Northcote by-election: Why who comes out on top matters

There's one thing that looms large in Northcote: the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

It defines the people of Northcote. They look at it every day, trek across it a couple of times a day. It keeps the city folk out and creates a town-like feeling in Northcote community. The city is right there, and yet so far away.

The Harbour Bridge also creates one of Northcote's biggest problems: traffic.

Northcote by-election: Why who comes out on top matters
Photo credit: Getty

A bottleneck infamously stretches down Onewa Rd. The congestion leads to inevitable conversations about transport and a proffering of solutions, in varying degrees of realistic: Should a Skypath for bikes run across the bridge? (One will, no matter who is elected). What about a train? (It might, eventually, but it depends on the Government). What about a tunnel? A six-lane motorway? A T2 lane? Different light phasing?

The trip across the bridge to Birkenhead.
The trip across the bridge to Birkenhead. Photo credit: Google Maps/Screenshot

Anyone would think transport defines this by-election. National's candidate Dan Bidois says it does. So does Labour's Shanan Halbert.

Dan Bidois recites a well-worn biography: he's a high school dropout with three degrees, a qualified butcher, a Fulbright scholar, an economist, an Aucklander.

Dan Bidois and National leader Simon Bridges in Northcote.
Dan Bidois and National leader Simon Bridges in Northcote. Photo credit: Facebook

Shanan Halbert has lived in the electorate for seven years and emphasises his opponent's weak spot - Mr Bidois is only a recent Shore migrant.

Shanan Halbert with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.
Shanan Halbert with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Facebook

They are both in their mid-30s, both Maori, and both intend to win this election.

Locals say they've seen both candidates out and about, plus volunteers waving signs and handing out pamphlets. There's door-knocking, phone calls and public debates.

That's because this election is symbolic.

If National keeps its seat, it will solidify its position as the largest single party in Parliament. Losing to Labour would be almost unthinkable for National - Jonathan Coleman won by 6000 votes in September.

The by-election was triggered in March, when Dr Coleman resigned from Parliament to take up a role at the head of private healthcare organisation Acurity.

He won the electorate in September while he was Health Minister in the midst of a Labour campaign focused on the health system's failings. To lose even a chunk of that 6000-vote majority now would hurt, and would be a vote of confidence for the Government.

A National loss would also give Labour another seat in Parliament. This wouldn't affect the governing arrangements, but it would be a mighty boost. Parties tend to share internal polling results when they like what they see. That's what National did when it found it had an 8 percent-point lead over Labour two weeks ago. Labour claims its own polling has National's lead at just 2.1 percent. Either way you cut it, National's ahead, but its lead is slim.

It's a universal truth that perspective is lost on the campaign trail. In Northcote, there was a scrap over access to a mall after Labour thought it was being unfairly denied permission to campaign inside. There have been complaints about flyers, pointed remarks about punctuality, booing at debates.

They both really want to win. But what do they offer?

While the pair agree transport is a big deal, they would tackle Northcote's Biggest ProblemTM in different ways.

Both say they back public transport, yes, but Mr Bidois wants to trial turning the T3 into a T2 across the motorway, and would look at light phasing and a permanent clearway on Onewa Rd. He also opposes new fuel taxes and wants a park and ride.

Mr Halbert wants to bypass the bridge by making the ferry cheaper. He would advocate for light rail across the bridge, and thinks there aren't enough car parks for a park and ride. He's a big supporter of the Skypath and says changing to a T2 would increase congestion.

There's a problem, though: local MPs don't actually make those transport decisions. They're mostly up to Auckland's local government authorities, with the Transport and Finance Minister ultimately deciding on funding for big projects.

Both Mr Halbert and Mr Bidois insist local MPs have a role among the transport authorities in advocating for locals on the projects they back. Both talk about getting authorities in a room together and nutting out the options.

Realistically, though, when either candidate turns up as a backbencher in Parliament, most of their influence will be voting on issues that affect the entire nation. That's where party politics come in.

Mr Halbert wants schools to be "adequately resourced", to increase affordable housing and is advocating for 'affordable' to mean something between $500,000 and $600,000, at least in Northcote.

He told Newshub Nation in May that he's against decriminalising marijuana, in favour of euthanasia and supports decriminalising abortion.

Mr Bidois says he believes in limited government, and "the opportunity to get ahead, the opportunity to reap the reward of your hard work" - key National Party ideology. In the Newshub Nation debate he said he also "probably" opposes decriminalising cannabis, depending on the legislation, is in favour of euthanasia "in principle", and is happy with the current abortion law.

When asked what he'd do for local business, he says they are concerned about public safety, regulations and "a sense this Government is cracking down on small businesses." He's "anti-fuel tax, anti-regulation with no clear reason; regulations that clearly get in the way of these businesses succeeding".

Mr Halbert has a very different answer to what he offers.

"The Skypath generates the Birkenhead business area as a destination for all of Auckland to come to," he says. "When we increase the amount of people walking and cycling over the bridge, Birkenhead is going to become that destination. We're really challenged by car parks at the moment, and that's why that's a really good option to build the local economy."

But, wait, the Skypath is going to happen regardless of whether Mr Halbert is elected.

"That's one example of a project that's sat idle for an incredibly long time, and my Opposition continues to sit idle on that issue," Mr Halbert said.

"It really demonstrates the type of local MP I want to be. I want to get things done. I want to progress our local issues in transport and affordable housing and resourcing our local schools. That's not something the Opposition can offer."

There are other candidates running in this by-election, too, but it's a first-past-the-post vote - a simple majority wins - so they don't have even a far flung shot at taking it out. The Greens' Rebekah Jaung and ACT's Stephen Berry will get a handful of votes. They are running to give their parties and themselves a little visibility.

We will find out which way this election falls when polls close on Saturday.


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