And then there were four

Mark Patterson: secure at 7th.
Mary-Jo Tohill/Stuff

Mark Patterson: secure at 7th.

OPINION: Mark Patterson woke up on Sunday morning knowing he was the single most likely of all four Southland MPs to wind up on the Government benches.

It wasn't a bad day to be Winston's No 7.

The more conspicuous and emphatic election-night victors, National's electorate winners Hamish Walker (Clutha-Southland) and Sarah Dowie (Invercargill), are entitled to be optimistic about joining Patterson in government, rather than languishing in the parched wastelands of the Opposition.

National's new Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker and his partner Penny Tipu.
Marjorie Cook

National's new Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker and his partner Penny Tipu.

But only Winston-willing.

The most likely scenario is that NZ First leader and once-again kingmaker Winston Peters will go into coalition – coalesce? – with National.

If Peters instead lends his crucial support to a Labour-led coalition then Labour's Invercargill-based new list MP Liz Craig would be the only other Southlander joining Patterson in Government ranks.

Invercargill electorate candidates Sarah Dowie, Liz Craig, Rochelle Surendran, and Ria Bond.

Invercargill electorate candidates Sarah Dowie, Liz Craig, Rochelle Surendran, and Ria Bond.

Any way you, or Winston, cut it, the south picks up an extra list MP with both Craig and Patterson coming in but NZ First's Invercargill-based Ria Bond out the back door.

The south may not have a Green MP but it does have green ones. Walker, Craig and Patterson are all first-termers.

This renders Dowie, in just her second term, the veteran in the southern pack unless we extend our gaze as far as neighbouring Nat Jacqui Dean (Waitaki), who is now a politically gnarled fifth-termer, and Labour's Te Tai Tonga retainer Rino Tirikatene, thinly stretched to serve an electorate covering the entire South Island.

Invercargill voters will now have Trade Minister Todd McClay's prediction ringing in their ears; that if National resumes control, Dowie will be a Cabinet minister.

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Not all MPs, new or old, are elected equal. If fresh backbenchers in the Government ranks have limited influence, it is at least perceived to be more than that of, say, an Opposition list backbencher.

Bond, who endured the south's most wrenching election-night result, could testify to that.

Narrowly missing Parliament three years ago as list MP, she was called in to the House to fill a list vacancy created when party leader Peters transitioned to electorate MP status by winning the Northland by-election.

This made Bond a late-showing-up presence in Parliament, without much of a political power-base behind her.

On election night she professed confidence – "the community knows I've worked hard" – but it would be hard to describe either of her main opponents, Dowie and Craig as workshy either.

On the night, she polled 8000 votes behind even second-finisher Craig.

When it came to the crucial list ranking, Peters positioned Bond once again on the likely brink of success or failure  compared to the more favoured newbie Patterson.

The Lawrence farmer, by his own account, has been more focused on adding value to primary industries than the health and social services areas in which Bond chiefly laboured.

Not that health, an acute area of concern in the south, is without representation.

It was the area in which Craig, a doctor, campaigned hardest and Dowie, while hammering the message of improved resourcing, acknowledges the state of the Southern District Health Board remains a concern. For his part, Walker has acknowledged the need for Frankton hospital to be upgraded.

As for the past year's ructions in Clutha-Southland – so much for any Todd Barclay backlash.

The sitting Clutha-Southland MP bombed out before the election, the fuse lit by a staff-taping scandal and the detonation coming when his denials put his account in conflict with that of PM Bill English.

But whatever the extent of electorate displeasure may have been, it has turned out to be something Barclay shouldn't take too impersonally.

English himself drew criticisms from further afield for his handling of the scandal, but ultimately there were  no detectable recriminations focused anywhere other than Barclay.

His late-in-the-piece replacement Walker, who promptly put more than 10,000km into campaign travel around the 3.5-million-hectare electorate, might be entitled to protest the impression that he wafted into the seat.

But he emerged a whopping 13,000 votes ahead of his nearest challenger, certainly within cooee of Barclay's nearly 15,000 majority three years earlier and the 16,000 majority English himself had built up as the electorate MP in 2011.

Pronouncing himself both energised and humbled, Walker will need no-one to point it out to him, though many will, that he need look only to his predecessor's career arc for a cautionary reminder that massive majorities aren't rock-solid guarantees of job security.

 - Stuff

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