The battle for Hamilton West

As a young lad Martin Gallagher knew he was keen on politics. He still has a copy of a photo taken in 1963 at Whitiora School’s polling booth. That glimpse at the democratic process was enough to spur an involvement in politics that has straddled four decades.

With a general election looming and on the eve of the All Blacks v Japan match in the Rugby World Cup at Waikato Stadium we meet for a cup of tea on the ninth floor of the Hamilton City Council building to talk about Gallagher’s political career and to get his thinking on the Hamilton West electorate.

“There I was in this photo leaning over the polling booth with a classmate and our teacher Mr McGee. The photo went front page in the newspaper. Quite a thrill really,” says Gallagher.

Not so many years after that photo was taken Gallagher joined the Labour Party at the age of 18. Kirk House on Norton Road was Labour’s headquarters, though he remembers other connections to the Frankton area at that time.

“If I get lung cancer, it will be from all the secondary smoke inhaled at the bingo in Rifle Range Road where I helped out on Saturday,” he says with a wry smile.

Looking back on those days, initially as a city councillor before being elected to Parliament in 1993, Gallagher acknowledges a debt of gratitude to some significant politicians, among them former Hamilton Mayor and National MP Mike Minogue.

He has enormous respect for Minogue’s legacy, describing him as one of the great mayors – a “visionary who also made a huge contribution to Parliament”, albeit off-side with his prime minister, Rob Muldoon.

The 1993 election was significant. Hamilton voters elected two opposition Labour candidates to Parliament – Gallagher for Hamilton West and Dianne Yates for Hamilton East.

Looking at national census data and Hamilton West voting patterns highlights a strong correlation between voting in the electorate and national voting trends.

Asked why he thinks Labour succeeded in 1993 Gallagher puts it down to a party who ran a very good campaign.

“They just didn’t let up and that was the result,” he says.

Another factor contributing to Labour’s success was what Gallagher describes as a “tactical error” on National’s part. They misread the issues Hamilton voters were most concerned with, focussing their campaign locally on some issues such as the Utiliti-corp electricity deal. These things proved to not be uppermost in Hamiltonians’ thinking as they approached the polling booth.

In 1993 the Hamilton West electorate comprised Dinsdale, Frankton, Melville, Glenview and some of Beerescourt. It was Labour loyal, far more so than the later expanded Hamilton West electorate. Some patterns remain however. Even now, booths in Rhode Street and Frankton traditionally favour Labour while Aberdeen tends to be far more reflective of voting trends, something Gallagher puts down to a demographic more representative of New Zealand.

Political forces are dynamic, subtle and complex. The shifting tide in voter loyalty away from Labour in Hamilton West post-MMP saw Gallagher return to Parliament in 2005 with a dwindling majority of 825 ahead of National candidate Tim Macindoe. By 2008, with the trend established, Macindoe won the seat by a majority of 1,618. Gallagher also acknowledges the impact arising centre-left parties began to have at this time as options for traditional Labour voters.

One of the challenges he thinks Labour candidate Sue Moroney faces in this election is the extent of the Green vote. While the Green and Mana parties may be campaigning for the party vote, he feels they can still drain traditional Labour support.

When Gallagher went to National’s headquarters at Te Rapa race course on election night 2008 to congratulate Macindoe on his victory at the polls, he was already reconciled to a life beyond Parliament.

“When I was invited to speak there I said to Tim personally that that was better than any valedictory speech in Parliament. They gave me a really courteous reception and I was able to say good luck and farewell amongst locals,” says Gallagher.

He is the first to acknowledge Macindoe is doing a good job but adds that as this election approaches both candidates for Hamilton West are out there working hard.

He also does not give too much sway to pre-election voting surveys, saying in his experience forecasted gaps between the major parties often does not hold true.

“The electorate carries a high undecided vote which may yet come into play.”

No longer involved in central government and back on the city council Gallagher says the perennial issues for voters remain the same – access to public health care, waiting lists, education, cost of living and jobs – things he describes as our “bread and butter concerns”.

A drive around the lake and along Killarney Road draws the conversation on. Over the years this road has taken on a changing character and demographic. Old villas on large sections have had their day with many replaced with high density town-houses and flats.

“It’s fairly middle of the road. Neither rich nor poor,” says Gallagher.

Approaching 100-year-old Frankton Primary School, discussion turns to education. As a former high school teacher Gallagher understands how vital quality in education is. He thinks Hamilton is served well with tertiary providers such as the Wananga, Wintec and Waikato University giving plenty of options for students following high school.

He tries to keep as much contact as possible with schools in the area and when he talks with school boards his central message is simple. Choose your principal with great care.

“Professional leadership will make or break a school’s reputation and it doesn’t take long for things to change,” he says.

Gallagher’s advice to MPs is to never get off-side with their mayor. It’s partly a survival issue. An MP, he points out, is away in Wellington three days a week with two local staff holding fort. The mayor has a resource of 700 people and is in Hamilton all the time.

“The first law of politics is ‘buddy up’. Even if you may not agree with the political persuasion, get a relationship,” he says.

He also sees a challenge and responsibility on the part of local councillors and board members to work collaboratively; using their local MPs to advocate issues on their behalf.

Boards, he feels, should make a point of inviting MPs into their meetings every so often to enliven and add value to the relationship.

Under Labour’s watch summits between Local Government NZ and key cabinet ministers created forums for discussion on issues affecting both, he says.

“Any smart local government or board will involve MPs in their business because they can get you through the doors in Government you want to open.”

Political banners promoting local candidates are popping up along Hamilton West’s busy roads. As we approach Dinsdale roundabout Martin acknowledges this is an unusual pre-election time. Polling day is only a few weeks away but campaigning energy is yet to get into top-gear.

“Things feel on hold at the moment. Clearly we have other things on our mind”, he says.

Who knows? The Rugby World Cup outcome may well add its own ‘flavour’ to voting patterns when election day dawns.

We will have to wait and see.