Goddam it - Winston Peters went and made a complete fool out of me. Did he have to do it so publicly?

OK - so three weeks or so ago I put up a post confidently saying:

I don't think Peters will win in Northland. Whatever the Sabin effect may be in that locale, or the frisson of transgression that some past National voters may be experiencing by flirting with the idea of voting for him, come election day and actually casting a ballot there'll be enough true-blue foot soldiers surfing to the polling places on a wave of taxpayer cash to send Mark Osborne to Wellington.

Turns out that, as I immediately warned you afterwards, "I really am pretty hopeless at reading politics." As, apparently, are Rob Salmond (where are your fancy political scientist theories now, huh?) and Danyl McLauchlan. So how could two normally reasonable, well-informed and respected commentators on contemporary New Zealand political issues and one complete moron whose presence on the interweb only embarrasses him and all who know him (I'm sure you can work out which tag goes where) get it so wrong?

Well, first off, I guess we saw this as being an "ordinary" by-election and so applied our "what should happen in an ordinary by-election in a safe seat" views to it. That was, in hindsight, a completely and utterly wrong approach for a number of reasons.

First of all, there's the great unmentionable. Mike Sabin's "personal issues" (which the Speaker of the House has told us involve "a court case") are not a secret to anyone with access to Google and the curiosity to look. And I'm pretty certain that they are a very well known issue in the electorate he represented. So even recognising that people are innocent until proven guilty, it seems likely that a chunk of the 18,269 people who voted for him in September (more, note, than actually voted for National at that election) felt so betrayed at having done so that they either responded by voting for Winston Peters or else decided to sit the by-election out.

Second, National really did screw its by-election campaign up. Part of that wasn't really the national Party's fault - it was the local members who decided that Mark Osborne was the best horse to put into the race. Again in hindsight, that seems a ... poor judgment call. But Steven Joyce et al certainly didn't help with how Mr Osborne was perceived. I guess they wanted to avoid another Melissa Lee moment (or other Melissa Lee moment), but by babysitting him through every single public event they gave the impression that he couldn't be trusted to even open his mouth on his own least he cock things up.

Which then undercuts substantially the argument that he'll make a great representative in Parliament - just the kind of guy you want carrying your concerns into the political bearpit and fighting there for your interests!!!

(Point to watch - wait and see how long it is until someone senior in the National ranks throws Mr Osborne under the bus by intimating that it was all his fault. There's some reputations and factional interests on the line here, so someone is going to have to take the fall.)

Then deciding to roll out the pork barrel in the form of a bunch of bridges that are very much "nice to haves" rather than "desperately needed" - bridges that they didn't even know the cost of before promising them - really backfired badly. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this idea came from someone in Crosby Textor, based on their experiences winning elections in the Australian context. As this article puts it:

Promising infrastructure wins votes. It is a road to power. It is tangible. Voters can see it and touch it, feel their taxes at work. Politicians tour their projects endlessly for the cameras or simply to “inspect works" in visits that are justified by confected milestones.

And in the Australian context, Governments have not been shy about using the power of infrastructure spending to win votes and reward support. So it is to the great credit of the people of Northland that they looked past a naked attempt to buy their votes and made their decision based on other factors.

On this topic, the day before the by-election John Key bemoaned the way that the media had "mischaracterised" the announcement of the 10 bridges and said that this had caused National to hold off further such moves during the campaign. To which I say, good on the media! Because this really was a tawdry and undesirable episode - if the backlash it provoked has had the effect of killing it off as a tactic in future by-elections, then that's for the good of our governing processes generally.

Third, Winston Peters. I am not a fan. I had hoped 2011 might have seen the end of him. But goddam it - he knows the game and he plays it like no-one else in politics today. A candidate driven, underdog-taking-on-the-powers-that-be, campaign in a peripheral region that feels ignored by the center (and a region his whakapapa links to, so he can be a local boy returning to his roots) could not have been better scripted for him. And he turned on a performance that sent the voters to the polls in droves to vote for him.

So - yeah. I really didn't factor in the background conditions against which this election was held at all ... which is probably why you shouldn't rely on legal academics who live in Dunedin to tell you what will happen in Northland.

Now, having admitted my fallibility, let me tell you what will happen next.

The National Party spin is pretty easy to predict. This is a one-off result that was brought about by a combination of a weak candidate and the opposition parties "ganging up" on National. There's a grain of truth in this, but it's not the full story.

At the moment, Peters has 15,359 votes (this will go up a bit after specials - lets say 16,000 votes total) out of the 30,000 cast. Labour's candidate, Willow Jean Prime, took an extra 1,300-odd (say 1,500 after specials)

So that's around 17,500 votes for "the opposition parties". In 2014, NZ First, Labour and the Greens got some 14,000 votes between them out of the 35,000-odd votes cast. So on a 14% lower turnout, "the opposition" got 20% more votes here.

By comparison, National got some 17,400 votes in 2014. This time, its candidate got 11,347 (or, say, 12,000 after specials). That's a drop of almost 30%.

Consequently, Peters couldn't have won without a pretty significant number of National voters deciding to take him up on his offer to test-drive him for 30 months. Which they could do in the hope that he might prove to be a more effective catalyst for change in their area, whilst being safe in the knowledge that National will remain firmly ensconced in Government.

Because, as I noted in this post, the consequence of this by-election result is that nothing has really changed in the House since the 2011 election. So any sort of claim that this result marks a turning point in National's fortunes or will "change everything" or the like needs to be taken with a large dose of sodium chloride. They are exactly where they were when they started their second term - and look how that went for them.

Which then brings me to the ritual declaration of winners and losers from this by-election.

The losers are fairly obvious. Mark Whowasheagain? has had his brief, shining moment on the national political stage. I suspect we shall not see it repeated. John Key's campaign trail magic has, perhaps for the first time, failed to achieve its ends. Now he has to look across the debating chamber at Winston Peters big grin for the rest of this term and remember that fact. And Steven Joyce decided to personally micro-manage the Northland campaign. Oops.

As for winners, the most obvious one will waste no time in showering his scorn and derision on all those (like me) who couldn't see what was right before their eyes if they had just taken the time to look because I'll tell you right now that the people of Northland are no longer going to sit back and be ignored because let me tell you that the are tired of it and now something is going to be done. Winston's got a soapbox electorate back, for which he most definitely will not simply be happy to be the member of.

And the other big winner? Peter Dunne. He just became relevant again.

Comments (21)

by william blake on March 28, 2015
william blake

It was a fair call, incumbent for soo many years and a majority of 9,000. The National will be highly chastened.

Winston has served up his revenge.

by Fentex on March 28, 2015

It's a really embarrassing bloody nose for National.

I like to think that it also reflects a population tired of nationals cronyism highlighted in particular by the attempt to shower public wealth on Sky city and deliver the housing corps assets to speculators and thus confirmation that Labour was routed because of it's apparent incompetence and in-fighting rather than preference for National policies.

I'd love to believe (but I'm pretty sure I'd be wrong) it reflects unease at Nationals support for increasing surveillance state policies.

So if I'm Labour I'd be feeling pretty good about this, even if it doesn't substantially alter he balance of power.

by Flat Eric on March 29, 2015
Flat Eric

National and Key and Joyce deserved this punishment for their hubris. No one knows politics like Peters; but it has nothing to do with surveillance or cronyism - all politics is local and Northlanders have taken the chance to elect someone they identify with.

by mikesh on March 29, 2015

They should have looked more closely at Sabin's 2014 result. These were telling a completely different story from the one that was being bandied about at the beginning of the campaign - the one about "foregone conclusions" and all that. Winston obviously did, which of course was why he entered the race.

by Raymond A Francis on March 29, 2015
Raymond A Francis

And Labour?

1315 doesn't look like a winning formula

by Fentex on March 29, 2015

all politics is local 

I both don't, and do, believe that. I don't in that I think people do think beyond their own circumstances at elections and I do in that NZ is a small place with a powerful central government - all elections are local here.

Peters victory is undoubtedly inflated by the number of Labour supporters who voted for him but it's still an increase in the anti-National vote. Could it really have been so simple as reaction to Nationals candidates, both Sabin and Osborne?

by Nick Gibbs on March 29, 2015
Nick Gibbs

Very interesting that Shane Jones went to party with Winston last night. I wouldn't mind betting that Jones will be the NZ First candidate for Northland in 2017.

by Anne on March 29, 2015

I note Winston is back to his surly, cantankerous self this morning... hurling barely disguised insults at his interviewers. It almost seem like his cheery, smiley, "I love you all' persona of the past month required a polar opposite for him to gain some kind of equilibrium again.

by Anne on March 29, 2015

Oh, and by the way Andrew Geddis you've got to stop making these predictions. Either that or in future... always predict the exact opposite to what you really think. I realise there are risks attached to such a strategy, but in your case it is looking very like a necessary solution. (razz)

by Dennis Horne on March 29, 2015
Dennis Horne

There was an old winner called Winston
In political life breathed fire and brimstone
He's still got the art
As an old fart
More suited to playing the part of a Flintstone


by Dennis Horne on March 29, 2015
Dennis Horne

There was an old academic called Andy
Whose predictions were fine and dandy
Until the time came
To deliver a name
Then it's bandy excuses ever so handy

by Katharine Moody on March 29, 2015
Katharine Moody

Now, having admitted my fallibility, let me tell you what will happen next.

What I'm wondering is, what if we have one more 'Mike Sabin' from that side of the house and/or with a C&S partner ...

by Andrew Geddis on March 29, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Either that or in future... always predict the exact opposite to what you really think.

But if I did that, then the opposite of what I predict will happen (being the thing that I really think) and things will just get too weird. I'll stick to being honestly wrong.

by Dennis Horne on March 29, 2015
Dennis Horne

A predilection for prediction
Is something of an affliction
You can always play dumb
If they bite you on the bum
So don't be glum, figure of fun 

by donna on March 29, 2015

Surely it was all over when Some-Tory-Or-Other was booed after saying that National had created 7,000 jobs in Northland. People know when they're out of work, or their family and neighbours are out of work. National's whole campaign smacked of taking the piss. No wonder they were so soundly punished.

by Wayne Mapp on March 30, 2015
Wayne Mapp

An interesting little titbit about Shane Jones in today's DomPost. Apparently Winston rang Murray McCully to get permission for Shane to attend the function. So a pretty calculated presence by Shane and Winston. And does that regard for protocol mean something for future relationships?

After all Winston largely got in through National voters (as well as Labour voters). But I don't think Labour will poll as low as 5% in the general election, so Winston will be dependent on keeping the bulk of the Nat voters, who will probably split their vote in 2017.

I have always thought Shane was destined for NZF, but I do not think it will be Northland, 2017. The voters would not like to be taken for granted like that. They elected Winston and they will expect him to stick with them. But there is always the list for Shane.

So 2017 has got a lot more interesting. Winston and NZF have a chance to go as high as 12 to 15% if he can sell himself as the saviour of the provinces.

But who will he support in govt? I suspect it will be largely dependent on the gap between National and Labour. If the gap is greater than 10%, say a 42/32 National Labour split, he will go with National. Less than 5% gap, he will go with Labour. And between those two, well that is anyone's guess.

by Andrew Geddis on March 30, 2015
Andrew Geddis


Yes - I think both Jones and Peters are smart enough to know what the "optics" of Jones' presence would be! I do wonder, but, what bringing Jones into the tent would mean for a post-Peters succession plan for NZ First - in particular, how Ron Mark would react. 

by Tim Watkin on March 30, 2015
Tim Watkin

I can tell you that Jones is being very careful in his relationship with McCully, getting permission for anything in the public eye. But he's determined not to disappear altogether.

Wayne, I think your 2017 questions are the crucial ones (see my post). Does the need to appease conservative Northland voters in 2017 drag him right? That's the risk of Labour's strategy. But that rail to the north that I like to bang on about could be useful as a bridge between NZF and Labour. Imagine if he could 'deliver' that as part of a Labour-NZF government?

But you're right, it all depends on the numbers. As frustrating and opaque and cynical as it is when he says that every three years, it's true. The vote count will decide which way he goes, but a) I think he'll be keener to go with a new government than a 4th-term one and b) I suspect he'd genuinely prefer to hold court from the cross-benches.


by Wayne Mapp on March 31, 2015
Wayne Mapp

Hi Tim,

I generally agree with your comment hence the reason why I think Winston would only go with the Nats (or let them form a minority govt), if they had a decisive lead over Labour.

One of the dilemmas for the junior coalition partner since the first MMP govt, now 19 years ago, is that they get trashed. That has happened to Winston twice, first in 1999 and second in 2008. And to Alliance, and to ACT. But the Greens have remained strong by not being in govt.

So allowing a minority govt to be formed has to have an appeal (but of course it means no ministries), or does that convention change as well.

Or alternatively leveraging up the role in govt. If the minor party has say 15% and the major party say 35%, maybe the role of the PM has to be split, with the minor party taking the first spin, leaving the major party being able to go into the next election with their guy/gal as PM.

MMP seems to have worked better for the major parties, (though they can drop drastically as National did in 2002 to 21% and to 25% as Labour did in 2014). But it has been a hectic ride for the smaller parties. However, I guess they are better off than they would have been under FPP.


by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2015
Tim Watkin

Wayne, I think that convention changes as well. If the need is great enough for the major party, Peters could get the baubles and the office without having to commit. Look how loose the arrangements are even now.

And it's interesting you mention the Prime Ministership. It seems so unlikely given our traditions, but heck, again needs must. The Greens openly wanted the deputy(ies) job for getting 10-15%, why shouldn't Winston shoot higher.

I'm not sure if you saw Tau Henare on The Nation, but he talked about Peters "ruling from the centre", and when Lisa asked if he was talking about the Prime Ministership he grinned and raised his eyebrows, obviously hinting that could be in Peters' mind.

And old and almost accidental PM? Could be a bit like Ward back in the 20s.

by Andrew Geddis on April 01, 2015
Andrew Geddis

And it's interesting you mention the Prime Ministership. It seems so unlikely given our traditions, but heck, again needs must.

Against our traditions, yes. But ... Borgen.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.