Sunday, March 29, 2015

The breeze from Northland

Yesterday, the by-election in Northland gave John Key/Steven Joyce their first election defeat since winning government back in 2008. They lost a totally safe National electorate seat, which takes some doing. Is there more to come?

The results of the by-election are an absolutely clear middle finger to Key and National made by voters who are—rightly—sick and tired of being taken for granted by the government down in Wellington. Many of their problems are common to all of rural New Zealand, which are also mainly totally safe National electorates (Northland, for example, had been held by National for 50 years). So, some are suggesting that this poses a problem for Key and National.

Yes, but not in quite the way the pundits think.

In Northland, the contest started out as one for National to lose. The Labour Party candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, was outstanding—but she was standing in a strong-National Party seat she’d lost just a few months ago. It was highly improbable that she’d win, even with the Greens opting to not stand a candidate.

Enter Winston Peters, possibly the most loved and the most hated politician in New Zealand, all at the same time. He gambled that he could take on the National Party and beat them, and it became clear early on that he would succeed. Labour Party Leader Andrew Little gave implicit support to the idea of Labour voters voting for Peters, and they did, as did Green supporters.

But it’s important to remember that National Party voters also voted for Winston, sending a message to their own party and to John Key. They could do that because nothing was at risk: They knew that a vote for Peters wouldn’t change the government, it would just—safely—send a strong message.

Nevertheless, this does change things. National drops from 60 seats to 59 (plus the one-person Act Party, who will always vote the way John Key tells him to since he’d never even be in Parliament without Key’s direct help). Key can also count on his poodle Peter Dunne, and the normally subservient Maori Party, so with the certain loyalty of all those folks it’s highly unlikely that the government will fall.

On the other hand, Key may need to negotiate with other parties to get things through Parliament. For example, he may not be able to get the changes to the Resource Management Act that he wants, so it may tilt a little less toward rich developers and corporations than it would have before the by-election. Similarly, he’s unlikely to get anything supporting the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement through Parliament without the support of Labour—and that would come at a cost that Key may find too high, hoping instead to win again in 2017 so he can push through whatever they wants without challenge or compromise.

But 2017’s where the real effect of the by-election will be felt. National will probably win back the Northland seat in 2017—National voters will “come home” when it matters. But the myth of invincibility has now been shattered, and Key (or whoever is leader of he National Party at the time) will need to fight harder than they have in decades. Also, with Key’s agenda being confronted and challenged constantly over the next 2½ years, he (or his successor) won’t look quite so able in 2017.

National has no one to blame but themselves for the loss. Auckland-based campaign manager Steven Joyce sent ministers up to Northland in Crown cars, dressed in suit and tie—this to an electorate that’s mostly rural. It smacked of big city hubris, and was widely mocked. So, too, were the obvious campaign bribes, like turning a dozen one-lane bridges into two-lane bridges, something that Northlanders also openly mocked (they stated calling it a “buy election”) and didn’t want: The want jobs and opportunities in what is one of the poorest electorates in New Zealand.

Ultimately, however, it may prove to be the emerging factionalism within the National Party that may prove to be their real undoing—more than the tone-deaf campaign management of Joyce, or the arrogance and hubris of the government. It’s pretty obvious that the Judith Collins/Maurice Williamson/etc. factions of National are delighted by this loss because of the consequent weakening of Key and Joyce.

It’s going to be an interesting 2½ years.

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