14 Feb 2020

The Week in Politics: Polls show election on a knife-edge

3:05 pm on 14 February 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Another opinion poll shows a knife-edge result, Northland could decide the election and National goes after NZ First.

New Zealand First MP Shane Jones answering media questions

Can Shane Jones take Northland and keep his party in Parliament if it doesn't reach the quota? Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

A second opinion poll has shown the election result balanced on a knife-edge.

This week's One News Colmar-Brunton poll gave National and ACT a scrape-through majority while last week's Newshub Reid Research survey was the reverse, a narrow win for Labour and the Greens.

But they had one thing in common - NZ First below the 5 per cent threshold and out of Parliament. The Colmar-Brunton poll gave the party just 3 per cent, one point ahead of ACT.

Those results mean Northland could decide the election. Shane Jones all but confirmed to RNZ that he will stand in the electorate and if he wins NZ First can survive without reaching the threshold.

National holds the seat and NZ First will make a huge effort to take it. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said Labour won't stand aside and she isn't going to make any electorate deals, but if her government's future depends on it the word could go out to Labour supporters - give your party vote to Labour and your candidate vote to Jones.

That's how it works in Epsom, where National keeps ACT's David Seymour in place. It would be surprising if Labour didn't use the same tactic in Northland, given that it has virtually no chance of winning the seat itself.

Between now and the election Winston Peters will be working on the case, and he will want the government to commit to moving the Port of Auckland to Northland. That would be a huge benefit to the region and NZ First could claim the credit. There will almost certainly be other enticements for Northland voters as well.

Back in the capital, Peters was having a hard week. The electoral Commission handed its file on NZ First's donations to the police, who immediately shifted it to the Serious Fraud Office. The Commission said it believed donations to the foundation, which were not declared, should have been party donations but it didn't have the power to fully investigate.

Peters continued to insist his party did not breach electoral laws, and took the unusual step of bypassing the media with a live Facebook appearance where he answered questions about the donations. Not much was learned, however, and Peters distanced himself from the foundation. "I did not receive any money. I'm not part of the foundation. I've never seen any of its accounts," he said. No one has claimed he did receive money from it, the foundation made loans to NZ First, which were used to run the party.

Then there was the strange business of the photo showing RNZ's Guyon Espiner and Stuff's Matt Shand meeting NZ First's former president Lester Gray in Tauranga. It was published by the right-wing blog BFD. Magic Radio's Peter Williams asked Peters about it during an interview on Tuesday. "Look, Mr Williams, I know that, we took the photograph just to prove that's the behaviour going on," Peters said.

That sounded like surveillance, and Peters swiftly changed his story, tweeting on Thursday: "NZF has no interest in following Mr Espiner or any other journalists. The reverse applies. No private investigators have been engaged to follow Mr Espiner or anyone else. A supporter thought it odd seeing ex-president Lester Gray with Mr Espiner, so took a photo. Simple."

Espiner and Shand have been revealing details of donations to the NZ First Foundation, with Espiner's latest report detailing thousands of dollars coming from the racing industry. Peters is minister for racing.

Richard Harman reported on his Politik blog on Friday: "New Zealand First officials believe that Gray has a substantial number of NZ First and NZ First Foundation documents which he obtained while president."

National's deputy leader, Paula Bennett, described the photo as "chilling".

"Having a journalist followed and photographed at the request of the deputy prime minister shows an appalling lack of trust and integrity," Stuff reported her as saying. "Ardern needs to hold her deputy to account."

She later told RNZ it looked like stalking.

National, now it has ruled out working with NZ First after the election, is going after the party whenever it gets the opportunity.

At a select committee hearing on Wednesday National's finance spokesman, Paul Goldsmith, asked finance Minister Grant Robertson whether he had asked Treasury officials to review spending by NZ First ministers in light of the SFO investigation. Robertson said he had not, and took the same line as Ardern on the controversy - wait for the investigation to be concluded before making any judgments.

Radio New Zealand, meanwhile, was in the news on a matter entirely of its own making. Last week it proposed taking its classical music programme Concert off the FM frequency to make way for a service aimed at younger listeners. It didn't last long after Ardern said at her post-cabinet press conference on Monday: I have made it very clear that we are not going to lose RNZ Concert on FM." There was a torrent of opposition to the proposal, including from a group of lawyers, including former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, who threatened legal action.

Ardern suggested an FM frequency, which had been on the shelf for 20 years, and had been intended for youth programming, could be freed up. Discussions are ongoing.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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