Labour has tail up, looking to election

GLENN CONWAY
Last updated 05:00 04/01/2014

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OPINION: Canterbury's MPs are now on holiday, recharging before they tackle what is shaping up to be a fascinating election year in 2014. Press political writer GLENN CONWAY offers his thoughts on what we learnt about our elected representatives in 2013. 

1. Labour is rising, National is treading water.

The Christchurch East by-election result gave Labour another shot of political adrenaline and the party is now confident it can win back Christchurch this year.

It was a good year for Labour in Canterbury but a stagnant 12 months for the National MPs.

Labour held its annual conference in Christchurch, its leadership roadshow and shadow Cabinet met here and its local MPs seem to have re-discovered their mojo.

Comparably, it was a flat time for the Nats with Kate Wilkinson announcing her retirement, Nicky Wagner facing an uncertain future, and the Aaron Gilmore "don't you know who I am?" episode. Its hopes for a future star in its by-election candidate, Matthew Doocey, were badly dulled by his less than convincing debut on the political stage.

Labour also appears to have strong candidates waiting in the wings to contest nominations with Tony Milne possibly leading the charge in Christchurch Central while Poto Williams will be confident after her by-election success of repeating the dose in Christchurch East.

But National's talent pool appears to be quite shallow, at least for now, as it enters election year.

2. Electorate boundaries can be pesky.

Simple lines on a map could well spell the end for two politicians.

Ruth Dyson in Port Hills and Nicky Wagner in Christchurch Central could both lose big chunks of friendly communities if the changes go ahead in mid-April.

Wagner could lose Shirley and Mairehau while Dyson parts with traditionally strong Labour bases, making it tougher to retain those seats.

Both will be anxiously waiting for the final boundaries to be confirmed on April 18.

Dyson is expected to stay and fight but Wagner's fate could be revealed early in the new year after she gives her political future serious thought over the holidays.

Unless National front up with a solid candidate for the Port Hills, Dyson could be safe but Wagner may not have the same luxury.

Christchurch East technically becomes a tad more National as does Waimakariri, ensuring the contests in those two electorates will be keenly watched.

3. Brownlee delivered.

He has his enemies but Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee deserves respect for another year essentially running Christchurch.

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His political rivals may disagree, but Brownlee has done a solid job overseeing the vast recovery effort.

Yes, he can lose his temper but if you break it down, few politicians have landed any lasting punches.

He has a huge job - arguably the biggest of any Cabinet minister - but appears to have a solid handle on all the issues even if his public persona can be gruff, even bullying.

One criticism is that he doesn't adequately use his associate minister, Selwyn's Amy Adams.

For many, she is a deputy in name only and very rarely fronts any announcements. She is extremely capable, respected across party lines but seemingly under-used.

Brownlee's future in the role seems assured however.

He has the ear of Prime Minister John Key and, besides, there is hardly a queue of capable, competent Canterbury MPs, possibly with the exception of Adams, ready to take it on.

Talk of him being taken off the earthquake recovery portfolio in a pre-election Cabinet reshuffle is just that - talk.

4. There is political noise but also political silence.

Brownlee made the most noise this year and rightly so.

His role is hugely demanding and it is usually him that is front and centre when it comes to Government announcements in Christchurch.

As noted, he often comes across as gruff and having a low tolerance for anyone expressing a contrary view, but he fronts up regularly and is across all the many and varied issues that come across his desk.

The other MP who started making himself heard a lot more in 2013 was Labour's Clayton Cosgrove.

His party's spokesman for state-owned enterprises and the Earthquake Commission saw the former Waimakariri MP earn valuable column centimetres and numerous sound bites.

Once thought to be yesterday's man in Labour, he has re-invented and rejuvenated himself and now enjoys a high ranking within Labour's shadow Cabinet.

If Labour wins the election, he will likely hold some seriously grunty portfolios.

But then there are those MPs who barely caused a ripple and rarely appeared in the media.

This select group includes New Zealand First's two local MPs Richard Prosser and Denis O'Rourke - who were virtually invisible this year.

They weren't quite as quiet as the NZ Firsters, but the two local Greens list MPs, Mojo Mathers and Eugenie Sage, were also relatively subdued.

5. 2014 will be a cracker.

The general election may be too close to call for now but there is no doubt there will be some good tussles in Canterbury's electorate contests.

Two in particular, Christchurch Central and Waimakariri, will be fascinating dogfights.

Both seats were narrowly won by National at the 2011 election but some potentially game-changing boundary changes could turn both battles on their heads.

Depending on who in National gets to contest the Port Hills electorate (David Carter is almost certain to stand only on the list), that contest against the experienced Dyson could also be too close to call.

Labour will be desperate to ensure Christchurch East's Poto Williams is not an MP for just a year when she fronts up again ther,e but again that may depend on who National picks there and how seriously they treat that seat this time.

But the real battle could be in the heart of the city.

Christchurch Central is Labour's to lose next year despite National holding a wafer-thin 47-vote majority.

Boundary changes give it more of a Labour feel and they will be desperate to win back the seat after the embarrassing 2011 loss.

The Canterbury election results could very well be a local referendum on the Government's earthquake recovery performance.

That alone sets the scene for a fascinating, edge-of-your-seat 2014 in politics.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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