In this year’s General Election, political pollsters and commentators expect that National will restore hegemony across seven large rural South Island electorates, from Kaikōura in the northeast down to Southland.
Labour must defend its possession of Rangitata, Taieri and West Coast-Tasman against the anticipated swing back to National.
Labour is strongest in Taieri, south of Dunedin, where Ingrid Leary had a majority of 12,400 votes in 2020.
She is 52 on Labour’s list and needs to win the electorate to be assured of remaining a Member of Parliament.
The next-strongest position for Labour is in West Coast-Tasman, with high-ranked Agriculture and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor fighting his 10th election.
He won that electorate four times before 2008 and has won four more terms since 2011.
In 2020 he gained a 6200-vote majority.
National will again be represented by Maureen Pugh, a list MP since early 2015, and 26 on National’s list.
An independent candidate, Patrick Phelps, is promising to make the race interesting, saying that O’Connor (Labour 10) and Pugh are assured of a return to Wellington and that the Coast needs an independent voice to make things happen.
“I know how different both Tasman and West Coast regions are from the rest of New Zealand and that the political status quo is not working for us,” Phelps said.
“If we vote for an independent MP, West Coast-Tasman could maximise our leverage over the decisions of the next government – whether the prime minister’s tie is red or blue.”
National leader Christopher Luxon ventured into rural heartland Canterbury to meet farmers at Kirwee, in the Selwyn electorate.
It did not go well when the metropolitan media repeatedly asked questions about National’s tax policy instead of what it calls its Primary Sector Growth Plan, released that day by agriculture spokesperson Todd McClay.
A centrepiece of that policy is making water storage a permitted activity on farms, which would be welcomed throughout rural Canterbury and Otago.
Selwyn is held by Nicola Grigg for National, number 19 on her party’s list and, with a 5000-vote majority in 2020, responsible for one of the strongest stands in the country against Jacinda Ardern’s red wave.
Neighbouring Rangitata MP Jo Luxton is also number 19 on Labour’s list, and she had a similar majority in 2020.
Grigg is a shoo-in for her electorate win but Luxton has an uphill road back to Wellington.
Neighbouring Waitaki was won by Jacqui Dean for National in 2020, against the red tidal wave, and she is retiring after six terms in Parliament.
Newly selected Miles Anderson, the former Federated Farmers meat and wool chair, is expected to substantially increase National’s majority.
Waitaki has a coastline from St Andrews in the north to Palmerston in the south, including Oamaru, and covers Tekapo, Twizel, Omarama, Wānaka and Cromwell along with the country towns along the Waitaki River.
Its voters are 90% European and 20% working in agriculture, forestry and fishing.
Anderson said the major issue for voters in Waitaki is the cost of living, and that outweighs all other issues by two to one.
Worries about health services are also to the fore, given the contracted arrangement for Oamaru Hospital and the rebuild of Dunedin Hospital, and a shortage of oncology services.
Across all farmers the concern over rules and regulations, falling commodity prices and on-farm inflation are always emphasised in his conversations.
Anderson’s position of 59 on National’s list is not a concern, he said.
“I have to prove myself and I did not seek or deserve a high ranking,” he said.
Labour’s candidate is Ethan Reille, a Waitaki District Council employee and former head boy at Waitaki Boy’s High School only two years ago.
If elected, he would be the youngest MP in NZ history, and this is the first General Election in which he has been old enough to vote.
“Waitaki hasn’t had adequate representation for the past six years, and it has missed out on many opportunities for diversification of our economy,” he said.
The primary sector contributes 30-40% of the economy and there are many challenges right now, Reille said.
“My aim is to ensure that rural communities get as much investment as towns and cities.
“Farmers are both optimistic and pragmatic and I have been advised to work towards ensuring the next generation has the opportunities that were available in the past.”
In Rangitata during the 2000s National enjoyed a reliable majority, with Jo Goodhew in 2014 on 67% of the candidate votes, and her third consecutive win. In 2017 Andrew Falloon got 53.5%.
In the 2017 election Labour’s Jo Luxton got 36% and in 2020 she won the seat with a majority of 4400 votes (50% of the votes), defeating National’s Megan Hands (40%).
The electorate covers the larger population centres of Timaru, Ashburton, Temuka and Methven, where Labour is stronger, and the National-leaning central Canterbury farming heartland from the mountains to the sea.
Luxton has a background in early childhood education, and she entered Parliament at 29 on Labour’s list in the 2017 election before winning Rangitata in 2020.
She has been Minister for Customs since May 2023 and is Associate Minister for Agriculture and Education.
She has risen 20 places on Labour’s list this time and can be assured of a return to Wellington.
She said Labour has a heritage in the region through former minister for agriculture Jim Sutton, who represented the Aoraki electorate from 1984 to 2006 before losing the seat to Goodhew in 2005.
Luxton said she makes no distinction between urban and rural people in her representation.
“They need a strong representative in Rangitata and I think I am the best person for the job.
“I put great emphasis on trusting relationships and I think our rural folk do too.”
National candidate James Meager (Ngāi-Tahu) has been campaigning for a year since being selected, in the first electorate in the country to confirm a newcomer.
A former Parliamentary staffer, he believes that background will enable him to be effective in Wellington while spending as much time as possible as the Ashburton-based MP.
His appeal to rural voters is summed up in the phrase “get Wellington out of farming”.
“Our regulation-cutting policy, cost-benefit analysis, slowdown in environmental requirements, and repeal of Three Waters are all designed with that objective.”
Although not under-estimating his task in beating Luxton, Meager said all larger towns in the electorate are rural servicing centres where the party’s rural policies will resonate.
“She has been this MP for three years and in Wellington for six, so I tell everyone it is not going to be a walkover.”
His whakapapa is part of who he is, not the selection definition, and he gets satisfaction out of bridging Māori and European cultures, for usefulness and connections.