Several themes have dominated Waikato local politics. One, common to other regions, was promotion of economic development by chambers of commerce and local councils. Another was rivalry between Hamilton and Cambridge, evident in debates over the best site for the A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show, the hospital and the university. Yet another was the ambivalent relationship with Auckland. Auckland capitalists financed the development of Waikato lands in the 19th century, and Auckland was the main port for Waikato produce. Many 20th-century retail and industrial developments originated in Auckland. However, Auckland control of health and education increasingly irritated Waikato residents and there were determined fights to establish local administration of both.
The McGillicuddy Serious Party
One of the Waikato’s best-known contributions to national politics was the McGillicuddy Serious Party, which flourished between 1984 and 1999. It grew out of a university student group known as Clan McGillicuddy, presided over by self-proclaimed ‘laird’ Graeme Cairns. The party used satire to highlight the absurdity of other parties’ policies, advocating a ‘great leap backwards’ to a medieval way of life to solve the nation’s problems.
From the 1860s until 1902 Waikato’s Pākehā electors were often represented in central government by Aucklanders with local financial interests. From the 1890s the Auckland influence waned and local candidates were elected. Generally, conservative candidates were successful. There were two electorates until 1902, when numbers increased to reflect population growth.
In the 2010s most of the region fell into three general electorates: Waikato, Hamilton West and Hamilton East. Small areas were included in the Coromandel, Taranaki–King Country and Taupō electorates.
Before 1954, most of Waikato was in the Western Māori electorate, but since then it has been split between two Māori seats. In the 2010s the main Māori electorate was Hauraki–Waikato. South Waikato was part of Te Tai Hauāuru.
From 1935 the Māori seats were usually won by Labour candidates. In 2017 Hauraki–Waikato was held by Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta, while Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe held Te Tai Hauāuru.
After 1945 Hamilton’s voting patterns diverged from neighbouring rural electorates. Labour politicians regularly held the city seats, but lost them whenever there was a national swing to the right. The way Hamilton voted was often seen as an early indication of which party was likely to win the election.
Members of Parliament
Notable National Party members of Parliament have included former diplomat Sir Leslie Munro (1963–72), and Dame Hilda Ross, the second woman cabinet minister (1945–59). Koro Wetere, a Labour MP for Western Māori, was minister of Māori affairs from 1984 to 1990. Raglan (later Waipā) MP Marilyn Waring and Hamilton West MP Mike Minogue, who both served in the National government from 1975 to 1984, are remembered for standing up to the forceful prime minister Robert Muldoon. The Labour prime minister from 1999 until 2008, Helen Clark, was brought up at Te Pahu, a farming area south-west of Hamilton. Labour's Jacinda Ardern, who became prime minister in 2017, was born in Hamilton and grew up in Morrinsville and Murupara.
Local opinion was influenced by and reflected in the media, particularly newspapers. While Auckland papers were available, Waikato newspapers carried weight because they gave detailed local news and commentary. The most important, the long-running Waikato Times, began at Ngāruawāhia in 1872, later shifting to Hamilton. The rival Waikato Argus was set up in 1896 but merged with the Times in 1915.
A region divided
One event that highlighted the extent of social change in Waikato was the invasion of Hamilton’s Rugby Park by protesters before the game between the South African Springboks rugby team and the local Waikato side on 25 July 1981. Waikato people were strongly represented among both the anti-apartheid protesters and the pro-tour rugby fans. Clashes between the two groups after the game was called off were indicative, not just of a nation, but of a region divided against itself.
After 1945 people from other places came to work in Waikato industries, bringing fresh perspectives and enriching the region’s social fabric. The hydro schemes on the Waikato River and the timber mills of south Waikato attracted workers from around New Zealand as well as Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Pacific Islands and other countries. New schools and agricultural and other research institutions attracted professional staff from beyond Waikato.
From the late 1940s Māori began to move to urban centres, especially Hamilton. They established hostels, marae and welfare organisations, which gave them greater visibility in civic affairs.
More Asian and African immigrants arrived in the late 20th century. These people brought different religious and cultural practices, which sometimes met with racist outbursts – such as an arson attack on a Hamilton mosque in 1998.
There are clear social and economic differences within the region, illustrated by comparing some key 2013 statistics for two towns, Matamata and Tokoroa. That year 14.3% of Matamata’s population identified as Māori. Tokoroa was 39.2% Māori, more than twice this. Tokoroa’s unemployment rate was 9.6%, compared with just 3.3% for Matamata. The national rate was 7.1%.