I guess the big story this week was the Baseline/Native Affairs poll. The poll has thrown a spanner in the works and smashed previous perceptions of how close the byelection will be. Common wisdom held that Hone would cruise past Kelvin and make easy work of Solomon Tipene, however this may not hold true. Assuming the poll has any validity Hone may, in fact, lose. But therein lays the crux of the issue – does this poll have any validity? In my opinion, no.
It is notoriously difficult to poll Maori electorates. Maori, especially low-income Maori renters, are transient and do not and never have had access to a landline telephone. Often times when a polling company does manage to reach a Maori household the eligible voters are not interested in talking. Many of Hone’s supporters, read low income voters, would have been overlooked by this poll. Another significant bloc of Hone Harawira voters would have also passed unseen by this poll – young people. Horizon research finds that three times as many young people are without landlines compared to the general population. I think it is safe to assume this is even higher when you examine the rate for Maori young people. Another potential problem is if the polling company relied on directory listings only when gathering data. I know of a number of whanau who do not bother with the expense of listing their number in the white pages (when a white pages listing does not come with the connection). Apparently the poll only adjusted for age and sex sampling error, but not income level. The Tai Tokerau byelection will be an election voted along class lines. Therefore, it is crucial to correct any income level bias. A poll that does not account for differences in income is then, in my opinion, unreliable at best and invalid at worst. I tend to think I-predict, where Hone is listed as having a 60% chance of winning, is more accurate at the moment.
Considering the poll had such a prominent flaw, i.e. no adjustment for income level, it was interesting to see the Mana Party was on 21% support, the Maori Party on 25% and Labour on 36%. Solomon Tipene claimed during the debate that those results are an indictment against Labour. This is partially true, Labour continues to bleed support. Remember at the last election Labour gained around 50% of the Maori vote. However, most polls, for example the Te Karere Digi-Poll, place Labour at around 35% support and the Maori Party at around 35% support. If anything the Native Affairs poll is an indictment against the Maori Party who appear to have shed more than a few percentage points to the Mana Party.
Overall, I do not think the poll is worthless, just unreliable. I think it provides a good indication of how the voters in TTT are leaning. Kelvin’s work on the ground appears to be paying dividends, albeit overstated dividends in my opinion. Support for the Maori Party is higher than expected – even in a flawed poll – and Hone may not enjoy the depth of support that I and others thought he enjoyed.
But enough about the polls, how are things going to turn out on the day?
Many commentators are making the odd claim that Labour can out campaign Hone on the ground. This is, frankly, outrageous. It is a safe assumption to make, but it ignores the fact that a bunch of fresh faced Labour activists from Wellington are not going to go down well in the North. These guys may have experience running Grant Robertson’s Wellington Central campaign and handing out flyers for Trevor Mallard in Wainuiomata, but they do not have experience with Maori people and Maori electorates. Hone Harawira can tap nothing short of several hundred activists in the North and even a few here in Wellington. Hone knows TTT better than anyone, he knows every Marae, every whanau and every pohara corner of his electorate. In other words he knows everyone. He knows how to communicate with these people and what they will respond to. He can put more people on the ground, he can out door knock Kelvin and he knows how to grab a headline – that is something Kelvin cannot do. Mana can deploy more people than Labour, that I can almost guarantee. What Mana cannot do is piggy back off general electorate branches, make phone calls on election day, utilise parliamentary staff and resources and generally spend as much as Labour. But this counts for nothing when you have hundreds of vehicles on the road ferrying whanau to election booths, it counts for nothing when you have as many billboards, flyers and other adverts as Kelvin Davis and it counts for nothing when you are the incumbent with a strong narrative and strong base to work from.
But it must be remembered that the poll has lit a fire under the arses of Mana supporters and activists as well as their Labour Party counterparts. Both sides will be going at it hard over the next week. The Mana camp will now be scared, after weeks of cruising. While Labour will sniff the scent of victory and throw every MP, staffer and activists they can at it – and rightly so. The byelection will be won on the ground and it is a competition between Matt McCarten, Unite and Hone’s diehard supporters and Labour’s Shane Phillips/Te Pou (Kelvin’s campaign manager I think) and the Labour Party machine.
Another factor at play is whether or not the Maori Party vote holds. If it does, Hone will win. If it does not, then it depends on what direction it transfers. The conservative vote will flow towards Kelvin, however the residual tino rangatiratanga vote will flow towards Hone. In terms of the Labour Party, tino rangatiratanga is subsumed and relegated within a broader agenda. However, in terms of Mana, tino rangatiratanga is overt and central to a larger agenda. Obviously, the conservative vote will favour Kelvin – Hone is the antithesis of conservatism. Remember to that the Tory in chief, John Key, in the most overt manner possible has endorsed Kelvin Davis. Not that I think his words will affect the outcome to a significant degree, rather it is an interesting directive to the few National Party voters in the North. I wonder if Kelvin really wants the Prime Ministers endorsement?
A number of people have asked why the Maori Party put forward a candidate in the first place, and a weak one at that. I do not think I have commented on this before so I will hypothesise now. The Maori Party needed to perform a test run before the general election. They needed to determine how a three way race would play out. They needed to know whether it would really benefit Labour. Under the surface they will be hoping that it does. Hone Harawira is a greater threat to the Maori Party than Labour ever will be. Hone plays to the same base as the Maori Party and he is, quite successfully, sucking them dry. If Hone is eliminated the Maori Party can go back to acting as the de-facto voice for Maori and the de-facto Maori opposition. At the moment the Maori Party has to share that job with Hone and in some cases concede that the job belongs to Hone. Furthermore, if Hone is no longer an MP it is conceivable that he will not have a platform to work from and launch an attack on the other Maori seats – especially Waiariki and Tamaki Makaurau. I tend to think the Maori Party are quietly hoping that they scum enough of Hone’s vote to gift the seat to Kelvin.
I stand by my prediction that Hone will win. This is consistent with what the other leading Maori political commentators are saying as well. For example Rawiri Taonui, Tim Selwyn and Willie Jackson. Hone is attracting more support, even significant support from part of the Ratana church with the church offering to campaign for Hone. Ultimately, a vote for anyone but Hone is a wasted vote and a dumb vote. The voters are always right, no doubt about it, but the voters can be dumb. Vote Hone and you get Kelvin on the list as well. Vote Hone and you get a new political party and an energised movement that serves the interests of the marginalised. Vote Kelvin and you get Kelvin – no new movement serving the interest of Maori and non-Maori who are not served. You just get Kelvin. Which in itself is not a bad thing. Kelvin is a great guy and the new face of Maori in Labour. But you only get Kelvin. Voting Hone gives the voters of TTT the best of both worlds. You get Hone, Kelvin and a new political force. Maori are strategic voters, but they are easily led and manipulated by external forces as well. You can make a Maori believe a Maori stereotype if you reinforced it. I hope the people of Tai Tokerau don’t let the bullshit get in the way of voting for change, voting for someone genuine.
As an aside, just a small spiel on who won the debate. Hone did – hands down. He knew his lines and he spoke better ad lib. Kelvin stuck firmly to Labour’s line but did not perform so well when not. Hone was clearly more experienced in the situation and less reliant on soundbites. Solomon Tipene performed better than I expected, but clearly had no experience and was not prepared. Someone should have told him to avoid mentioning National too. It was hardly a debate I should add. More a Q and A session. Julian handled the situation well and managed to control some of the more enthusiastic supporters too. You can watch it here.