Is the Northland by-election pothole just a flat tyre for National or is it a sign this political vehicle is running out of gas? Here are two things to keep an eye on once Winston's tempest has passed
So what does it all mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. While we know the result in Northland and the unique weather patterns that merged to create Cyclone Winston, it's impossible to yet know whether National can blow those clouds away or whether more rain is on the horizon.
Look at the Northland specifics. The Mike Sabin factor has been difficult to analyse for legal reasons, but everything points to the fact that is was a decisive factor. There was a very particular anger at play and it was aimed at National.
Beyond that you had Winston Peters with all his charisma and madness and charm and (much more than in recent years) humour and pent-up frustration from last year's election, in which voters denied him his kingmaker's role. Northland was the perfect place at the perfect time for Peters to vent his frustration on the Key-Joyce machine that so nearly ended his political career altogether in 2008.
The bus, the slogan, the itinerary, the tone... as he said over the weekend, this was the best campaign he's ever run and a near perfect example of the craft.
Oh, and don't forget the local issues. Peters was on the right-side of everything, down to the Kaipara rates revolt. Look at the National voters in Mangawhai who switched sides – according to one source largely due to anger over the rates blowout – and you can see why there's some truth in Joyce's line about "unique set of circumstances".
Then there was National's bizarre candidate selection process, still not fully understood; its panicked bribes (two bridges? Heck no, let's offer 10!) that were promised regardless of the victor; and its flood of ministers, money and cynicism.
Its tactics were hopeless (attacking Peters as a carpet-bagger when his family name is etched in the local landscape?), as it tried to use some cookie-cutter game plan on a very distinct region.
As always, there was the economy, stupid... A region with income comparable to Timor Leste, according to Shamubeel Eaqub, will only feel insulted by talk of recovery and rock stars. The Nats had a tin ear.
And finally, of course, there was Labour, with Andrew Little willing to get off the high moral ground and deal in the realities of MMP politics. Manipulative? Yes. A deal? Kind of. While not handing over a winnable seat, it was undoubtedly an accommodation and one that sacrificed a candidate with big plans (now forsaken) to make the seat marginal over the next two elections. The best choice? Of course.
So National loses, while Winston Peters gets an electorate from which he can try to build the legacy and fortress denied him by Tauranga.
But what does it all mean? In the short-term it has some policy consequences, most notably it must smooth some of the rough edges off the Resource Management Act reforms. Whether those are United Future's edges or the Maori Party's rough bits, we'll have to wait and see, but either way New Zealand First will have a new line to run: 'Winston, environmental champion'.
Politically, what about 2017? Does this sate Peters' appetite for revenge over Key and Joyce? Judging by his unwillingness to appear on TV programmes and radio shows also involving Steven Joyce, perhaps not. Does this bind him closer to Labour? No.
Does Peters as an MP of a conservative electorate have more of a reason to break bread with (and prop up) National? Or does his promises of rail and jobs more naturally align with Labour's agenda?
It potentially deepens the rift between Peters and National, which for all Joyce's grace in defeat, is hurting. It was a bad loss for National in even tony areas such as Kerikeri.
If you look at electorate votes, Willow-Jean Prime's support fell 20 percent, which got Peters neck and neck with Osborne. But that strategic voting alone doesn't account for Peters' 4012 vote victory. The rest came from a 13 percent drop from Sabin's vote to Osborne's. And this in what Mike Williams has called the biggest by-election turnout in decades.
Williams also sagely points out that when the Bolger/Shipley government fell apart, it was the regions that abandoned it first (also ably assisted by Peters!). But there's simply no evidence yet to suggest whether Northland is just one loose chip coming loose from the Key-Joyce wall or a chunk of the foundation coming away.
Let's not pretend the Key administration hasn't been down before; it's just never let the blows define it. It was ducked and dived its way out by reverting its focus to the bread and butter issues that matter to swing voters, which are mostly economic and mostly in the careful hands of Bill English.
Just because the Joyce wheel has a flat, it doesn't mean the English wheel's any less stable.
And yes, it's John Key's first electoral loss as National Party leader. But hey, everyone has to have a first loss and it seldom defines a political career.
But the two questions for me are these: How deep does New Zealanders' admiration of John Key run? Do they admire the man or simply because – Wall St, $50 million and all – he's a winner? And if he's less of a winner, does that make him less of a Prime Minister.
In effect, does this give New Zealanders permission to reappraise Key and see him in a different light? Time will tell.
Second, does Northland's discontent represent a restlessness in many regions and will Northland's willingness to complain inspire others to do the same? Yes, Northland has always been the poor cousin.
But it was interesting to see Torben Akel's piece on New Zealand's oil and minerals sector six years on from the incoming National government's promises in 2009 that it would unlock our mineral wealth. While it's early days in exploration terms, the key is firmly stuck in the lock and the lock ain't opening. Taranaki, oft-used by Joyce as a counter-argument when he's accused of not doing enough for the regions, now has one of the country's lowest economic growth rates.
The regions are struggling and there's resentment that the growth in Auckland (and to a lesser degree in Christchurch), is not being shared.
Are voters ready to blame National for that?
Peters thinks so: Asked on The Nation if this was a blip or a turn in the road for National, he replied:
It’s a huge turn in the road. And every farmer here or forester or fishing interest that used to be National that came on to our side last night is sending a message to the National Party. They are members. These are people who are in the organisation of the National Party, who know that all their work and all their loyalty has not been repaid with some loyalty back. You don’t have a two-tier economy where the exporters, the wealth-creators, who bring money back to the family in New Zealand get treated this way, and so if the National Party think that this is a mere blip, then they’re in for a horrible future as a political party themselves.
And he added:
...the National Party can decide now whether they’ve got themselves a chance in 2017 by paying attention up here, rather than, for example, running an economy where the lifeblood is being sucked out of the provinces, and the wealth creators, for example, their obsession with Auckland.
So Winston reckons. We'll see. But only once we start to get answers to those questions about Key and the regions will we really know the true result of this Northland by-election.