I wonder if Guyon Espiner, Duncan Garner, Barry Soper and all of the other mainstream pundits who called the byelection for Kelvin are willing to eat their words - or at least sink their teeth into a slice of humble pie. Once again the mainstream commentariat has proven that they misunderstand Māori politics and cannot be relied upon to read the situation in the Māori electorates. I mean not to brag, but I called the result correctly. For the past few months I have stated that Hone would win by 5% at worst and 10% at best (he won by 7%). Other Māori political commentators picked the right result as well including Rawiri Taonui, Willie Jackson, Veronica Tawhai, Ann Sullivan, Tim Selwyn and Marty Mars. In fact Rawiri Taonui called it fairly close when he stated on Marae that Hone would win by between five and ten percent.
You cannot really blame the mainstream pundits for calling the incorrect result though. (before I continue I should probably mention that not all mainstream commentators backed Kelvin – Bryce Edwards and Martyn Bradbury been the most notable exceptions). Common wisdom held that the conditions favoured Kelvin Davis. For example Labour had the opportunity to concentrate their resources, mobilise a nationwide net of activists, piggyback off of general electorate branches and offices, utilise Parliamentary staff and resources and focus the party’s experience and energy on one cause. Kelvin would have also had priority access to the Labour party communications team and advisers, he had the support of an army of sitting MP’s and access to their supporters. Given that this was a byelection the voting conditions also favoured Kelvin. By this I mean Hone’s supporters are, in general, more apathetic, couple this with Labour’s ability to run a better GOTV campaign and it becomes clear that low turnout will favour Kelvin rather than the incumbent (Hone) which is usually the case. Finally, Kelvin was running in a byelection that, according to the polls, no one in the North wanted. With the above in mind you would be forgiven for thinking the byelecion was a gift Kelvin failed to grasp hold of? Well, I can assure you, Kelvin was up against it from the beginning.
Hone Harawira enjoys a deep, deep well of support, maintains functioning branches across TTT, he was the incumbent, he benefits from networks he has spent years building, he is perhaps the most effective backbench MP, he enjoys access to and support from hundreds of volunteers including some of the most prominent and respected Māori figures like Moana Jackson, he is more experienced than Kelvin as a politician and as a performer, he had the more powerful narrative and he carried the hopes of progressive Māori across the country. Ultimately though, what it came down to, in my opinion at least, is the powerful line that a vote for Hone is a vote for Hone and Kelvin whereas a vote for Kelvin is a vote for Kelvin. Māori are strategic voters and this sort of reasoning would have featured prominently in the minds of the politically savvy, read those most likely to vote. Another deciding factor was the Mana party’s performance on the ground. Hone tapped hundreds of activists who door knocked across the entire electorate, ferried families to the polls, erected signs, billboards and manned stalls. The Mana Party effort was equivalent to, or perhaps surpassed, Labour’s effort on the ground. The last factor that would have played in the mind of voters was Hone dominance in debates, town hall meetings and question and answer sessions. Hone won, quite convincingly too, every televised debate. Although Kelvin performed well in terms of delivering his lines and Solomon Tipene held himself with dignity – Hone was always one step ahead and one foot above.
If we examine the numbers we find that Hone Harawira won this byelection because he managed to hold off Labour in Auckland. The Labour party correctly identified Auckland as marginal ground. However, the party machine and Kelvin Davis failed to win Auckland in sufficient numbers. Kelvin won West Auckland by a mere 30 votes and the rest of Auckland by 158. This was not good enough. Considering that Auckland, especially West Auckland, is something of a Labour heartland you would expect to see Kelvin gallop ahead. What it came down to was Mana’s ability to neutralise the Labour Party machine in West Auckland. Mana Waitakere was, to the best of my knowledge, the first Māori Party branch to defect and then establish as a Mana Party branch. There was a transfer of personnel and – as you would expect - a transfer of knowledge, infrastructure and experience. When you examine Hone’s numbers it becomes clear why he won. Hone won the far north by almost 600 votes and Whangarei by 222. If Kelvin wanted a chance at snatching the seat he needed to win Auckland in those sorts of numbers.
Another reason Hone retained the seat was because the Māori Party vote did not collapse and transfer to Kelvin. In fact it held steady. Solomon Tipene came in with 9% of the vote. A drop on 1% from what I and others were predicting. If The Māori Party vote dropped below 5% Kelvin Davis would be celebrating today as the MP for Te Tai Tokerau. Credit must go to Solomon for holding Māori Party support.
I guess the big question today is where to from here. I said last week of Native Affairs that TTT is not the indicative Māori seat, but it is the seat that will determine who goes into the election with momentum. At this point it will be the Mana Party and Labour that share the momentum going forward. The Māori Party has stalled, but Solomon Tipene did a good enough job to keep them from going backwards. Mana will now go into the election with the energy, belief, and prominence to take Waiariki and have a decent crack at the other Māori seats, bar Te Tai Tonga which now belongs to Labour. Labour goes forward with the ability to take Tāmaki Makaurau as well.
A Hone Harawira win will also change the political landscape. The Māori Party has declined Hone’s olive branch and this has opened the door for Mana to run candidates in the Māori seats. This will weaken the Māori Party and consequently weaken the right wing bloc in the House. The Mana Party will also target the working poor and beneficiaries. Two groups that are, arguably, underrepresented. If the Mana party can attract a sufficient number of party votes we will see a stronger left wing bloc post-election. Rather than split and weaken the left vote I think the Mana Party will increase the strength of the left vote. Mana has no interest in cannibalising the Greens or sucking off of the same base as Labour – Mana is concerned with attracting the politically apathetic.
The last point I want to make is that polls attempting to gauge Māori electorates should be taken at face value only. The Baseline/Native Affairs poll confidently put the result at 41% Hone and 40% Kelvin. This was, as I expected, way off. Beyond the margin of error even.
Full credit must go to Kelvin and Solomon. Solomon Tipene handled himself well, especially following his leaders derogatory comments, while Kelvin proved that he is a rising star in the Labour Party. Full credit must also go to the Labour Party activist base as well. Although Labour is performing poorly at a national level the party can always fall back on their die-hard supporters when the need occurs. Kelvin is worthy of a promotion. My suggestion is that he be elevated to education spokesperson.
Lastly, the best man won – in my opinion at least. The big challenge for Hone is to surround himself with intelligent and experienced advisors as well as people with experience in building successful organisations. Hone needs to take himself in a new direction and he needs to build a party of talented, committed and energetic individuals. And not just a party for Māori, but a party for all New Zealanders.