A post-Northland mea culpa

Goddam it - Winston Peters went and made a complete fool out of me. Did he have to do it so publicly?

OK - so three weeks or so ago I put up a post confidently saying:

I don't think Peters will win in Northland. Whatever the Sabin effect may be in that locale, or the frisson of transgression that some past National voters may be experiencing by flirting with the idea of voting for him, come election day and actually casting a ballot there'll be enough true-blue foot soldiers surfing to the polling places on a wave of taxpayer cash to send Mark Osborne to Wellington.

Turns out that, as I immediately warned you afterwards, "I really am pretty hopeless at reading politics." As, apparently, are Rob Salmond (where are your fancy political scientist theories now, huh?) and Danyl McLauchlan. So how could two normally reasonable, well-informed and respected commentators on contemporary New Zealand political issues and one complete moron whose presence on the interweb only embarrasses him and all who know him (I'm sure you can work out which tag goes where) get it so wrong?

Well, first off, I guess we saw this as being an "ordinary" by-election and so applied our "what should happen in an ordinary by-election in a safe seat" views to it. That was, in hindsight, a completely and utterly wrong approach for a number of reasons.

First of all, there's the great unmentionable. Mike Sabin's "personal issues" (which the Speaker of the House has told us involve "a court case") are not a secret to anyone with access to Google and the curiosity to look. And I'm pretty certain that they are a very well known issue in the electorate he represented. So even recognising that people are innocent until proven guilty, it seems likely that a chunk of the 18,269 people who voted for him in September (more, note, than actually voted for National at that election) felt so betrayed at having done so that they either responded by voting for Winston Peters or else decided to sit the by-election out.

Second, National really did screw its by-election campaign up. Part of that wasn't really the national Party's fault - it was the local members who decided that Mark Osborne was the best horse to put into the race. Again in hindsight, that seems a ... poor judgment call. But Steven Joyce et al certainly didn't help with how Mr Osborne was perceived. I guess they wanted to avoid another Melissa Lee moment (or other Melissa Lee moment), but by babysitting him through every single public event they gave the impression that he couldn't be trusted to even open his mouth on his own least he cock things up.

Which then undercuts substantially the argument that he'll make a great representative in Parliament - just the kind of guy you want carrying your concerns into the political bearpit and fighting there for your interests!!!

(Point to watch - wait and see how long it is until someone senior in the National ranks throws Mr Osborne under the bus by intimating that it was all his fault. There's some reputations and factional interests on the line here, so someone is going to have to take the fall.)

Then deciding to roll out the pork barrel in the form of a bunch of bridges that are very much "nice to haves" rather than "desperately needed" - bridges that they didn't even know the cost of before promising them - really backfired badly. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this idea came from someone in Crosby Textor, based on their experiences winning elections in the Australian context. As this article puts it:

Promising infrastructure wins votes. It is a road to power. It is tangible. Voters can see it and touch it, feel their taxes at work. Politicians tour their projects endlessly for the cameras or simply to “inspect works" in visits that are justified by confected milestones.

And in the Australian context, Governments have not been shy about using the power of infrastructure spending to win votes and reward support. So it is to the great credit of the people of Northland that they looked past a naked attempt to buy their votes and made their decision based on other factors.

On this topic, the day before the by-election John Key bemoaned the way that the media had "mischaracterised" the announcement of the 10 bridges and said that this had caused National to hold off further such moves during the campaign. To which I say, good on the media! Because this really was a tawdry and undesirable episode - if the backlash it provoked has had the effect of killing it off as a tactic in future by-elections, then that's for the good of our governing processes generally.

Third, Winston Peters. I am not a fan. I had hoped 2011 might have seen the end of him. But goddam it - he knows the game and he plays it like no-one else in politics today. A candidate driven, underdog-taking-on-the-powers-that-be, campaign in a peripheral region that feels ignored by the center (and a region his whakapapa links to, so he can be a local boy returning to his roots) could not have been better scripted for him. And he turned on a performance that sent the voters to the polls in droves to vote for him.

So - yeah. I really didn't factor in the background conditions against which this election was held at all ... which is probably why you shouldn't rely on legal academics who live in Dunedin to tell you what will happen in Northland.

Now, having admitted my fallibility, let me tell you what will happen next.

The National Party spin is pretty easy to predict. This is a one-off result that was brought about by a combination of a weak candidate and the opposition parties "ganging up" on National. There's a grain of truth in this, but it's not the full story.

At the moment, Peters has 15,359 votes (this will go up a bit after specials - lets say 16,000 votes total) out of the 30,000 cast. Labour's candidate, Willow Jean Prime, took an extra 1,300-odd (say 1,500 after specials)

So that's around 17,500 votes for "the opposition parties". In 2014, NZ First, Labour and the Greens got some 14,000 votes between them out of the 35,000-odd votes cast. So on a 14% lower turnout, "the opposition" got 20% more votes here.

By comparison, National got some 17,400 votes in 2014. This time, its candidate got 11,347 (or, say, 12,000 after specials). That's a drop of almost 30%.

Consequently, Peters couldn't have won without a pretty significant number of National voters deciding to take him up on his offer to test-drive him for 30 months. Which they could do in the hope that he might prove to be a more effective catalyst for change in their area, whilst being safe in the knowledge that National will remain firmly ensconced in Government.

Because, as I noted in this post, the consequence of this by-election result is that nothing has really changed in the House since the 2011 election. So any sort of claim that this result marks a turning point in National's fortunes or will "change everything" or the like needs to be taken with a large dose of sodium chloride. They are exactly where they were when they started their second term - and look how that went for them.

Which then brings me to the ritual declaration of winners and losers from this by-election.

The losers are fairly obvious. Mark Whowasheagain? has had his brief, shining moment on the national political stage. I suspect we shall not see it repeated. John Key's campaign trail magic has, perhaps for the first time, failed to achieve its ends. Now he has to look across the debating chamber at Winston Peters big grin for the rest of this term and remember that fact. And Steven Joyce decided to personally micro-manage the Northland campaign. Oops.

As for winners, the most obvious one will waste no time in showering his scorn and derision on all those (like me) who couldn't see what was right before their eyes if they had just taken the time to look because I'll tell you right now that the people of Northland are no longer going to sit back and be ignored because let me tell you that the are tired of it and now something is going to be done. Winston's got a soapbox electorate back, for which he most definitely will not simply be happy to be the member of.

And the other big winner? Peter Dunne. He just became relevant again.