Wellington, April 25, 2019
When I first became an MP back in 1984, one of the earliest and sagest pieces of advice I received was from my illustrious predecessor, Sir John Marshall, who told me “be loyal to your electorate and it will be loyal to you.”
It was an advice that I was to follow constantly for the next 33 years.
Politics is local
A variation of that theme had been more bluntly expressed in the United States a few years earlier by the irrepressible Speaker, Tip O’Neil, who bluntly stated, “All politics is local.”
In other words, voters and constituents are most concerned about the issues that affect their personal lives and the communities in which they live, and often they will vote accordingly, and support candidates whom they see as aligned to their concerns, even if they may not belong to the Party of their preference.
The “All politics is local” mantra becomes all the more relevant under MMP.
While it is the Party Vote that determines the overall make-up of Parliament, and consequently has more influence on shaping the composition of the government, the electorate vote gives people an even stronger opportunity to vote for the candidate they consider best suited, regardless of party, to represent the views and values of the area in which they live.
The scope, therefore, for effective local representation, is considerably enhanced by MMP, with local voters less likely to support candidates they see as out of touch with, or not particularly interested in, the issues of concern to them in their communities, but more likely to favour those who are in touch and supportive.
MMP and FPP
This is in stark contrast to the days of First-Past-the Post where in “safe” seats, particularly, it mattered little who the local MP was, or how effective they were, so long as they wore the right party colours.
Even in marginal seats, where the contest was always keener, and the calibre of candidates therefore higher, the focus still tended to be on the issues of national significance, rather than the local ones.
Being a good local MP was often a secondary consideration, although there were a few occasions where that made the critical difference between winning and losing.
Effective local representation
MMP is a system ready-made for effective local representation, and it is hard to understand why so many electorate MPs often overlook that.
There are exceptions – but they are few and far between. Those who come readily to mind are Damian O’Connor and his staunch advocacy for the West Coast, regardless of his Party’s position on an issue and Nick Smith and Nikki Kaye who are always seen to be working assiduously in their electorates.
For most of the rest, however, the electorate seat they hold is but the vehicle that gives them a seat in Parliament.
Every now and then, an issue arises which is critical to a particular electorate or group of electorates, and cries out for effective advocacy by the local MP.
NZTA’s recent decisions to effectively can the proposed Petone To Grenada Link Road and delay almost indefinitely the development of the Melling Interchange are two such examples.
Both affect the Hutt Valley and northern Wellington electorates, particularly, and the Wellington region generally.
The Petone to Grenada Link Road (effectively linking the Hutt Valley directly to State Highway One north of Wellington) has been on the books for over a decade, and has always rated highly in terms of the cost benefit analysis.
While there have been issues regarding the constantly shifting designated route of the road and its likely impact on affected property owners, and some of the engineering issues arising from some of NZTA’s earlier indicative designs for the road, none of these were insoluble, and progress was being made towards the development of what most people regarded as a necessary road link.
Lives had already been disrupted with properties already purchased and people compensated, but now it seems all that counts for nothing, as it is back to square one.
The Melling Interchange idea has been around for almost as long, and is seen as a necessary solution to a significant and unsafe bottleneck on State Highway Two. Even NZTA agrees that the Interchange is worthwhile, but it is now saying it will be at least ten years before any funding can be set aside for it.
Both decisions have come as a major surprise to people in the Wellington region, but what is perhaps more surprising is the complete silence of the region’s Labour MPs and Labour aligned Mayor of Wellington on the issue.
The Mayor of Lower Hutt and the local National MPs, and even the Speaker of the House from whom one would normally a measure of impartiality, have weighed in opposing these decisions, but to date, they have been lone voices. Yet, if ever there was an occasion where local MPs, regardless of party, could come together to advocate for their region and its infrastructural interests, this is it.
Wellington is constantly concerned about its future focus and development, always with a rival’s eye to its competitive sister of the North, the rapidly growing power-house of Auckland. The concern is understandable, although Wellington will never compete effectively with a properly governed and organised Auckland nearly five times its size. But for it to have any sort of worthwhile future,
Wellington needs effective leaders and representatives, committed to getting the best sustainable, social and physical infrastructure for the region. For Wellington now, all politics has to be local, across the five cities comprising the region, the six electorate MPs, and the list MPs living in the area, with everyone equally committed to pushing the region’s future.
So, the local Labour MPs need to take Sir John’s advice to heart, and put the needs and wishes of their local constituents front and centre of their considerations, rather than just continue their focus on being loyal, unquestioning servants of their Party.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led Governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He formed the UnitedFuture Party which was closed after his retirement from Parliament. He lives in Wellington.