John Key is turning into a familiar sight on the streets of Petone. Twice in the last week, the prime minister has been out pressing the flesh in the Hutt satellite suburb alongside National’s candidate, Chris Bishop.
Locals are used to being off National’s beaten track in what has long been considered a safe Labour seat. But boundary changes and gentrification have given National the whiff of an upset.
"Hutt South is definitely in play, no question about that," Key said yesterday after visiting the local Weltec campus.
Some of the bravado may be justified. Labour’s Trevor Mallard may have won the seat with a comfortable majority in 2011 but National won the party vote.
In his favour, Mallard has the benefit of incumbency – and Key acknowledges that makes it "challenging".
"But there have been some boundary changes that make the seat more vulnerable."
A string of ministers are pencilled in for visits to the electorate over coming weeks, bolstering the impression that National thinks the seat is winnable.
But National may also be playing electoral mind games. Winning the seat might be a moral victory, but won’t change the outcome of the election as it might have once under First Past The Post – a point acknowledged by Key. And while boundary changes could slash 3000 votes off Mallard’s 4800 majority, there would still have to be a big swing against the incumbent to unseat him.
But Labour MPs have been rattled by their party’s low polls. The lower party support sinks, the more their survival hinges on holding on to their seats. And the instinct to maximise their electorate vote runs counter to MMP, under which the party vote is the major decider of which party will govern. National plunged to its worst defeat in 2002 for precisely that reason, after MPs retreated to their electorates and scrapped to hold on to their seats in Parliament.
Mallard does not dispute Key’s assessment, however, that the seat is in play for National.
"There’s no doubt that [my] majority is significantly lower than it was.
"I accept that the seat is not a safe seat, not that I’ve ever treated it that way."
Labour has thrown its foot soldiers at the seat, knocking on 13,000 households doors over the last 12 months. This weekend alone 40 activists are canvassing Mallard’s home suburb of Wainuiomata.
"We’ve done more canvassing [in Hutt South] than I have ever done before," Mallard says.
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