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Mt Albert by-election
With two by-elections in the last three months, both in adjoining central-west Auckland electorates beginning with the word “Mount”, you would be forgiven for turning a blind eye to last week’s contest in Mt Albert. However, like the Mt Roskill race last year, these by-elections are proving crucial in establishing the power dynamics and important political issues leading into September’s general election.
That Labour’s Jacinda Ardern won should be a surprise to no one. The fact that she walked away with over 75% of the vote, however, is important.
Mt Albert, like Mt Roskill, is about as safe a Labour seat as exists in 2017. Its working class roots and immensely diverse suburban voting population make it ripe for the centre-left picking. Prior to outgoing MP David Shearer’s tenure, the seat was a Helen Clark stronghold for more than 20 years. That said, Ardern’s win was a significant milestone for Labour.
In the lead up to the vote, commentators and journalists speculated that Ardern might just barely scrape over the line against the Green Party’s Julie Anne Genter. Some even suggested that in the current fervour of anti-establishment politics, Labour might have seen a shock defeat to The Opportunities Party’s Geoff Simmons or perennial Auckland independent Penny Bright.
Yes, turnout was low, but that is the rule rather than the exception in by-elections. It was also unsurprising for what was essentially a contest of the left, thanks to National’s decision to forgo standing a candidate. As a result, National managed to avoid another embarrassing showing like Mt Roskill, but may have failed to stymie Labour’s emerging narrative.
That’s not to say that all of Labour’s problems have gone away with their Mt Albert win. The furore over Willie Jackson’s nomination and the current infighting over Annette King’s deputy leadership make that perfectly clear. But the fact remains that people are talking. There is still a long way to go, as polls suggest, but Labour is slowly clawing its way back into the conversation.
National’s “Clean Water” Policy
As far as political issues go, the state of New Zealand’s rivers has been something of a slow burner. While the Green Party have been dutifully raising their collective hands for several election cycles, it’s taken a while for the idea to gain mainstream currency.
However National’s recent policy rollout shows that pressure is mounting. The policy, released last week, included a commitment to make 90 per cent of all lakes and rivers swimmable by 2040. On the face of it this seemed like a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, but the opposition parties were quick to raise the thorny issue of defining what exactly a “swimmable” river is.
The problem is that the definition of a “safe” river leaves a surprising amount of political wiggle room. In the new policy, a river is declared fit for swimming if its bacterial count is less than 540 parts per 100 millilitres of water. The previous Ministry of Health guidelines, however, put maximum levels at 260 parts per 100ml.
To put that into perspective, a “swimmable” river at the previous maximum gave you about a one per cent risk of infection. The new maximum, however, gives about a five per cent chance of getting sick.
Environment Minister Nick Smith fought back against criticism, accusing the opposition of “junk science”, by comparing previous maximum median levels of bacteria with the new policy, and its aim to achieve the standard for rivers 95 per cent of the time.
If that sounds a little confusing, you’re not alone. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, admitted not being able to tell whether the policy tightened or loosened the law. While she welcomed plans to increase river fencing from livestock, she also conceded that the goalposts had probably been moved.
Mrs Wright also made the rather deft observation that the new policy seemed to be a direct response to mounting public concern on the issue. Until now, the Government has remained relatively quiet on water quality, but public perception is changing fast.
A recent study from Lincoln University showed rising concern over the health of our waterways. Importantly, the survey also found that twice as many people now blame farming as the main cause of lake and river pollution as did in 2000.
For the past three terms, the National-led Government has developed an impressive talent for reading public opinion. When polls showed support for marriage equality, enough MPs came around to pass the law, and as opinions on medicinal cannabis have shifted, so too has the Government’s response. The rollout of the “Clean Water” policy, however, has been a rare stumble in an otherwise winning strategy.