Tauranga by-election: On the campaign trail and behind the scenes with National, ACT and Labour

For 87 years the blue National ribbon has been the golden ticket for the Tauranga electorate seat, where only Winston Peters has beaten National since the 1930's. 

But Simon Bridges' resignation means the seat's wide open and now a by-election is two weeks away, with Peters not participating.  Labour nearly won here in 2020 with list MP and Cabinet Minister Jan Tinetti falling just a few percentage points short.

ACT's Cameron Luxton likes his prospects too. When Luxton launched his campaign in April,  he pointed to ACT's internal polling which showed voters saw them, not National, as the most effective party in opposition.

But an exclusive Newshub Nation-Reid Research poll shows National surging back with Sam Uffindell the overwhelming favourite - predicted to win 57 percent of the vote. 

But he isn't counting his chickens before they hatch. 

"I'm not looking at the polls…I do not have it in the bag at all and I would encourage everyone in Tauranga at home to please get out and vote," he told Newshub Nation. 

Labour and Tinetti may have been only two thousand votes from stealing the seat at the last election but 2020's "red wave" has crashed in Tauranga. Tinetti's down 16 points since then, at 22 percent in our poll. Worse for Labour, the party vote's sinking too, down 14 points. 

"We're really realistic about our chances in this by-election," Tinetti told Newshub Nation. 

"We're seeing people's reaction to the fact things have been tough for them, their journey through COVID times has been tough."

ACT's Luxton has gained ground since the last election - from 4 to 7.4 percent. But nowhere near his predictions of winning - he trails Uffindell by 50 percentage points.

Former Tauranga councillor Andrew Hollis is on 3.9 perent.

Tauranga by-election: On the campaign trail and behind the scenes with National, ACT and Labour
Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

While Outdoors and Freedom Party leader Sue Grey - a prominent face of the anti-mandate protests at Parliament - is on 3.4 percent. Both are within the poll's 4.72 percent margin of error. 

But there's still so much to play for. Nearly a third of voters are undecided - with two weeks to go till polling day.

Tauranga is New Zealand's fifth largest city. What was once a quiet destination for retirement - is now our fastest-growing region and with that comes big city problems.

In a packed house at Tauranga Yacht Club, a National Party public meeting on gangs and crime.

Gang numbers have swollen in the Bay of Plenty. So much so that Uffindell claims there are twice as many gang members as cops.

So the new candidate has a novel solution - to ban bikies tearing through town. A new members’ bill to punish gang members for riding in convoy through the city - issuing fines or impounding bikes.

"It's just plain ridiculous that they should own the roads instead of normal people of New Zealand. So what this will do is give police the powers to stop them doing that," he explained. 

But it's not at all clear how the bill would work and to what extent it would depend on the existing national gang list to determine who is and isn't part of a gang. Asked for specifics, Uffindell admitted that National hasn't ironed out all the 'finer details' yet. 

Meanwhile Tinetti says the root causes of crime shouldn't be ignored. 

"There has to be a response and a consequence when people muck up and break the law, that is incredibly important. But alongside that we need to ensure that we are working with multiple agencies in the community."

As former principal of Merivale School in Tauranga, Tinetti has seen the impact of inequality up close. The roll at her school was 98 percent Maori and it was rated decile one.

"I worked on the frontline with families who were related to gangs in the area and I have to say not one of my parents wanted the same future for their kids," she said. 

Tinetti wants to focus on changing that future and claims the job is underway.

"I think we have to create a pathway that's a more positive pathway for our young people than what we currently are - and I think that work is definitely being done." 

It's an uphill battle in this by-election for the Minister for Women and Internal Affairs.

A 22 percent share of the vote would be better than many previous Labour candidates have attracted in this National stronghold. A tough task which was made even tougher by testing positive for COVID-19 a week ago.

"It's a whole week being out of campaigning and to be fair for the first half of that week I couldn't even concentrate on campaigning because I was really sick," Tinetti confessed.

There have been no such setbacks for the ACT candidate. Winning supporters at his campaign launch and leveraging the brand of ACT Leader David Seymour -  who proved a popular drawcard. But it's no guarantee of votes.

Luxton is a builder by trade and building up Tauranga is top of his list.

"Tauranga has suffered because we've been put in the bottom drawer by the blue party and written off by the red party, so we never got the infrastructure we need," he said. 

Infrastructure's at the heart of the contest in Tauranga. Failure to deliver what the city needed saw the city council removed. For the past two years it's been run by Commissioners - appointed by the Government, not the people.

Tauranga by-election: On the campaign trail and behind the scenes with National, ACT and Labour
Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

Several candidates want the Commissioners gone and Commission Chair Anne Tolley has heard the criticism.

"I perfectly understand that. And I don't think any of us commissioners want to be here permanently. We see that this is just a moment in time." 

Tolley says she'll work with whoever wins Tauranga on fulfilling the city's needs.

"It's mainly transport infrastructure, mainly focused around what is important not just to Tauranga but important to the whole of New Zealand and that's access to and from the port and then the quality of life of our residents here."

She's met with all of the by-election candidates. All of them, except for one.

Regardless of what's going on at Council - this by-election is a chance for voters to have their say. And though Tauranga has an early favourite - nearly a third of voters are undecided - as early voting opens today.

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