National really is pulling out all the stops in Northland... they could hardly be doing more to help Winston Peters win
Try as they might, National seems to be turning every Northland fencepost into a losing one at the moment. For a party with such a strong campaigning record, it seems to be playing into Winston Peters' hands at every turn.
First, they utterly mishandled the Mike Sabin issue. Failure to deal with the reported police investigation with any sort of transparency means there is a distinct air of discontent from voters in the North, who feel like the colloquial mushroom.
Second, perhaps because of the mishandling of the Sabin investigation, they chose a rookie candidate who, as some experienced political campaigners have told me, is a tough package to sell. So in the midst of significant media interest, Mark Osborne has been almost anonymous outside of his hand-shaking events, leaving any media comment to his minders, John Key and Steven Joyce.
Third, someone thought it was a good idea to throw money at the region. This has back-fired on many levels. First, because it's a by-election not a general election, the incumbent government can't promise to spend the money (on bridges and broadband) only if voters back them. They're in power anyway and it would political suicide to promise to only invest in one of the country's poorest regions only if they win this seat.
That means Winston Peters can, reasonably, claim that his mere appearance on the campaign trail has won Northland tens of millions in government investment. National has bought the gift, but essentially it's written 'from Winston' on the card.
Peters has been toying with National all week. When John Key announced the bridge bribe, he promised there would be more to come. So Peters, knowing as anyone with half a brain did that after the bridge promise would come a broadband commitment, put out a press release predicting National's next move. National had no choice but to then follow Peters' prediction, once again allowing New Zealand First to claim the credit.
Finally, every piece of pork sent north now simply reminds voters how little they've had in the decades they've given their votes to National. Each gift now recalls all those empty stockings in years gone by, the fact that Northland feels left out of the recovery.
Now, every National promise and ministerial visit just makes Peters look more relevant and more powerful. Conversely, each of the same makes National look more desperate.
And you've got the backlash from the rest of the country, who won't be impressed by National's cynical politics. Even the New Zealand Herald took time in its editorial to say:
Pity the people of Coromandel. Or any other region that has been striving for years for improvements to its bridges. It is hardly their fault that they have not been favoured by a byelection, unlike the people of Northland who learned this week that up to $69 million will be spent to upgrade 10 one-lane bridges in their electorate... But this is insulting on so many levels. First, it insults Northlanders by suggesting their votes need to be bought... Equally, it is an insult to the country's transport planners. Their analysis of the region's needs does not accord priority to the bridges. It is focused on improvements to SH1.
Still, it's hard to read what message are getting cut through on the ground. There are strong arguments that once the campaign is over, Peters' power will be over too. He will just be another opposition MP. There's also a reasonable question how much Peters' supposed passion for Northland will last, once the pressing business of running his own party comes bearing down on him again.
Northlanders could take Peters for all he's got and then revert to type and vote National after all; millions gained and status quo achieved.
But y'know what? Northlanders might not care about the Peters downsides. They might appreciate all that he has earned them and want to send National that message about Mike Sabin and the lack of care for such a beautiful but struggling electorate.
And then there are the Labour voters. It would hardly be a surprise to see Willow-Jean Prime's vote collapse on election day and Labour get Peters over the line. Andrew Little has worn the few days of awkwardness and bad headlines that pragmatic decision warranted and, you'd think, the pretty unsubtle message to Labour supporters would have got through. The only question is whether they will be as obedient as National's Epsom voters.
Yet while Labour voters may be the ones to get Peters home, it's National which has handed this huge opportunity to New Zealand First on a plate.