Woodhouse absent from local candidates debate

Dunedin candidates take part in a debate at the University of Otago yesterday, without National...
Dunedin candidates take part in a debate at the University of Otago yesterday, without National list MP Michael Woodhouse. Two students moderated the debate alongside (from left) Rachel Brooking (Labour), Francisco Hernandez (Green), Jim O’Malley (independent), James Christmas (National), Keegan Langeveld (New Zealand First) and Ben Peters (Top). Photo: Gregor Richardson
National Dunedin candidate Michael Woodhouse was a prominent no-show at a major election debate yesterday, sparking conjecture as to what role the long-serving list MP will play during this election campaign.

In mid-August, Mr Woodhouse was given what he regarded as an unelectable position on his party’s list and refused to accept it, offering to also quit as the party’s Dunedin candidate.

National opted to retain him as its candidate for the seat, but to say its campaign in the city so far has been low key would be a major understatement.

Very few National billboards are up around Dunedin and the city buses it expensively plastered with photographs of Mr Woodhouse seem not to be being used, raising doubts as to whether National is actually trying to win what historically has been a safe Labour seat.

Yesterday, the Otago University Students Association, in conjunction with the Political Students Association, held its candidates debate, a well-attended and regular campaign event which Mr Woodhouse would have routinely attended in the past.

However, list candidate James Christmas attended in place of Mr Woodhouse.

Michael Woodhouse
Michael Woodhouse
Mr Christmas is a lawyer who has worked in the offices of Bill English, John Key and Christopher Finlayson, and is ranked 28th on the National list.

He has no known ties to Dunedin.

Mr Woodhouse has stated he remains loyal to National despite his belief he has been untreated unfairly.

He has served five terms as an MP and been a Cabinet minister, as well as holding several senior roles during the six years National has been in opposition.

Always an enthusiastic campaigner, including for colleagues in other seats, it seems Mr Woodhouse has lost his enthusiasm for politics in the wake of his shock demotion.

In the alternative, National — which was shaken by Mr Woodhouse’s comments to the Otago Daily Times in August that his plunge down the list was because "there was a contest between diversity and experience, and in my case diversity won" — may have asked him to keep a low profile.

When contacted yesterday, Mr Woodhouse deferred all comment to the party.

A National Party spokesman said that as a list candidate, Mr Christmas was campaigning across the country.

"He is attending a number of events on National’s behalf, including some in Dunedin."

The party did not respond when asked if it expected Mr Woodhouse would attend any campaign events on its behalf.

Last month, in an extensive interview with the Otago Daily Times, Mr Woodhouse said he was yet to decide if he would take part in candidate debates or make campaign speeches.

"I have had some excellent support locally, but I have encouraged all the members and volunteers to continue to work the way they have," he said.

"Yes, it’s a disruption, but this is bigger than me."