Affluent and low-rise, among neatly trimmed lawns and incongruous palm trees, a commercial strip houses bakeries, hairdressers, and diner workers. Woodridge, while on the east bank of the Waikato River, was absorbed into the Hamilton West electorate when the boundaries were redrawn in 2020.
Nearby, on one of the few undeveloped lots, two bay horses graze.
Perched outside Borman’s Bakery, which straddles the boundary between the Hamilton West and Waikato electorates, is Arama, who did not provide his last name. Headphones on and full reel in hand, he’s just finished a morning spreading bark in a schoolyard across the street.
The aspiring music producer says he didn’t even know there was a by-election less than a month away, nor that embattled former Hamilton West Labor MP Gaurav Sharma had resigned.
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“I’m interested in freedom,” he explained, “I would like to see more control, more freedom over my life.”
It’s unclear whether a by-election, perhaps just ten months from a general election, can allay his concerns about freedom, but what is clear is the indifference that Arama and others like him across the electorate feel toward parliamentary politics. .
Voter turnout in by-elections is usually considerably lower than in general elections. In the recent Tauranga by-election, turnout barely topped 40%, and if sentiment on the streets of Hamilton West is any guide, turnout in this contest, just a fortnight before Christmas, could be even lower.
It’s easy to forgive Arama and others like him for their indifference to current politics. Hamilton West has been underrepresented nationally for some time.
Since mid-August, the electorate has been the eye of the storm that has swirled around Dr. Sharma. Sharma, who raised accusations of intimidation at Labor whips, triggered the by-election when he withdrew from Parliament on October 18 after being expelled from his party earlier.
Policy announcements from both the government and the opposition National Party are beginning to materialize.
On Thursday, National unveiled a tough crime policy that would see repeat juvenile delinquents placed in military academies for up to 12 months in response to rising commercial robberies and raids.
Meanwhile, Labor has lavished constituency voters with $150m in funding to redevelop the city centre, build a new reservoir and provide a footbridge across the Waikato River from Hamilton East to the CBD.
Outside Te Rapa New World, an illuminated sign announces that the supermarket’s sausage is the best in the country.
The superlative mood doesn’t extend much beyond the butchery department.
Mark Alloway, who has lived and worked in the electorate for more than a decade, describes himself politically as “true blue.”
Alloway, a former engineer, had a career that spanned continents, helping build nuclear plants in the United States and hydroelectric projects throughout New Zealand.
Alloway would vote blue in this by-election, as he always does.
“The current government, they are a bunch of clowns.
“I like him [National Party] candidate, he has the right qualifications, he’s a man of good standing in the community and I’m pretty sure he’ll get in,” Alloway said.
This certainty, in a seat that typifies many of the most telling statistics about central New Zealand, is a curious one: New Zealanders are a mixed bag.
In the last two elections, the seat challenged its reputation as a benchmark. In 2017, the seat was won by Tim Macindoe of National, whose party lost the election after New Zealand First joined a rising Labor Party. In 2020, at the height of his power, Labor’s Sharma won the electorate by a majority of 6,267 votes, a larger-than-average swing. Hamilton West can surprise.
The surprise among shoppers is also evident: the price of groceries rose 10.1% in the year ending October 2022, according to Stats NZ.
A new father and interior builder apprentice, Craig, who did not want to give his last name, had been at the supermarket to change an online order gone awry.
“Everything is quite expensive… My wife is taking a year off from work next year to study, we can only afford it because the family can contribute and help.”
He said that he, like Arama, did not know who the candidates were and did not care to know either.
“I don’t know who the candidates are, I just see them before the election waving signs on the corner,” he says, pointing to an adjacent busy intersection.
“I’m not sure how much they can change, especially just one person.”
He is right, the by-elections will not change the formation of the government, nor will they give the opposition any crucial tie-breaking votes. In fact, both parties are downplaying their chances, with the leaders of both parties referring to themselves as the “losers.” So that begs the question: who is it for?
Quite simply, the people of Hamilton West.
A ten-minute drive away in Nawton, the bustle of school is just beginning and the mall is packed with students eating after-school snacks, waiting for buses, and talking business.
Outside the row of shops, which includes a laundromat, chippy, barbershop and bakery, is a row of steel bollards, reinforced by two Lego-like concrete blocks. They are there to deter ramraiders.
Phil Terry, a councillor, had just gone into the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. He said the bollards were not only useful, but symbolized how he feels increasingly unsafe in his community.
“I don’t feel safe in the community. Nope.”
He also wasn’t sure if he would make it to a voting booth in December.
“No, I don’t know, because I don’t know any of them. I think we have received a pamphlet in our mailbox from the ex-worker”.
Terry implored the candidates to make an effort to reach out to communities like hers, saying, “I think they just need to be available to people.”
Jarel Taunoa, who is the headboy for Nga Taiatea Wharekura, turns 18 on December 10.
The by-election will be your first chance to have a say in what the community you grew up in should look like.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that,” he said when asked what issues were paramount to him.
“The price. In terms of food, especially in this area we have a lot of Maori, it’s a higher percentage of Maori around here who are struggling to buy food, buy milk… that’s why sometimes you see so much shoplifting.”
The sentiment was shared by another local. Atawhai, who did not want to give his last name, was at the Western Community Center waiting for delivery of uneaten school lunches. Pulled pork and salad were on the menu.
“Because we are without a deputy, that has caused a real stir. You know, when you’re down, you need someone to go to, some office to say ‘look, this is happening’.”
Driving through the electorate, one gets the feeling that some of the issues here, like crime and the cost of living, are almost too big to tackle comfortably. Instead, people lose interest.
It is now up to the parties vying for their vote to ensure that the contest does not become a flashy precursor to the upcoming general election, but rather a reminder to residents that they, too, are being heard.