'Playing politics' in Northland

7:24 pm on 16 March 2015

Do not get too excited about the Northland by-election and the prospects that the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters will win it.

Winston Peters speaking to a crowd of people at Kaikohe RSA.

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Mr Peters' win would be a blow to the Government. After all, Northland has been a National Party seat for years.

National losing the seat would also be a boon to the Opposition, which explains partly why the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, has been so hesitant about whether voters should support Labour's candidate Willow-Jean Prime.

His line, that it is up the voters to decide who to support, is a tacit nod in favour of Mr Peters.

But the Opposition's gain in the by-election, if Mr Peters wins, might be its long-term loss.

People seem to forget Mr Peters is a former National MP. New Zealand First was in coalition with National from 1996 to 1998.

It is possible Mr Peters might be a minister in the present Government now, had National not had enough support from ACT, United Future and the Maori Party to form a third-term government.

And while Mr Peters will undoubtedly need the votes of centre-left supporters to take Northland, it will be longstanding National voters switching their allegiance which will do most to make him the electorate's MP.

Those National supporters will be able to do that, not just because of frustration with their own party, but because in Mr Peters they recognise a fellow traveller.

A win for Mr Peters would force National to take him more seriously. Rather than foreshadowing a difficult run to the next election that relationship might just ensure John Key gets a fourth term as Prime Minister, this time leading a National-New Zealand First Government.

So, for Labour, and, to a lesser extent, the Green Party, there is much to think about.

Does it take the immediate tactical advantage of taking a seat off National, or think more strategically and ask itself what might the result mean for the next general election?

It is too simplistic to believe a victory for Mr Peters is immediately all good news for the centre-left.

It would not, however, be good news for ACT. At the moment its MP David Seymour's vote is all National needs to get legislation through Parliament. If Mr Peters wins National would also need the support of either United Future's Peter Dunne or the Maori Party to push its policy programme through.

The one piece of legislation where it really matters is the proposed changes to the Resource Management Act.

A possible dilution of ACT's already miniscule influence might be why that party is now considering urging its supporters to vote for National's candidate Mark Osborne.

Mr Osborne just might need the 200 votes ACT's candidate won in last year's general election to sneak in.

Certainly Mr Peters entering the contest has been Northland's gain.

Winston Peters speaking to a crowd of people at Kaikohe RSA.

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

The National Party has been spooked by opinion polls showing Mr Peters could win the seat and has begun an old-fashioned campaign of buying votes.

This week it promised to spend millions of dollars on replacing one-lane with two-lane bridges. Some of these have been on the drawing board for some time but the by-election appears to have ensured they will be built sooner, rather than later.

The Prime Minister, John Key, says more announcements are likely before March 28, the day voters go to the polls.

Crowd at Kaikohe RSA to meet Northland by-election candidates.

Crowd at Kaikohe RSA to meet Northland by-election candidates. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

While Northland voters might be flattered by all the attention, they might also ask why.

Take Mr Peters. He is right. He spent quite a bit of time in the electorate at the last election touting for party votes.

But, despite saying the electorate has been neglected by National, he did not stand in Northland last year nor did any other candidate from his party.

Mr Peters is standing now because the by-election represents an opportunity for him to promote his party and make life difficult for National.

National, too, is suddenly showing much greater interest in Northland for the very reason that its stranglehold on the seat appears to be under threat.

Labour is now hedging its bets about who voters should support because it believes National could be defeated by Mr Peters, not by its own candidate.

All three parties are playing politics with the region but once the by-election is over their focus will shift back to Wellington.

Northland voters should enjoy the attention while it lasts.

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