When it comes to searching for the inhabitants of that land
otherwise described by politicians in Tolkien-sounding
fashion as Middle New Zealand, you need look no further than
the Hastings suburb of Mahora.
Maori for ''flat land'', Mahora's somewhat limited claim to
fame is that it was the boyhood home of 1970s All Black
centre Bruce Robertson, along with guitarist and Split Enz
founder Phil Judd, the latter's contribution to New Zealand
culture these days being the adoption of his Swingers' hit
Counting the Beat and its line ''Ain't no place I'd
rather be'' as TV3's self-promotional jingle.
It is unlikely Judd had Mahora in mind when he wrote that
song. For the suburb invites adjectives like average and
stereotypical. But not necessarily because life there is
ordinary or dull.
The suburb is a microcosm of New Zealand such that on
election nights in the not too distant past National Radio
would seize on early vote counts from the polling booth at
the local primary school as an indicator of which way the
country would swing.
The old Hastings seat was a classic first-past-the post
marginal. It was almost a rule of thumb that if Hastings fell
to the Opposition, then the incumbent Government was dead
The arrival of MMP in 1996 saw Hastings incorporated in
the-then new Tukituki seat, which takes in a large swath of
rural Hawkes Bay voters.
At the last election, Labour did slightly better in Mahora
than the miserable 27% it got across the country, picking up
30% of the party vote.
National's 42% was lower than the 47% it secured nationwide.
With the Greens gaining 10% and 8% going to New Zealand
First, Mahora was not wildly out of sync with the nationwide
It almost goes without saying that elections are won and lost
in the hundreds of similar nondescript suburbs like Mahora.
And it was to suburbs like Mahora to which Bill English's
sixth Budget was unashamedly pitched.
The announcement that children under the age of 13 will get
free doctors' visits and prescriptions was a political
master-stroke. It is a guaranteed winner, even though it does
not come into effect until July next year.
National has cottoned on to Labour's trick. Tight fiscal
conditions made even tighter by National's pledge to return
the Government's books to surplus meant the relatively small
allowance for new spending in Thursday's Budget had to be
made to look like it was going a lot further than may
actually have been the case.
One ploy in these circumstances is to delay the
implementation date of a new policy - something which the
media often neglects to mention - or stagger its introduction
so its full cost is not an immediate burden on the exchequer.
Then there is the even older sleight of hand that sees new
spending unveiled in four-year tranches, rather than simple
annual mounts. That gambit makes it sound like the Government
is committing far more cash than is the case.
The net result is the ''$500 million support package'' for
families and children in Thursday's Budget sounded impressive
- and along with free doctors' visits, the extension of paid
parental leave and increase in the parental tax credit will
do National no harm in places like Mahora.
While National is unable to deliver tax cuts - at least not
any time soon - the package is being portrayed in the Beehive
as the party signalling it has not forgotten middle New
Zealand and understands that audience is expecting more in
terms of a dividend from weathering the downturn of recent
years than just the sound hand of Bill English on the
In fact, the package has a triple purpose - assuaging middle
New Zealand and at the same time outmanoeuvring Labour by
cementing National's hold on the middle ground, while showing
National is tackling deprivation in general and child poverty
What is noteworthy is that both major parties are starting to
eschew the standard practice of targeting assistance only to
those who definitely need it. Universality is back in favour.
It is all about getting more political bangs for the
taxpayer's bucks in middle New Zealand.
Labour is unfazed by National's claim to territory where
historically it has made the running. It has piggy-backed on
to the Budget. David Cunliffe called a press conference last
Monday to try to neutralise Mr English's formal unveiling of
his prized surplus on Thursday by reaffirming Labour's
commitment to also run surpluses in government.
Mr Cunliffe also tried to shift the economic debate by
setting a target for his party of cutting unemployment from
the current rate of 6% to 4% by the end of its first term.
The Labour leader's gambit failed to get much traction, but
the jobless are another means for him to stoke the debate on
economic inequality, one area where polls indicate that
voters do not believe National's assurances that the gap
between rich and poor is not widening .
And little wonder. A newly released breakdown by suburb of
data from last year's census shows that during the seven
years since the previous head count, the median income for
those aged 15 and older in Parnell, home to the prime
minister, rose $5600 to $51,400. Down the motorway in Otara,
the median income fell during that period, by $1000, to
Even allowing for the risks of using census data, the figures
But elections are not won or lost at the extreme ends of the
income scale. In Mahora, the median income rose $4200 to
$25,000 between 2006 and 2013. The respective figures for the
country as a whole had the median income rising by almost the
same amount to $28,500.
Labour's message to middle New Zealand is that its citizens
will not be better off until unproductive capital is
harnessed for productive use and New Zealand slowly becomes a
far more innovative, value-added economy. Then - and only
then - will wages and incomes rise in real terms.
National's hint of tax cuts may well prove more alluring in
the short-term for those voters in Mahora and elsewhere who
determine who governs.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political