Is the Northland by-election pothole just a flat tyre for National or is it a sign this political vehicle is running out of gas? Here are two things to keep an eye on once Winston's tempest has passed

So what does it all mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. While we know the result in Northland and the unique weather patterns that merged to create Cyclone Winston, it's impossible to yet know whether National can blow those clouds away or whether more rain is on the horizon.

Look at the Northland specifics. The Mike Sabin factor has been difficult to analyse for legal reasons, but everything points to the fact that is was a decisive factor. There was a very particular anger at play and it was aimed at National.

Beyond that you had Winston Peters with all his charisma and madness and charm and (much more than in recent years) humour and pent-up frustration from last year's election, in which voters denied him his kingmaker's role. Northland was the perfect place at the perfect time for Peters to vent his frustration on the Key-Joyce machine that so nearly ended his political career altogether in 2008.

The bus, the slogan, the itinerary, the tone... as he said over the weekend, this was the best campaign he's ever run and a near perfect example of the craft.

Oh, and don't forget the local issues. Peters was on the right-side of everything, down to the Kaipara rates revolt. Look at the National voters in Mangawhai who switched sides – according to one source largely due to anger over the rates blowout – and you can see why there's some truth in Joyce's line about "unique set of circumstances".

Then there was National's bizarre candidate selection process, still not fully understood; its panicked bribes (two bridges? Heck no, let's offer 10!) that were promised regardless of the victor; and its flood of ministers, money and cynicism.

Its tactics were hopeless (attacking Peters as a carpet-bagger when his family name is etched in the local landscape?), as it tried to use some cookie-cutter game plan on a very distinct region.

As always, there was the economy, stupid...  A region with income comparable to Timor Leste, according to Shamubeel Eaqub, will only feel insulted by talk of recovery and rock stars. The Nats had a tin ear.

And finally, of course, there was Labour, with Andrew Little willing to get off the high moral ground and deal in the realities of MMP politics. Manipulative? Yes. A deal? Kind of. While not handing over a winnable seat, it was undoubtedly an accommodation and one that sacrificed a candidate with big plans (now forsaken) to make the seat marginal over the next two elections. The best choice? Of course.

So National loses, while Winston Peters gets an electorate from which he can try to build the legacy and fortress denied him by Tauranga.

But what does it all mean? In the short-term it has some policy consequences, most notably it must smooth some of the rough edges off the Resource Management Act reforms. Whether those are United Future's edges or the Maori Party's rough bits, we'll have to wait and see, but either way New Zealand First will have a new line to run: 'Winston, environmental champion'.

Politically, what about 2017? Does this sate Peters' appetite for revenge over Key and Joyce? Judging by his unwillingness to appear on TV programmes and radio shows also involving Steven Joyce, perhaps not. Does this bind him closer to Labour? No.

Does Peters as an MP of a conservative electorate have more of a reason to break bread with (and prop up) National? Or does his promises of rail and jobs more naturally align with Labour's agenda?

It potentially deepens the rift between Peters and National, which for all Joyce's grace in defeat, is hurting. It was a bad loss for National in even tony areas such as Kerikeri.

If you look at electorate votes, Willow-Jean Prime's support fell 20 percent, which got Peters neck and neck with Osborne. But that strategic voting alone doesn't account for Peters' 4012 vote victory. The rest came from a 13 percent drop from Sabin's vote to Osborne's. And this in what Mike Williams has called the biggest by-election turnout in decades.

Williams also sagely points out that when the Bolger/Shipley government fell apart, it was the regions that abandoned it first (also ably assisted by Peters!). But there's simply no evidence yet to suggest whether Northland is just one loose chip coming loose from the Key-Joyce wall or a chunk of the foundation coming away.

Let's not pretend the Key administration hasn't been down before; it's just never let the blows define it. It was ducked and dived its way out by reverting its focus to the bread and butter issues that matter to swing voters, which are mostly economic and mostly in the careful hands of Bill English.

Just because the Joyce wheel has a flat, it doesn't mean the English wheel's any less stable.

And yes, it's John Key's first electoral loss as National Party leader. But hey, everyone has to have a first loss and it seldom defines a political career.

But the two questions for me are these: How deep does New Zealanders' admiration of John Key run? Do they admire the man or simply because – Wall St, $50 million and all – he's a winner? And if he's less of a winner, does that make him less of a Prime Minister.

In effect, does this give New Zealanders permission to reappraise Key and see him in a different light? Time will tell.

Second, does Northland's discontent represent a restlessness in many regions and will Northland's willingness to complain inspire others to do the same? Yes, Northland has always been the poor cousin.

But it was interesting to see Torben Akel's piece on New Zealand's oil and minerals sector six years on from the incoming National government's promises in 2009 that it would unlock our mineral wealth. While it's early days in exploration terms, the key is firmly stuck in the lock and the lock ain't opening. Taranaki, oft-used by Joyce as a counter-argument when he's accused of not doing enough for the regions, now has one of the country's lowest economic growth rates.

The regions are struggling and there's resentment that the growth in Auckland (and to a lesser degree in Christchurch), is not being shared.

Are voters ready to blame National for that?

Peters thinks so: Asked on The Nation if this was a blip or a turn in the road for National, he replied:

It’s a huge turn in the road. And every farmer here or forester or fishing interest that used to be National that came on to our side last night is sending a message to the National Party. They are members. These are people who are in the organisation of the National Party, who know that all their work and all their loyalty has not been repaid with some loyalty back. You don’t have a two-tier economy where the exporters, the wealth-creators, who bring money back to the family in New Zealand get treated this way, and so if the National Party think that this is a mere blip, then they’re in for a horrible future as a political party themselves.

And he added:

...the National Party can decide now whether they’ve got themselves a chance in 2017 by paying attention up here, rather than, for example, running an economy where the lifeblood is being sucked out of the provinces, and the wealth creators, for example, their obsession with Auckland.

So Winston reckons. We'll see. But only once we start to get answers to those questions about Key and the regions will we really know the true result of this Northland by-election.

Comments (8)

by Fentex on March 30, 2015

It's a bloody nose, not a knock out.

And I suspect may not be the most important consequence of the possible scandal should Sabin be convicted of anything (as the Speaker of the House suggested he is in danger of) and questions about Mr. Keys support be brought to mind in our future.

by Penny Bright on March 30, 2015
Penny Bright

This Northland 'buy'-election is historically significant, in my opinion, for a number of reasons.

1) The so-called 'left' for the first time, successfully practiced strategic voting, and voted for the candidate most likely to give 'the (political) main enemy' - a big, fat wing-clipping.

This is a VERY big deal, in my view.

Given that at General Elections, political parties focus is the party vote, then the potential for the so-called 'left' voting strategically for the electorate candidate most likely to wing-clip the 'right' candidate could potentially pack quite a wallop.

The precedent of 'doing a Northland' is now done and dusted.

Winston Peters nailed it.

National got a hammering.

However - 'doing a Northland' is NOT the same as 'doing an Epsom'

Northland was never a safe Labour seat.

Winston Peters and Andrew Little did no 'deal' and had no 'cup of tea'.

Andrew Little and Labour's Willow-Jean Prime never told Labour voters for whom they should vote.

There is currently a LOT of spin happening on this front, as many horrified right-wing political commentators realise that the 'left' now know how to 'do' strategic voting.


2) Ex-Wall Street banker, now (part-time) Prime Minister John Key's carefully crafted ordinary 'okey blokey' image - went down the gurgler when the public saw he couldn't bang a nail into a hunk of wood.

The Leader of the famous country of DIY, was HOPELESS at the most elementary of home handyman tasks - hitting a nail with a hammer.

The 'trader' was no 'tradie'.

Perception in politics - is everything - is it not?

What ordinary Kiwi bloke is now going to queue up to have a 'selfie' taken shaking the hand of the man who has never held a hammer?

3) The Northland 'buy'-election was a smack in the face for 'amalgamations' - where rural /provincial NZ gets swamped and smothered, strangled by 'metro' NZ.

4) Decent New Zealanders, and in my view, a lot of (former) National Party members / supporters, especially from rural NZ,  are decent New Zealanders, don't like dodgy / shonky stuff, where things are not done in a proper way.

Where was the 'no surprises'  policy for Northland voters?

What happened to Mike Sabin - the MP for Northland who they elected?

Where is the transparency?

'Nothing to hide - nothing to fear' - sort of thing?

WHEN exactly did the Police advise the Minister of Police that National MP Mike Sabin was under Police investigation?

Will John Key tip from being NZ's purportedly most popular Prime Minister to NZ's most UNPOPULAR Prime Minister, once the truth is known?


by Tim Watkin on March 30, 2015
Tim Watkin

Penny, yes and no re the Northland is not Epsom argument. It is different, Northland's not a seat given away for strategic gain, as with Epsom. It is not, per se, a deal.

But the argument that Peters and Little didn't have a cup of tea is irrelevant. Tactics move on, but the strategy was the same – a message was sent by a party that its supporters should not back their candidate. The 'how' doesn't matter, a clear signal was sent so the intent was the same and Key now has licence to mock if Labour tries to moan about Epsom in 2017.

Second, you say Little and Prime never told voters who to vote for? If you believe that then, as Andrew has said, I have a covered stadium in Dunedin you might like to buy. Labour's 'vote Winston' message was as subtle as a brick.

But I agree about Sabin. Except that we know when the police advised Tolley and Woodhouse, because we have it from both sides. What we're not as clear on is what they did with that information, as we only have their version of events and, frankly, it's hard to credit (bordering on incompetent) that they really would a) not ask for more detail and b) keep that from their boss.

by Penny Bright on March 31, 2015
Penny Bright

Tim - provide ONE direct quote from Andrew Little or Willow-Jean Prime where they told supporters to vote for Winston Peters.

In my opinion, as someone who went to Northland and attended a number of candidates' meetings - I listened VERY carefully to what was said

In  my view, the 'strategic voting'  message from the Labour Leader and Northland was sensible, sophisticated and in the best interests of Labour Party members and supporters.

Campaign on the ISSUES - but don't campaign for VOTES.

(Who else did this VERY effectively in Northland was Bruce Rogan (Independent) - who campaigned for the repeal of the Mike Sabin, democratically disgraceful Kaipara District Council Rates Validation Act 2013. Also Reuben Taipari-Porter, who stood as the Mana candidate, but campaigned against deep sea oil drilling / Statoil etc).

Why waste a vote on the Labour candidate - when by 'strategically' voting for the candidate who had the best chance of taking Northland off National, you could help to politically 'clip the wings' of this anti-worker, pro-corporate, ex-Wall Street banker led National Government?

Commonsense really.

And it worked!

Could sensible and sophisticated 'strategic' voting help tip National, and National coalition partners out of other 'safe' electorate seats?

Why yes - I do believe it could.

No wonder a lot of 'right wing' political commentators spin machines are on turbo drive!


The poor (dumb?) people now 'get' strategic voting?!


Penny Bright




by Penny Bright on March 31, 2015
Penny Bright

Do you have the exact date Tim, when the Police advised Police Minister that they were investigating Mike Sabin?

I don't.

What date do you have - if you do have that date?


Penny Bright



by Bruce Thorpe on March 31, 2015
Bruce Thorpe

Do we have a date for the start of the police investigation of Sabin?

That is when the proper National person(Whip?) should have been told, by Sabin.

If not, why noit?

We all know the rules. You are in a spot of trouble, asap tell the wife, your employer, so they get it first up from you. 

When either minister was told by the police, you send it up the chain. Your team needs to know, is it one of ours? or one of theirs? 

Did nobody ask caucus, has somebody got something to tell me?

SO the prime minister starts his new government, changing ministers' portfolios, dropping some such as Chester Burroughs, raising some at least to committee  chairs etc, without asking'is there anything I should know before ...?" a fundamental question when shuffling the parliamentary pack.

So, Key, after the election, publicly backed Sabin as "a good electorate m.p." (which was simply not true) and Sabin chaired a meeting of the Law & Order committee of parliament.

When Sabin resigned, Key had first dibs on the date of the by election, the chance to get his party candidate up and running, before the opposition knew what was happening.

And these guys wanmt us to trust them over trade deals?


by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2015
Tim Watkin

Penny, Andrew Little's lines may well have been "sensible, sophisticated and in the best interests of Labour Party members and supporters". Yes they worked and were political common sense. Those things are true of the Epsom deal as well – it's in the best interest of National and it worked, and therefore makes sense politically.

But that not what we're talking about. You said he didn't tell people how to vote and there was no deal. So you're either splitting hairs or kidding yourself. Of course he didn't use precise words, but you'd have to be a deaf alien not to understand the instruction to vote Peters when he said:

"Willow-Jean is a very strong candidate. She is somebody who Labour wants in Parliament sooner rather than later.

"But this is a Northland by-election. People have got one vote. They are going to have to decide. If they want to send a message to the government that they are sick and tired of being neglected, then they are going to have to pick who they want to get that message through."

We have a candidate in the race, and she's a good candidate, and she's somebody who we want in Parliament. I have a duty to back her. But in the end, I want Northlanders to exercise their choice, to see that they could make a difference here.  If they want to send a message to the government that we are sick and tired of being neglected, then they know what their choice is."

Or this:

"The reality is that there are two polls in a row that show there's a competition between the two front-runners, in this case National and New Zealand First. And it's usually typical for a byelection, the race ends up coming down to the two front-runners.

"I can't ignore that reality, nobody else can. In the end, byelections are a referendum on the government of the day. If Northlanders feel they've been neglected and they can't get their roads fixed and those sorts of things then they're going to have to think about how they cast their vote in a way that sends a message."

There are huge 'but's in there, he uses Peters own slogan and, when asked repeatedly to say simply 'vote Labour' or 'vote Prime', he avoided doing so. You cannot pretend that wasn't a crystal clear message to vote Peters.

So don't pretend, just own the tactic.

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2015
Tim Watkin

No, we don't have an exact date when Tolley and another minister found out an unnamed MP was being investigated, but it's been reported as August/September. So crucially it was before the election. Woodhouse seems to have been after, when he had become Police Minister.

Bruce, you can lay out how questionable that all sounds, but it only makes the point that Key would have been mad to have appointed Sabin and praised him if he knew there was an investigation; that's exactly the bit that's so odd. While it seems incredible the information wasn't passed up the chain, the evidence you give only gives more weight to Key's claim he didn't know.

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