OPINION: The Labour candidate for Christchurch East, Poto Williams, deserves congratulations for her decisive victory in the by-election at the weekend. Coming from outside the area only a few months ago before her selection, she might understandably have been nervous that she would be seen as a carpetbagger. But if there was any resentment over the fact that she was chosen over anyone with deeper roots in the community, it appears to have gone by voting time. Williams even managed to increase Labour's share of the vote.
Closer analysis, however, shows a more mixed picture. Labour leader David Cunliffe, in a curiously archaic choice of expression, pronounced it a "stonking" victory and said it was a signal that the Government was in trouble in Christchurch over the earthquake recovery. That is an exaggeration and may be more a reflection of Cunliffe's relief at the outcome than anything else. He had set Labour's sights ludicrously low. Even with the uncertainty from some loss of people from the electorate, a healthy Labour victory was never in doubt. The socio-economic mix of the electorate has not changed and it has voted Labour since the 1920s. The party also wheeled out an old warhorse, Jim Anderton, to run its campaign and put a huge effort into ensuring it got its vote out. In the light of all this, the result was no more than it should have expected.
Also, while there are undoubtedly many in distress in the east and there is a lot of discontent with the Government, the vote was also hardly an overwhelming expression of it. By-elections are commonly the occasion for that kind of signal, but the most that can be made out of this one is that many voters are moved by nothing more substantial than indifference. The turn-out was just 41 per cent. Nearly 18,000 on the electoral roll could not be bothered to vote at all.
Williams' job, though, is undoubtedly to give a voice to the many who are still seeking a way out of their earthquake woes. Working for individual constituents will be a part of that. A far bigger task will be working with her Labour Party colleagues to formulate a comprehensive and persuasive policy for earthquake recovery.
Since the departure of Lianne Dalziel, Labour has given an impression of unconcern about the city. Its earthquake recovery spokesperson is not even on the front bench. The Government has been unswerving in its commitment to earthquake recovery as one of its four central policies for the nation, along with creating a better economy and sound finances. Labour has no such clear vision. A few opportunistic policy announcements during an election campaign are no substitute for clarity of vision. It is something Williams must make a top priority when she gets to Wellington.
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