OPINION: Politicians' minds are never far from thinking about the next election. So it was that at the end of last week, after Prime Minister John Key made a double whammy of big-spending announcements affecting the future of Christchurch and Auckland, so the leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, was waiting wistfully for the outcome of the by-election in the North Island Maori seat of Ikaroa-Rawhiti.
Shearer's concerns are the more immediate. An opinion poll last week delivering a dismal ranking for both the party and Shearer personally was devastating to Labour. With National halfway into a less than easy second term, Labour was hoping that by now it would be shaping up much better. Shearer is not helped by his backers saying that if the poll results were converted to seats the party would be doing a little better than it had at the last election, because, as the critics point out, that election was a catastrophe for Labour.
Inspired by the brutal rolling of Julia Gillard across the Tasman, and keenly aware that the procedure here for Labour to remove its leader is much more drawn out and cumbersome, some in the party are saying that Shearer must start to do better by spring or be replaced.
Normally a by-election, particularly one in a Maori electorate previously held by a member with a large personal following, would not be seen as particularly significant. The turnout for by-elections is always low and they are strongly susceptible to a protest vote. But in light of Shearer's woes some were seeing this one as a kind of test. In fact, anything short of an outright Labour loss could be spun as a win for Shearer and Labour, and so it has proved.
Despite at least three strong candidates for the Labour, Mana and Maori parties, the turnout on election day was less than the majority by which Labour's Parekura Horomia won the seat at the last general election. The Labour candidate, however, did win by a respectable majority over the next most successful contender.
So much as anything can really be drawn from the result, there was not much comfort for Shearer. Where Horomia crushed his opponents at the last election 18 months ago, this time the combined vote for the Mana and Maori parties exceeded that for Labour. If those two parties could patch up their differences, they could be a threat to Labour in the Maori seats.
The prime minister, meanwhile, adroitly neutralised two political issues last week with an amicable settlement with the Christchurch City Council over the anchor projects for the central city rebuild and the announcement of several big new projects to deal with transport problems in Auckland. One of the Auckland projects included a rail link that is a pet of the mayor, Len Brown, and strongly supported by local business interests. Squabbling over it was a potential threat to National at the next election.
The cost of the rail link had been a sticking point. On that, the prime minister engaged in some studied vagueness. The timing of the plans is so remote anyway that that will be a problem for another generation of politicians to worry about.
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