Life after Bill

Last updated 06:57 10/01/2014
Bill English
Fairfax NZ
Bill English
Rachael Goldsmith
Rachael Goldsmith describes herself as "different looking, not your ordinary, conservative-looking Southlander" but the Clutha-Southlanders made her feel welcome and listened to what she said.
Liz Craig
Liz Craig is the Labour candidate for Clutha-Southland in 2014. She had put her name forward before she knew of Bill English’s decision to stand down.

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The vast Clutha-Southland electorate has been Bill English country since 1996 but this year it is up for grabs. On paper it is a safe National seat but are there opportunities for dissent? Philip Matthews reports.

The lights are on but Bill English is not at home.

His face looms over his electorate offices in Queenstown and Gore and Balclutha. This huge stretch of the South Island is his territory, his empire. No other human being has ever been the MP for Clutha-Southland.

The Clutha-Southland electorate has existed since 1996, the year that MMP was introduced, but English was already in charge. In 1990 and again in 1993, English won the now-vanished seat of Wallace under first past the post.

He was the last of the Wallace MPs. Derek Angus and Brian Talboys held it before him. Like English, they were National Party men.

Go deeper into history. Wallace once had MPs named James Joyce (1875-79) and Theophilus Daniel (1881-84). The forgotten former National leader Adam Hamilton held it from 1919 right through to 1946, for the Reform Party and then National. He was here from the end of one war to the end of another.

After Hamilton and Talboys, English is the third MP to rule this piece of land, for so long it almost seems an extension of his public personality. Stolid, sober, hard- working and unglamorous.

There are other similarities, as though history repeats. In 2002, as leader, English led National to its worst election defeat since Hamilton in 1938. Talboys never rose above deputy, although a cabal of unhappy National MPs tried to use him to oust Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in 1980.

But English has endured on the national stage in ways his predecessors never managed. He ended 2013 as the surprising politician of choice of several pundits, and remains deputy leader and finance minister, but he won't beat Hamilton's record of 27 years representing Southland, if that matters. The reign of English will end at 24 years.

English is stepping down as local MP this year, citing the need to balance family life and work. He is opting for a place on the party list. It means that this traditionally safe National seat will be up for grabs.

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How safe? In 1990, The Southland Times said that a gumboot could win the seat, as long as it was a blue gumboot.

In 2011, English scored 68.8 per cent of the candidate vote and National got 62.9 per cent of the party vote. Those are big numbers but in the recent asset sales referendum, the voters of 15 other electorates were more keen on the Government's asset sales than the voters of Clutha-Southland.

Across New Zealand, the asset sales tend to have urban support rather than rural.

Who wants to replace English? Stuart Davie of Gore would be the person to ask. He has been National's electorate chair for Clutha-Southland since April. But after a brief email exchange, Davie was reluctant to comment for this story.

His reticence is understandable. Davie would not want to pre-empt his party's processes.

Speculation fills the vacuum. Some note that there has been a history of National dropping candidates into safe seats - Maggie Barry on the North Shore, John Key in Helensville - but there can also be resistance from the local branch of the party. In November, blogger and National insider Cameron Slater wrote that "carpetbaggers looking for an easy seat that takes them straight to Wellington without having to campaign seriously" will be buzzing around safe and soon-to- be vacant seats like Clutha- Southland and Hunua.

But Slater wrote that while National has been "useless at succession planning", would-be carpet baggers should stay away from Hunua and Clutha- Southland, where party membership is strong - reportedly more than 900 in the latter. Those party members will want a local rather than a big name parachuted in from outside.

The recent surprise dumping of sitting National MP Colin King as Kaikoura candidate for 2014 shows the power of the party at a grassroots level and the urgency of renewal ahead of what is likely to be a very close election. King was passed over for Marlborough grapegrower Stuart Smith, a party member for just two years. At such times, renewal can have a feeling of ruthlessness about it - Game of Thrones, National-style.

***

Blue gumboot or red gumboot? Labour has sent one candidate after another up against English and not one has taken him down, although veteran campaigner Lesley Soper slashed his lead from 9043 in 1996 to 5797 in 1999.

Soper said at the time that the gain was likely to be disaffected NZ First voters looking for an alternative but English did only marginally better in 2002. He consolidated his lead in the following years: by 2011, he was some 16,168 votes ahead of Labour's candidate, Dunedin chiropractor Tat Loo. Loo won just one booth out of 75 in 2011 - that was in Kaitangata.

Loo points out that the electorate is only marginally smaller than Switzerland. Clutha- Southland is 38,247 square kilometres and Switzerland is 41,285 square kilometres. Don't even think about getting into politics around here if you don't like driving.

"I found that voters in the electorate were warm and welcoming," Loo says. "They appreciated that there is a lot of travel time to get between community meetings. They were always appreciative of me turning up. That didn't usually mean that they were going to vote for me but they really appreciated the democratic process and they put hard questions to me."

That legendary southern hospitality was in action. They had the scones and cheese rolls ready.

Expect the Conservative Party to be back in 2014. Last time the Conservative party vote was higher than ACT's and the Conservative candidate, 20-year- old student Ross Calverley, was just nine votes behind ACT's well- known local, Don Nicolson.

That result and the asset sales referendum suggest that this is an electorate both fiscally and socially conservative. It is not a high income area - there are only 1287 people in Clutha-Southland with an income more than $100,000 - and the average income would be lower still without the Queenstown corner of the electorate.

In November, as he announced his departure, English talked about some big knocks taken by the Gore district. There was the loss of 325 jobs at the Mataura freezing works in 2012 and the Solid Energy crisis that spoiled plans to develop a lignite mine.

In general terms, unemployment is low across the electorate but the employed are not earning much. Agriculture, forestry and fishing employs 23.4 per cent of people here. Accommodation employs nearly 10 per cent. That's the tourism economy.

Where are the opportunities for voting dissent? The Queenstown Lakes area famously has the worst housing inaffordability in New Zealand. Environmental concerns have "permeated through a lot of the electorate", Loo says, whether it's about water or galvanising issues like the Fiordland monorail.

In some voting booths in Arrowtown and Queenstown in 2011, the Green party vote was even higher than Labour's.

That corner will be a focus again this year, says Green candidate Rachael Goldsmith.

"They are more urban, more Green-thinking."

Goldsmith lives just over the electoral border in Invercargill. She describes herself as "different looking, not your ordinary, conservative-looking Southlander" but, like Tat Loo, the Clutha-Southlanders made her feel welcome and listened to what she said.

Which is what? Local issues include the economy and the increasing role that dairy plays in it. Its effect on water quality. The monorail, still. And taking care not to attack all dairy farmers as a class and to praise those who are doing things sustainably and within the rules.

"I'm not going to be delusional and say, yay Bill's gone, now we'll win the electorate," Goldsmith says. "The positive is that it will now be more of a level playing field. The media will hopefully be more open-minded instead of thinking that Bill's going to win and ignoring everyone else."

She remembers that in 2011 English managed to turn up to just one of the candidate meetings. The new National contender will need to show his or her face more often. And if you wanted to look for possible signs of longer-term change, the Green party vote went from 5.11 per cent in 2008 to 8.64 per cent in 2011, a trend repeated across the deep south.

***

More southern hospitality. On a rainy Thursday in Gore, while the National Party's Stuart Davie avoids the phone, Otago University child health academic Liz Craig sips a coffee in a gentrified pub. Craig is the Labour candidate for Clutha- Southland in 2014.

You can almost see the Bill English electorate office across the road, wedged between a Chinese takeaway and a hairdresser. The smiling face of the local MP on the signage, that absent presence, is a constant reminder.

Craig had put her name forward before she knew of English's decision to stand down. With a new National candidate set to introduce him or herself, suddenly it becomes a more interesting race.

History suggests that English may not have been around much.

Today Craig has driven across from Romahapa. It's an old railway settlement in the Catlins, just down from Balclutha.

Again, all these distances, the constant driving. Places on the map seem to be just down the road and the next thing you know, you're halfway across Switzerland. That means that a drive to Gore for an interview is no big thing.

Craig's day job is in Dunedin, exactly one hour and 15 minutes from Romahapa. She and her husband and their two teenage sons try to get back to the country on weekends.

They have four acres there. The land offers a political analogy. What if you left things as they are and did nothing? You can replant in tussock and beech but the thistles grow too. You need a firm hand.

"What are our thistles going to be?" she asks.

Look ahead 20 or 30 years to climate change and ever more intensive dairying. Will Southland have degraded waterways? Will it still have an economy in which kids leave for bigger centres after high school?

"If we choose to do nothing, that's an active choice," she says. "More thinking needs to be done. Labour is signalling that it's going to be focusing on regional development. It's given the leader that portfolio."

Speaking of leaders, her thoughts on David Cunliffe over David Shearer?

"David Shearer was a very nice chap. I quite liked him personally but Cunliffe's got more of a strong hand on the tiller. When he speaks about the economy, it's layered on years of experience."

Craig is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person. She describes herself as shy. Is she ready for politics?

"For me, the lifestyle [of an MP] looks somewhat challenging, but can you stand by and not engage?"

This is the theme of the conversation. It is one thing to learn, to understand and to know, but there comes a time when you should turn knowledge into action. After graduating from medical school in Auckland, Craig worked in Australia. The focus was child poverty in indigenous communities - how poverty translates into poor health outcomes.

Back in New Zealand, she retrained in public health and researched "the impact of the economic reforms of the 1990s on birth outcomes".

She monitored the effect of the recession on child wellbeing. She saw hospital admissions go up year on year.

"We're losing probably 40 or 50 babies per year before their first birthday from poverty-related conditions. We have 40,000 poverty related admissions a year. We used to get winter peaks of pneumonia, skin sepsis and asthma but my colleagues are saying that now the winter peaks aren't stopping.

"How many more years am I going to sit there watching it go up?"

Child poverty is an issue everywhere, she says, not just in the big centres. Families struggle with budgets. Health suffers.

"Up north, it's about not being able to pay your rent. Down here, the rent is more affordable but it's about the power costs."

At the very least, the famously welcoming voters of Clutha- Southland will listen to her message. They should know - if they do not already - that the message also has local application.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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