National's turning point

7:51 am on 3 April 2015

If you accept conventional wisdom, the National Party's loss in last weekend's Northland by-election is the beginning of the end for the Government.

John Key and Mark Osborne visiting a Kerikeri kiwifruit packhouse on the final day of campaigning in the Northland by-election.

John Key and Mark Osborne visiting a Kerikeri kiwifruit packhouse on the final day of campaigning. Photo: RNZ / Benedict Collins

Apparently time is up for the Prime Minister, John Key, too.

It seems one by-election is enough to override the general election result of just six months earlier when National won a third term with a greater proportion of the vote than it got in the two previous elections.

Certainly the loss is a blow to National. This is a seat it has held for decades and its previous MP Mike Sabin, who resigned in January, had a 9,300 vote majority.

On any count this was a by-election National should not have lost. But Northland voters told the Government they were not happy with its performance and elected New Zealand First leader Winston Peters as their MP.

While Mr Key has made much of the Opposition parties - Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First - ganging up against National, Mr Peters also needed the support of a fair number of National voters to win the seat.

Winston Peters talks to media in Russell after sweeping to victory in Northland.

Winston Peters talks to media in Russell after sweeping to victory in Northland. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

It is clear his message that the electorate had been neglected by National resonated among voters. In a by-election they could vote against National's candidate Mark Osborne, knowing it would not undermine the stability of the Government.

National's woes in the seat were also exacerbated by the circumstances of the by-election. Mr Sabin's sudden resignation and the reasons for it did the party no favours.

Prime Minister John Key talking to reporters in Japan in Wednesday

The loss does not mean John Key has lost his Midas touch. Not yet anyway. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

In Mr Osborne National picked a political novice and someone who was relatively unknown in the electorate.

He was up against Mr Peters, a seasoned political campaigner, and someone who was well known in the electorate not just because of his national profile but also because of his long and deep family and iwi connections to the land.

National compounded its problems by panicking, scaremongering and attacking Mr Peters for not living in the electorate.

Its approach - fashioned by campaign manager and senior minister Steven Joyce - failed spectacularly.

It was, as Mr Joyce freely conceded, his first defeat. It was also for Mr Key the first time he has experienced political failure.

It does not mean, however, that suddenly the tide has turned against National or that Mr Key has lost his Midas touch. Not yet anyway.

What will determine if this is really a turning point, as some pundits pick, will be National's and Mr Key's response.

In the past Mr Key has proven himself a quick learner and he has been fast to dump or modify unpopular initiatives.

300714. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Steven Joyce  during a press conference regarding Novopay next steps.

It was, as Steven Joyce freely conceded, his first defeat. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

If he learns from the Northland debacle expect changes.

If the by-election showed anything it was that National, only months into its third term, had grown complacent and possibly arrogant.

The resounding defeat in the by-election should at least shake the Government out of any complacency.

So this could be a turning point but not the one which most pundits are picking. Instead of leading to the eventual electoral demise of the National-led Government it might be the shock it needs to again get in tune with the public mood, as it has managed to do for much of the past nearly seven years.

Opposition parties might eventually reflect the by-election came too early and gave National too much time to regroup before the next general election at the end of 2017.

Take note of the Government's response to Mr Peters' win. While National heavily criticised him before the by-election it is now offering to work with him to deliver the promises he made to the electorate.

It also says it will continue with its plans to improve infrastructure in the region, including double laning the ten bridges it identified during the campaign.

Nationwide the Government is also likely to focus more specifically on regional development in the face of criticism it has neglected the provinces.

Obviously National, regardless of the by-election, has a huge challenge to do well enough at the 2017 general election to win a fourth consecutive term in government. Only once before has National managed that and, so far, under MMP no party has governed for four successive terms.

Mr Key is surely keen on making his own history.

For that reason he is likely to take the message from Northland seriously.

If he does it is a turning point.

If he does not? ... still a turning point.

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