The battle for Palmerston North

With one in the red corner, and one in the blue...

Last updated 12:00 04/07/2014
David Cunliffe
DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ
PICK ME: Labour leader David Cunliffe in Palmerston North.
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In the red corner is David Cunliffe. In the blue corner is John Key. Lucy Townend reports as New Zealand's political heavyweights trade blows.

A bun fight has broken out between New Zealand's two biggest political parties over Palmerston North, with the prime minister and the leader of the opposition both eager to claim the electorate.

The contest for Palmerston North cranked up yesterday when Prime Minister John Key and Leader of the Opposition David Cunliffe called in on the city.

Cunliffe launched a stinging attack on city mayor Jono Naylor, National's candidate, and predicted Labour's Iain Lees-Galloway would win by "a country mile".

"Iain's a fantastic MP, he's been recognised as our junior whip in Wellington, he's a tremendous advocate for the city.

"Nobody in their right mind would swap him for a guy who can't take a position on anything," he said.

Cunliffe accused Naylor of being "wishy-washy".

"He's been the kind of mayor who's come in and wanted to consult on everything but delivered nothing.

"People don't go to Parliament because they don't have firm views, they go to Parliament because they want to make a real difference for their region. Sure, let's hear what he has to say and judge him by that, but everything I hear about him is he's a perfectly nice guy who doesn't know what he wants or what he stands for."

Key confirmed Palmerston North was one of four electorates National was targeting to turn blue at September's general election, alongside Napier, West Coast-Tasman and Te Atatu.

The focus was on maintaining a high party vote, but if anyone was able to topple two-term Labour MP Lees-Galloway, it would be Naylor, Key said.

"Historically, we've had good candidates here, but when you get the sort of situation you've got with Jono, which is a high-profile, well-thought-of candidate with strong name recognition in a seat which is always in the balance, then you've got a real chance of winning it."

The last time National won the electorate was more than 35 years ago, but following the party's recent track record of swinging red seats, Palmerston North could be conquered next, Key said.

"We haven't won since 1978, to win it is a Herculean task, but in 2011 we won Christchurch Central, in 2008 we won Auckland Central and both were seats that had been held for a long time [by Labour].

"In 2005 we won Napier and we hadn't held it since 1951 - we believe Palmerston North is a seat we can win."

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Citing the polls, Key said the party vote was getting stronger and come election day National would be pushing for two blue ticks in Palmerston North - Naylor for the electorate vote and National for the party vote.

Cunliffe said his party was confident about keeping the seat a red stronghold and Naylor was unlikely to notch up the extra 3285 votes to trump Lees-Galloway.

Lees-Galloway had proven he was an advocate for Palmerston North willing to stand up on economic, employment, environment and social issues and someone who was "an all around great guy", Cunliffe said.

With Naylor carrying on as mayor while campaigning to be an MP, Cunliffe said the National candidate was attempting to do two roles at once and he asked how the mayor could be critical of central government if he was campaigning to be there.

Key said there was no conflict.

"I think the important point would be if he were to win the seat or get into Parliament as a list MP then he'd have to stand down as mayor because it's not compatible or fair for the citizens of Palmerston North to do both," he said.

"But in reality as a politician that's going to be out and about obviously campaigning for National, he's going to be hearing about all the local issues, engaging with local people and I'm sure he can divide his time evenly, lots of people do."

As for Key's thoughts on Lees-Galloway: "I'm sure he's going to run a positive campaign, but we're not in the business of engaging in personality politics.

"We're interested in presenting to voters what we think are the critical issues and the direction we want to take the country and that our candidates want to take the country."

- Manawatu Standard

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