When I heard that Winston Peters had decided to to contest the Northland by election I was delighted. Aside from being a rarity for New Zealand First to seriously pursue by election campaigns, the Northland by election caused by the departure of National list Member of Parliament Mike Sabin is in an electorate to which Mr Peters has long standing ties. But most crucially, the damage a New Zealand First victory in the seat, would cripple the Government and make it substantially harder for National to pass legislation. So why is National taking the threat so seriously?
Mr Sabin left Parliament on 30 January 2015 after it was noted he was being investigated by the Police for an alleged assault. Because of the gravity of the offence and the fact that Mr Sabin knew about it during the election it is understood Northlanders might not be so keen to vote for National in the near future. Today their new candidate admitted to also knowing about the alleged offence, which suddenly casts a pall over his campaign before it has even started. So how did it come to this?
First we need to look at the New Zealand Parliament. After the 2014 election National rose to 59 Members of Parliament, with A.C.T. (David Seymour), United Future, (Peter Dunne) plus the Maori Party as support parties. To ensure that it had the numbers, National negotiated agreements with A.C.T. and the other small parties Combined, that gave them 63 seats in a 121 seat House of Representatives – sufficient to pass legislation. A Winston Peters victory would make that significantly harder by depriving National of a seat. New Zealand First exited Parliament in 2008 with only 4.07% of the vote (if a party has no electorate seat it would need 5% of the Party vote to stay in Parliament), before coming back in 2011 at 6.8% which in a 121 seat House was sufficient to get 8 candidates into Parliament.
But before we address the issue of why Winston Peters is such a credible threat to National, let us briefly look at the other side of the coin, that of the incumbent Party. It is more than just the decision of Mr Peters to stand in the electorate that has National concerned about how many Members of Parliament it would have afterwards. In the last few months, aware that history is against them winning a fourth term in office, National have made several moves to ensure that the government of Prime Minister John Key leaves a “legacy” behind. Adding to that, there is a growing perception that National is losing touch with the common New Zealander with their refusal to call a vote of Parliament on committing troops to Iraq; the growing unrest about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement; the failure to address poverty, an issue that is particularly sensitive in Northland as is jobs.
And then there is the threat from a veteran war horse, a man who has spent most of his working life in and around Parliament, a man whose party challenges the Greens for the title of 3rd largest in New Zealand by number of Members of Parliament in the House. Mr Peters might be 70 or approaching that age, but it has not stopped him from leading New Zealand First in the House of Representatives. Contrary to National’s assertions Mr Peters is not a local person, he received his education at Whangarei Boys High School and Dargaville High School. He is charismatic. His name is well known all around New Zealand, whereas the new Labour candidate Willow Jean Prime was a complete new comer to me. As is the National candidate Mark Osbourne.
On Wednesday 04 March 2015, a 3 News poll showed that Winston Peters would be the likely winner of a by election in Northland were it held that day. Perceptions that National might lose the seat have only been sharpened by Prime Minister John Key going from saying Mr Peters has no chance of winning the seat, through to acknowledging a substantial effort would be needed to defeat Mr Peters. Nor have those perceptions been lessened by revelations that the new National candidate to replace Mr Sabin has some knowledge of what his predecessor is alleged to have done.
It remains until the ballot papers have been cast to find out who has won the seat, but all of a sudden the reason for the rush of National party resources into the electorate is that much clearer. And before very long so will the consequences National might have to face if they lose the seat. And a war horse fighting a campaign on familiar ground in an electorate disillusioned with National and possibly Labour might be on the road to winning New Zealand Firsts first electorate seat since Mr Peters held Tauranga.
*See “Causes I support” for more on New Zealand First and why I support it.