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.