can tell you last time it was zero”.

Sitting at 38 on the list, it’s possible that he will make it into Parliament even if he is beaten again by Scott.

But it’s no sure thing, with candidates below him such as Greg O’Connor who could shoot past if they win their own electorate.

Even if the voters of Wairarapa decide he’s not their man, his commitment to the region won’t change.

“If I lose, I would act as if I was the MP, because we haven’t had one for the past three years.”

“I don’t buy a lot of bananas”

Wairarapa’s incumbent MP Alastair Scott is sitting at a table at the White Swan in Greytown in front of a rack of his own wine.

Matahiwi Estate was founded 20 years ago and now exports most of its product. When Scott is in the electorate, he often stays at the winery.

In his previous life Scott held a variety of business positions. He was on the Transpower board of directors, the Massey University council, and has worked overseas in the financial markets.

He had no burning desire to enter politics, but was shoulder-tapped by associates who thought he would be good for the role.

“I thought about it for a while and thought yeah, that would fit my career path if you like. I had the skill sets built up from business...so all that background sort of pointed me in a way to this job without me really being that explicit about it or aware about it.”

Scott lives in Wellington, not the Wairarapa. He is not apologetic about it and says he never promised to live in the region.

A few people have expressed disappointment in his decision, but he wasn’t alone in not living in his electorate.

“I’ve always lived in Wellington, my kids have gone to school in Wellington...so I wasn’t going to upset their college careers. Family comes first. It’s only an hour away, it’s 50 minutes to Featherston.”

So does his think he’s done enough in his first term to keep his mandate?

In short, yes. Elections favour those who already hold the seats and although Labour’s surge on the back of Ardern was a wildcard, Scott says he expects to increase his majority.

When asked what the biggest challenge for the Wairarapa is, he says there are no big challenges, just things that could be improved.

One of those is the rail link between the capital, enhancements to which he would like to see sped up.

The biggest thing the Government could do to help the Wairarapa is to continue to focus on free trade, boosting access to markets, Scott says.

“We’re a little island nation, we produce way too much food than we consume, we must export it.”

Asked why food is so expensive in a country that produces so much of it, Scott is perplexed.

“I don’t think it is expensive, it’s not expensive. I don’t think it’s expensive in New Zealand if you buy seasonally, I was talking to a guy on the street today, he could buy two kilos of apples and a kilo of bananas for four bucks. Now, I don’t buy a lot of bananas myself but if you buy seasonally it’s not expensive.”

He is less flummoxed about why he will win the election.

Labour’s policies will be bad news for farmers and will galvanise the countryside vote, he says.

“You’re either going to vote blue, or (for) the Labour Party policy of a water tax, a capital gains tax, animals back into the Emissions Trading Scheme. I tell you what, man, that is going to get all the blue voters out in the rural seats.”

Muppets

Later that night at the Featherston RSA, the crowd are working themselves into a lather.

Farmers and Scott supporters are gathered in the back, McAnulty faithful in the front. Interspersed in between are pockets of encouragement for Mark and election newcomer, independent James Harold.

The questions are wide-ranging: Why is the DHB underfunded? How was the pea weevil infestation allowed to happen? What will you do about the high rate of youth suicide in the region?

Amongst the serious questions and shouting, however, is a gem.

“Which muppet are you most like?”

Politics is a serious business, but whoever becomes the next Wairarapa MP better have a good sense of humour.

(For the record, McAnulty fancied himself as Beaker, Mark as Kermit the frog, Harold as Animal - and Scott opted for Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch.)