A political battle is brewing in Northland with three candidates facing off

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Analysis – There’s a battle brewing in the seat of Northland, with the future of one party potentially riding on the result.

NZ First, Labour and National respectively

NZ First’s Shane Jones, Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime and National’s Matt King are facing off in the Northland electorate. Photo: RNZ / Labour Party / RNZ

The colourful New Zealand First MP Shane Jones is in a fight for his political life, with Labour unwilling to lend a hand.

He’s up against Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime, and the incumbent MP Matt King – both of whom are ahead of Jones in recent polling.

Before Auckland re-entered lockdown RNZ political reporter Jo Moir travelled north to meet with the contenders.

Northland’s not only a potential political lifeline for Shane Jones, but his party, that’s been languishing below the crucial 5 percent party vote threshold.

He has a battle on his hands, and wants to remind voters of the money poured into the region under the coalition.

Jones says National voters don’t realise how wasted their vote is if they continue to give it to the blue team under current conditions – in particular in view of Jacinda Ardern’s trajectory.

Labour, he says, will reward the constituencies that propel it into power if left to govern alone – and Northland won’t be one of them.

“The Labour Party and their brilliant communicator Jacinda Ardern have a very lucid and crystal clear strategy to govern by themselves.

“For the Labour Party taking the turtle strategy is rational – maintain a steady and predictable turtle approach – my job as a New Zealand First politician is to flip the turtle over,” Jones says.

The incumbent in Northland is Matt King. He won the seat back for National in 2017 against Winston Peters.

The New Zealand First leader secured the seat in a by-election in 2015 after then-Labour leader Andrew Little did a deal and told candidate Willow-Jean Prime to pull back on campaigning.

Prime picked up a decent chunk of the vote in 2017, ruining Peters’ chances of holding onto the seat, and ensuring it returned to its National roots.

She’s in the race again this time round and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern says a deal isn’t happening.

Prime says telling people who they should vote for is “offensive”.

King is surprised but pleased Prime is contesting the election on both counts.

“I felt that they were going to do a deal. They did a deal in 2015, it was all under the table, but it was definitely a deal.

“I thought that’s what they’d do again – I’m quite surprised – Willow-Jean is running a two tick campaign and I’m quite happy with that,” he says.

King also sympathises for those in the electorate who feel like they’re not getting their fair share.

“I think Northlanders generally feel that they have been a forgotten territory by successive governments and to a degree I agree with that.”

And while Northlanders rejected National’s ten bridge promise in 2015, King says they’re not fooled by New Zealand First’s pork-barrelling.

Prime says the odds are stacked against the North.

“We are unfortunately in Northland, and in communities like this, over-represented in the negative statistics in terms of unemployment, welfare dependency, health outcomes, lower educational achievement. I could go on – suicide, incarceration, recidivism – it’s a bleak picture,” Prime says.

One aspect that has changed the race for the North is Jones’ less bombastic rhetoric.

It’s intentional after his mother and wife offered the following advice.

“Don’t wander around using words that the average voter has no idea what you’re talking about, because half the time you sound as if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

“So yes, I’ve been given that unwanted advice and hopefully it’s evident that I’m starting to follow it,” Jones says.

King says a more subdued Jones makes his job more difficult, because voters respond better to it.

The relationship between the three is incredibly warm.

Prime and Jones often share cars to announcements and airports.

On the day RNZ was interviewing King in Kerikeri he received a text message from Prime asking nicely for details for a candidates’ meeting that night, which King happily passed on.

Northland is home for all of them and Prime says ultimately she thinks they all care more about the people than the politics.

Easy for Prime to say perhaps, given she’s in the most comfortable position with a winnable list spot on current polling.

Up against a man who already holds the seat but with a party vote that’s in decline, and one clinging on to Parliament by his fingernails.

The two worlds

There are two types of Northland and the three main candidates vying for the job of electorate MP come 17 October all have their own experiences of both.

Matt King is a farmer who lives in Okaihau in South Hokianga.

But in an earlier life he was a policeman in the North – his son now is too.

King saw the destruction things like methamphetamine, alcohol and domestic violence did to communities in places like Kaikohe.

He’s seen how both sides live and worked amongst it.

Then there’s Ngāpuhi’s Willow-Jean Prime.

She grew up in Moerewa and chose to stay living there despite the reputation that took hold when local industry closed, drug addiction and family violence rose and the town became a place nobody ever stopped in.

Prime is one of the lucky ones who has done good – making it onto the Far North District Council before becoming a list MP for Labour at the 2017 election.

Her children go to the local school, she spends her time in the town working with community hubs trying to get locals clean and into work and then when Parliament is sitting she lives a different life in Wellington.

She takes RNZ to the one and only café in Moerewa for what is a darn good coffee, but she says despite many trying, the store has had multiple owners over the years as the coffee culture doesn’t exist for the people of Moerewa and the out-of-towners don’t want to stop.

It’s a far cry from the latte-sipping at Parliament.

Then there’s the new guy in the race – Shane Jones. He’s Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto.

Jones is also local and if he can win the seat then the party has a lifeline, and it would almost certainly seal the deal for Jones as the future leader of the party.

He lives in Kerikeri too, but grew up in Awanui.

His family lives in Mangonui and he himself has land there.

Jones is the Māori who went to Harvard University, is one of the most eloquent English speakers Parliament has ever seen, but is just as happy on the marae speaking and translating te reo Māori.

He wears a suit more often these days but is more comfortable in gumboots.

Kerikeri is fast becoming a Tauranga – the town is constantly growing but rather than it being Northlanders returning home, it’s Aucklanders moving north for the quieter life away from the hustle and bustle.

While that brings money to the region, it also brings expectations.

The wealth divide is stark and while the ratepayer base in Kerikeri and surrounding areas can afford to pay for a new wastewater treatment plant (albeit a very delayed one) – Moerewa residents have just recently, for the third time in a decade, been left to clean up their homes in the wake of flooding.

And it wasn’t just the river water that poured through their homes, locals were literally sweeping out their own sewage water too.

This is just one of the many differences at play.

Transport is an issue too. Household cars are few and far between and while a Four Square services the Moerewa area, the more competitively priced larger supermarket chains are in Kerikeri and Kaikohe – both a 20 minute drive away.

There’s no public transport to help either.

Access to affordable food is just one of many factors that ensure poverty-stricken towns remain exactly that – it’s a plague that affects many parts of the country.

But despite the town being up against inequity, there are dozens of people trying to do their bit to change it.

And in many cases they’re who you’d least expect.

There’s recovered methamphetamine addicts running addiction support programmes on the smell of an oily rag.

They’re hosting community meetings on issues like recent abortion reform, to make sure people are getting correct information rather than the misinformation most fall victim to on social media.

Finding somewhere to hold meetings isn’t always simple and Prime was left chuckling on the street when the church was offered up as a suggested location for a talk about abortion, because it would fit more people.

Then there’s Jessie-Lee Reihana – herself three years clean from drugs, and a single mother of three.

She opened Fight Fitness Moerewa with her business partner a few months ago but nothing about what they do fits a traditional business model.

The gym is about body fit mind and is full of boxing bags and a few other bits of equipment including large tyres and ropes.

It’s been set up to give recovering addicts something to do to keep their mind from the obvious thing it wants.

But it’s also to keep the youth off the streets and keep kuia and kaumātua fit and healthy.

Half of the classes are designed around the shifts at the local AFFCO, one of the few places people can get work.

Some pay in biscuits, some pay a small amount, some don’t pay at all.

And sausage sizzles are forced to go a long way.

But nearby in Paihia, real estate agent Ross Robertson, says his town is suffering too.

“Paihia’s had a huge hit with Covid, because we’re largely tourism orientated.

“So you’re talking about motels that lost all their business overnight,” he says.

Paihia motel owner Julie Barlow says her business was closed for the two month duration of lockdown.

“Trying to run a motel you’ve got $6000 of recurring expenses – you’ve still got to pay your rates, still got to pay your power, still got to have your TVs going so you can’t just shut that off.

“Starting with weekends we’re now getting a few people, but during the week it’s very rare,” she says.

With Covid-19 part of the landscape for some time yet, business owners in the North say they just want some certainty about ongoing support.

Northland isn’t alone on that, ensuring this election will be won and lost on political party’s plans for the new normal.

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