New Zealand's hippies savour a whiff of power

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The Independent Online

They usually give conventional politics a miss on the Coromandel Peninsula, a ruggedly beautiful spot that has long been a haven for New Zealanders seeking an alternative lifestyle. In the communes and brightly painted townships of the peninsula, people are more accustomed to lying down in front of bulldozers than to putting a tick in a box at general elections.

They usually give conventional politics a miss on the Coromandel Peninsula, a ruggedly beautiful spot that has long been a haven for New Zealanders seeking an alternative lifestyle. In the communes and brightly painted townships of the peninsula, people are more accustomed to lying down in front of bulldozers than to putting a tick in a box at general elections.

But this Saturday's election is different, and the inhabitants of the Coromandel are gearing up to turn out in force, gleefully aware that their votes could be crucial in determining whether New Zealand has a change of government after nearly a decade of conservative rule.

The Labour Party is ahead in the polls, and the incumbent Nationals were dealt a further blow yesterday when the Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, was forced to sack her Maori Immigration Minister, Tuariki John Delamere, after discovering that he had granted residence permits to 21 Chinese immigrants on condition that they invested money in Maori-related projects.

But while the Labour leader, Helen Clark, may secure the most seats on Saturday, she will not be able to govern alone, thanks to New Zealand's proportional representation system. Even with the support of Labour's traditional coalition partner, the Alliance, she may still fall short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Hence the spotlight on Coromandel, a National constituency that looks likely to be won by the co-leader of the Green Party, Jeanette Fitzsimons - a feat that, according to the tortuous arithmetic of PR, would translate into several additional seats for the Greens, giving them the balance of power and ensuring a majority for the centre-left.

Greenies to the hilt, the normally laid-back folk of the peninsula - an isolated backwater 80 miles south-east of Auckland - are drunk with excitement at the prospect of wielding so much power. They have already been treated to a parade of National Party big guns through the electorate, with even Mrs Shipley dropping in last week.

In the tiny town of Coromandel, where the pace of life is languid even by New Zealand standards, there is a hint of a buzz in the air. "It's amazing; our votes could really make a difference," said Tara Homan, proprietor of Assay House, a café that sells vegetarian food, organic coffee and fruit smoothies made with soya milk. "That's really cool."

The town is home to many artists, attracted by the creative energy apparently conferred by the confluence in Coromandel of ancient ley lines. Amrita McNab, who owns a crafts shop and was active in a protest group that prevented gold mining on the peninsula, rejoices at the opportunity to play a decisive part in ousting Mrs Shipley's government. "It feels good, really good," she said.

Murray McLean, the sitting National MP, has the look of a hunted man. The seat, which includes large rural swaths such as the Hauraki Plains, has been a National stronghold for decades. Now he faces not only losing his job but also giving a leg up to New Zealand's first Labour government for nine years. A man of stiff manners and little charisma, Mr McLean has failed to stamp his personality on the Coromandel since he was elected three years ago. His detractors call him "Murray who?" He is trying his best to put on a brave face, claiming that Ms Fitzsimons has peaked too early.

His campaign manager, Adrian Catran, said: "We are campaigning for the thinking voter who wants stability in government. There's more to life than genetically engineered food."

Mr Catran defended a clumsy attempt to paint the Greens as dangerous extremists, which has failed to dent the popularity of Ms Fitzsimons, a quietly spoken woman with a neat grey bob. On a postcard sent to homes in the constituency last week, the Nationals claimed that the Greens, who advocate the decriminalisation of cannabis, were encouraging children to use the drug.

It also drew attention to other Green candidates who would be catapulted into parliament with Ms Fitzsimons, including Nandor Tanczos, a dreadlocked Rastafarian who owns two hemp product shops and is campaigning on the slogan: "Our first Rasta in Parliament. Put the Dread in the House."

But, judging by the mood at a public meeting held by the Coromandel candidates in the town of Whangamata on Tuesday night, the scaremongering has had little effect.

In the peeling War Memorial Hall, the audience of mainly elderly constituents vented their anger at the withdrawal of services from their local hospital and expressed concern about "the mussel issue" - the contamination of mussels along their stretch of coast by a mystery organism. Mr McLean was repeatedly heckled when he tried to defend his party's record in government.

After the meeting, he said wearily that he was confident of retaining his seat. Ms Fitzsimons, meanwhile, continued to look serene.

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