National is going after Winston Peters with all guns blazing. This must mean that they really are scared of him ... right?

The start of the last week of the campaign seems to have moved on from Teapot-not-quite-gate to "what about Winston?" ... and more particularly, "what happens if he is back in Parliament?" ... and even more particularly, "what happens if he is back in Parliament and holds the balance of power?"

So the NZ Herald has this story, in which John Key warns: "What Winston Peters is saying to New Zealanders is that on every Budget, on every issue, there could be a general election. How could New Zealand govern itself over the next three years, which is likely to be a volatile period in the world economy, when at any stage the whole Government can be brought down by Winston Peters?"

And somewhat unusually, David Farrar at Kiwiblog has this post up warning his readers about the exact same thing! That's some pretty spooky coincidence taking place right there.

What are we to make of this sudden interest in Winston's fortunes from the National Party and its fellow travelers? Well, the popular interpretation appears to be that it reveals National's concern that New Zealand First is approaching the 5% threshold required to return to Parliament, thereby giving rise to the only possible scenario in which Labour could displace National in Government. And even this possibility - still very remote, even with New Zealand First in Parliament - is enough to cause National to enter full attack mode.

So, Danyl at DimPost asks: "you gotta wonder why a party who is polling double their main opponents needs to run out this kind of clumsy race-baiting during the last week of the campaign. So I’m calling it: based on this statement, and the increasingly weird and hysterical posts on Kiwiblog, I predict that National’s internal polling has Winston Peters registering at >5%."

And "Eddie" over on the Standard excitedly proclaims: "National is getting increasingly hysterical as its internal polling shows its majority slipping away and New Zealand First above 5%. The ‘positive campaign’ that never really was is out the window. It’s all out attacks on NZF now."

Well ... maybe, I guess. But as Rob Salmond has pointed out here on Pundit, the polls actually appear to be tracking in a way that makes both a National majority and no New Zealand First MPs in Parliament look more and more likely. So unless internal party polling really is saying something markedly different to the publicly reported polls, I find it hard to believe that a single NZ Herald poll showing NZ First on 4.9% (while also still showing National remains above 50% support) would cause such panic on National's part.

(As an aside, the claim that "internal party polling must be showing ..." strikes me as the political equivalent of arguments for the existence of luminiferous aether - an unobservable cause that is divined purely by the need to have something that explains what can be seen to be happening.)

So, then, why go nuclear on Winston, if he isn't really a threat to National's election chances? I can think of a few reasons - ones that are designed to take advantage of Winston's (still modest) rise in the polls, rather than to destroy the only possible threat to National's fortunes.

First of all, attacking Winston as a recipe for instability and uncertainty is a very nice way to argue for the stability and certainty provided by a majority National Government without turning off voters by appearing arrogant and grasping (as, arguably, Helen Clark did back in 2002). So John Key doesn't have to say "make sure you vote for National, if you want a safe ship to carry you in troubled times". He just needs to point to the potentially stormy waters approaching and leave it to voters to clamber up themselves.

Second, attacking Winston is a good way of clobbering Labour without even mentioning them. As far as National is concerned, every news story that talks about anything but Labour is to the good. And as voters know that New Zealand First is Labour's only hope of governing, telling them about all the bad things that will happen if New Zealand First gets into Parliament reminds them of the messy deal that is the only alternative to National. So - Winston is Labour's cross to hang on, and hoisting him high makes their struggle all the more visible.

Finally, John Key has indicated his preference for moving from MMP to SM. And who is the poster boy for the evils of MMP (and thus the need to move to the certainty of a more disproportionate voting system)? Well ... we all know the answer to that question, don't we? So keeping Winston and the threat he poses to orderly government in the public's eye as the referendum approaches is not an undesirable state of affairs for those who would like to see a "No" vote at it.

Now, does this mean I think National actually would be happy (or, at least, unpreturbed) to see New Zealand First get back into Parliament? Not at all - I think National would far, far rather that New Zealand First got 3-4% of the party vote (which then would be wasted ... meaning National could govern alone on less than 50% of the party vote). But even if he does get back in, it looks more and more likely that National will be able to ignore him - along with all the other parties, if they so choose - so it would not be the end of the world.

So what I'm saying is that I think interpreting National's targeting of Winston as proof he must be on track to get back into Parliament, and that they see this as a real risk to their prospects on Saturday, is a mistake. Rather, Winston's (as yet modest) rise in the polls is a bit of a gift horse for them. And a good trader like John Key knows what to do with gift horses ... you flog them until they are dead.

Comments (11)

by Ben Curran on November 21, 2011
Ben Curran

Well that's depressing.

by william blake on November 21, 2011
william blake

..or JFK could be panicking a bit more.

he really has it in for Winston eh? Perhaps the old vaudavillain reminds the citizens of what the politics of opposition can be like, rather than the ringing silence that we have had over the past term.

What will National do if it can't ram unpalatable policy through under urgency?

by Shannon Taurua on November 22, 2011
Shannon Taurua

"I find it hard to believe that a single NZ Herald poll showing NZ First on 4.9% (while also still showing National remains above 50% support) would cause such panic on National's part."

Incorrect, that poll showed National at below 50%. That somewhat tears the heart out of the logic you're trying to create here.

National's looking at 47-48% in reality, and with ACT looking uncertain it puts them in a worrying position. Maori Party neutralised by ACT is a different position to being fully reliant on the Maori Party.

I think they've decided the best gamble is to try and wreck Winston's support base enough that he dips under 5%.

by Andrew Geddis on November 22, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Apologies, Shannon - you are technically correct. That poll had "National on 49.89 per cent (up 0.4)" ... a hairs bredth beneath 50%, but still enough to govern alone and actually trending upwards. So I'm not convinced it does "somewhat tear the heart out of the logic you're trying to create here."

Also, when you say that "in reality" National is looking at 47-48%, what do you base that view on? It certainly can't be the polls, for as Rob has shown in the post I link to, they provide no foundation for that claim. So, is it hope? Gut feeling? The fact that a party "just can't" get over 50% in MMP?

Finally, if it really is true that National thinks "the best gamble is to try and wreck Winston's support base enough that he dips under 5%", then they are being pretty silly. Attacking Winston doesn't kill him. It only makes him stronger.

by Richard Prosser on November 22, 2011
Richard Prosser

I'm afraid that the coloured gentleman in the solid fuel supply, as far as your argument is concerned, is this; you have fallen into the trap of believing your own propaganda. The polls upon which you are basing your incorrect and unrealistic presumption of an outright National majority do not ever include the Undecided portion in their allocation of seats. As things stand, on average, in any given poll, the undecideds generally account for around at least 10%, and quite often the figure is more than that.

So at a minimum, if National is polling at what you claim is 53%, but that 53% is only 53% of a maximum of 90%, then their actual decided support is less than 48%, and that is on fairly generous figures.

We know that National's own internal polling has NZ First at north of 6%, and that that is a conservative estimate. How do we know? We have spies, that's how. Plenty in the National camp don't want asset sales and still regard Winston as being one of the last bastions of the old true National Party philosophy, before it sold out to the internationalists and the Free Marketeers.

If Key genuinely believes he's going to get an outright majority, I personally would have concerns for his level of political nouse, and perhaps even for his suitability for high office. I think we really should have a bright person for a Prime Minister.

by Andrew Geddis on November 23, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Richard,

Possibly. Although, at least some of those "undecided" voters will break for National (even if not in the proportion of currently decided ones). And others just won't vote at all. So ... there is that.

Furthermore, the claim that "We know that National's own internal polling has NZ First at north of 6%, and that that is a conservative estimate" seems at odds with your previous emphasis on the undecided portion of the vote. Unless those undecided are saying in large numbers that they "may" vote Winston ... which they may say ... but let's wait and see what they actually do on Saturday.

Finally, I'm not sure it is a sign of stupidity for Key to think he'll get an outright majority. Not when you've got smart and well-informed people like this working from that assumption.

by Shannon Taurua on November 27, 2011
Shannon Taurua

"Also, when you say that "in reality" National is looking at 47-48%, what do you base that view on? It certainly can't be the polls, for as Rob has shown in the post I link to, they provide no foundation for that claim. So, is it hope? Gut feeling? The fact that a party "just can't" get over 50% in MMP?"

Well I certainly don't base it on a lazy averaging of polls, put it that way.

by Tim Watkin on November 29, 2011
Tim Watkin

Shannon, there's nothing lazy about Rob's averaging of poll. Click on the page and see his methodology. And of course each of the poll's selected have their own internal robustness. So sneer no more.

But you're right about National looking at 47-48% (and not only because that's what it acutally got). That was the party's own publicly declared target. Privately the leaders would have dared to hope for more and may well have got it sans teapot, but on face value they were always the most realistic numbers.

by jack on December 01, 2011
jack

Looks like Richard Prosser was right.  I think Winston is upset because he doesn't have the votes to do some real damage, but he can expose Key's government for what it is and Ipredict doesn't think National is going to make it back in 2014.. I voted Winston Peters because I was disgusted with National and I am a right centered voter.  But then again, my memory is good and I don't usually follow the sheep.

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