Gaurav Sharma and the migraine for work at Hamilton West

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The timing is bad for the ruling party and so is the place. National will lick his lips.

Jhe revelation came – of course – in a Facebook update. This time, Gaurav Sharma at least kept it shorter than the Tolstoyan messages of recent times, announcing in 1,500 sharp words that he (a) was leaving parliament, thus triggering a by-election, and (b) running in this by-election, as leader of a new coming party.

Any relief for Labor and Jacinda Ardern at the resignation of an MP who has made numerous, varied and mostly nebulous accusations of bullying and harassment will be outweighed by groaning fear at the prospect of another by-election in 2022. Sharma, who was kicked out of caucus for breach of trust, claimed her party leader planned to use the waka jumping law to kick her out of parliament, but, he said, she planned to do so next year, as soon as the elections last less than six months apart, thus avoiding the requirement of a by-election. (What he didn’t mention was that in such circumstances, National would have to agree that no by-election was necessary.)

Garbage, Ardern said. She had no intention of pressing the waka button. The exiled MP ‘may wish to reconsider given that it is needlessly costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars to trigger a by-election in which he then intends to run,’ she said .

Sharma’s plan? Well, he’s keen to “send a message to the government that you can’t silence the voice of the common man,” and he doesn’t stop there. “My intention is to launch a new centrist party focused on results and action rather than ideologies,” he said. He said, “I will release more details about the new party in due course,” and I believe him.

If Tauranga was a headache for Labour, a by-election in Hamilton West is a headache in its own right – for reasons of both time and place. Time, as there is about a year left before the general election, the (hopefully) lowest ebb of the cycle, a period of flux, a crisis in the cost of living and a general sense of discontent. Practically, with the approach of the 2023 elections, it spoils the roadmap. Place, because, unlike Tauranga, Hamilton West is not unwinnable. As you should get used to hearing it over and over, this is the epitome of central New Zealand and a bellwether seat; 16 of the last 18 winning MPs have caucused with the ruling party.

Labor will seek to downplay this, highlight the anomalous parts of the contest, perhaps even affect a frustrated shrug of near indifference to a wasteful and costly exercise. They have to because, while it’s not impossible to win, it would take something extraordinary for them not to lose.

By-elections tend to favor protest demonstrations and therefore the opposition, but this is not the only bad omen for Labour. The party has trailed National, both head-to-head and in terms of the left-right bloc, in opinion polls for months. The local elections, if nothing else, were all about this sort of thing. Three Waters will receive another furious watering. Fresh off of a headline-grabbing conference in Christchurch, Winston Peters and NZ First will spy a chance to ruffle some feathers left of the Waikato River.

For National, it’s a chance to put a stake in the ground, test approaches on the road and gain confidence in reclaiming a seat lost to Tim Macindoe after four terms in the red tide of 2020. Christopher Luxon, Eager match-fitness, will likely set up camp in Frankton. Macindoe, MP follower and former party whip, want another race, and he will probably get it. At the very least, though, National needs to demonstrate, after the Uffindell debacle, that its selection processes are solid.

Leaving even aside questions around Sam Uffindell’s past and the exposure of his teenage bullying, the national shortlist to contest Tauranga’s by-election lacked diversity. As Tania Tapsell, the newly elected mayor of Rotorua, observed in the Gone By Lunchtime Sunday Live Editionthe four finalists looked “very, very similar – perfectly fitting dress codes”.

Once Sharma officially resigns from parliament, the date will be set by the prime minister, and the temptation will be to eliminate him as soon as possible. The known unknown is the holder. Labor will face not only the National Party, but also Sharma. It’s hard to see how he finishes better than third – even that seems like a stretch – but a revenge-fueled campaign offers the Labor candidate’s best hope to be determined: a split in the anti-status quo vote. But that’s a long shot. For Ardern and Labour, the priority will be damage limitation.

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