Peters re­turns to the spot­light


When Win­ston Peters founded New Zealand First 22 years ago, the Act Party’s cur­rent leader, David Sey­mour, was just 10.

At the time, New Zealand First was widely writ­ten off as Peters’ fi­nale, his last stand af­ter a tur­bu­lent decade in the Na­tional Party cau­cus.

Yet in­cred­i­bly, Peters is back again at the cen­tre-stage of New Zealand pol­i­tics, and in the role he likes best – as the un­der­dog fight­ing the forces of en­trenched po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age, in the North­land by-elec­tion.

Ini­tial polling had him run­ning neck and neck with Na­tional can­di­date Mark Os­borne.

At stake in North­land is the Na­tional Party’s work­ing ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment.

A loss would put the Gov­ern­ment’s leg­isla­tive pro­gramme at the mercy of United Fu­ture and/or the Maori Party, two less re­li­able door­mats than the man-child from Ep­som.

Mean­while, Sey­mour has told his le­gions – 200 peo­ple gave their elec­torate vote to Act in North­land last year out of more than 34,000 valid votes cast – to vote for Na­tional.

The tac­ti­cal vot­ing arith­metic in this by-elec­tion is fas­ci­nat­ing.

On pa­per, Na­tional sits se­curely on its trounc­ing of Labour in last year’s elec­tion, which de­liv­ered it a 9300 ma­jor­ity.

Yet New Zealand First ran for only the party vote and still got 12 per cent.

The Greens, who got more than 3000 elec­torate votes last year, aren’t con­test­ing the by-elec­tion.

Fo­cus NZ, the right-wing an­ti­rates party, got eight times as many elec­torate votes as Act in North­land, but as its name im­plies, some of its sup­port­ers will be sym­pa­thetic to New Zealand First.

North­land has al­ways been fer­tile ground for fringe par­ties.

It was formed in the mid-1990s out of the old Bay of Is­lands seat and a slice of the Hob­son elec­torate, both of which were hot­beds of So­cial Credit sup­port.

The So­cial Credit- in­flu­enced Coun­try Party held the Bay of Is­lands seat for three terms un­til 1938.

In 1966, Hob­son elected So­cial Credit leader Vern Crack­nell to Par­lia­ment. More re­cently, the far north has been one of New Zealand First’s zones of strong­est sup­port.

And Labour? It now has a more popular, po­lit­i­cally as­tute leader in An­drew Lit­tle, and Lit­tle has sig­nalled that Labour vot­ers should think se­ri­ously about vot­ing tac­ti­cally – for Peters.

A clearly rat­tled Key Gov­ern­ment has sud­denly found it can af­ford a $ 69 mil­lion bridge­build­ing pack­age in North­land to cre­ate a jobs pro­gramme on be­half of its can­di­date.

The sym­bol­ism of that pack­age seems apt. Once the by-elec­tion is won and the bridges are built, North­land can be al­lowed to revert to its usual state of ir­rel­e­vance.

The the­atri­cal side of MMP tac­ti­cal vot­ing has changed since the ‘‘cuppa tea’’ days in Ep­som.

Vot­ing sig­nals are now more sub­tle. Pulling Labour’s can­di­date Wil­low- Jean Prime out of the race, for ex­am­ple, would have been too bla­tant, and would have tainted Peters’ cam­paign.

Yet if Labour vot­ers want to de­rail the Gov­ern­ment’s em­ploy­ment law pack­age, they will know what they have to do.

A Peters’ victory in North­land on March 28 is cur­rently the best way to achieve such a goal.

Anx­ious days ahead then, for the Gov­ern­ment.

Watch for more elec­tion bribes head­ing north.

For now, Peters’ main con­cern will be that he may have peaked too soon.

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