No sign of Labour on Taranaki-King Country drive

It was easy to get distracted on the journey through the vast Taranaki-King Country electorate yesterday in the pursuit of the heartbeat of the 2011 election campaign.

Stopping at the idyllic seaside village of Mokau for a late breakfast, I sampled a very strong long black coffee and a whitebait pattie drizzled in lemon juice, sprinkled with rock salt and wrapped in two slices of fresh white bread.

Now, where was I again?

Oh yes. The drive from New Plymouth to Te Kuiti, then Te Awamutu was near perfect. The scenery was lush and traffic although dominated by trucks, was making good time.

The one thing that struck Taking the Pulse was the absence of any Labour Party hoardings in the true blue electorate held by Shane Ardern. In fact this is one of the electorates you could put a donkey wrapped in a blue ribbon up for election and it would probably win.

Prime Minister John Key was a constant presence on the journey with his face beaming out every few kms. All Black flags outnumber the proliferation of National Party signs, but Mr Key is omnipresent in the Taranaki-King Country electorate.

It took nearly three hours of driving (and coffee breaks) before a lonely Labour sign was spotted in a front yard outside of a town. The previous time I had spotted a Labour sign was in Eltham, a day earlier.

A lonely Green Party sign was nailed on to a trailer just outside Te Awamutu while the town itself is almost an election-free zone. It was impossible to find a hoarding within the town boundaries.

Labour MP Rick Barker is standing in the electorate, a good example of what is bad with MMP. He lost his Tukituki electorate to National's Craig Foss in 2005 but returned to Parliament on the list the following week.

In 2008, he also returned to Parliament on the list after failing to regain Tukituki and will do so next week if Labour gets more than 22% of the party vote on November 26. The political future of Mr Barker depends on how well Labour does on the party vote. So why then does he have an election hoarding which shows his portrait and only says "Vote Barker"?

At the last election, Mr Ardern took 68.67% of the electorate vote and the Labour candidate won 19.54% of the vote. National took nearly 60% of the party vote and Labour 21%.

In 2005, Labour MP Maryan Street won 25.11% of the electorate vote and 25% of the party vote. She lives in Nelson and is the candidate for that electorate this election, as she was in 2008.

To be fair, an electoral boundary change has left Mr Ardern living outside the electorate he represents, but he remains an Opunake born and bred resident. He is probably best known for driving up the steps of Parliament on a tractor, protesting against the proposed flatulence tax.

Voters in towns canvassed by the Pulse in a long day of driving were mainly National but some were definitely Labour and most of those were voting Labour because it was their genuine preference - not because Mr Barker had done anything to change their mind.

MMP spokesman Philip Temple told the Pulse that the only value of a Labour candidate standing in a strong National-held electorate was to raise the party's profile and the list vote. If Mr Barker was not doing that, he should have made way for someone younger and more enthusiastic, who was starting out on their political career.

If MMP is retained as the preferred electoral system after the election, a mandatory review will take a look as situations of list MPs standing in electorates.

"There is a lot of unhappiness about those sorts of things."

Vote for Change spokesman Jordan Williams spent the 2005 campaign trying to get Mr Barker defeated and was annoyed the MP returned to Parliament and "the plush life of Wellington".

"Maybe that is the electorate where Labour puts its MPs out to pasture," he said.

Mr Williams was focused on the rise of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters in the polls, saying he could hold the balance of power after the election given the recent exposure from the "tea tape" from Epsom.

But to give Mr Peters credit, he is not standing in an electorate and is campaigning throughout the country to lift the party vote of New Zealand first. Like the Greens, New Zealand First could pass the 5% threshold and return to Parliament - a true representation of MMP.


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