The battle for the provinces between National and New Zealand First was starkly portrayed yesterday with NZ First Leader Winston Peters attempting to gate crash the water protest rally in Morrinsville.
Just as Labour is now heavily dependent on whether the under the 30s will get out and actually vote, so National needs its rural and provincial voters to vote National, not NZ First.
Whichever party can better motivate their respective bases is likely to be ahead on election night.
What stands between National and that success is NZ First.
Speaking to a hastily convened farmers’ meeting in Te Puke on Saturday, Prime Minister Bill English acknowledged the NZ First threat.
“The best chance for this town, for these industries, is a strong National-led Government after the election so we can get on with it; so we are not messing around for months trying to work out what has happened,” he said.
“So when it comes to NZ First and Mr Peters, all I can say is cut out the middleman.
“You decide, you make a choice between the two big parties, Labour versus National.”
It seems remarkable that of all people, Bill English, should be worried about his vote in rural New Zealand.
Not since Jim Bolger have National had a farmer – albeit one with a degree in English literature and a stint as a Treasury official — as its leader.
But in the real politics of 2017, the leader of any political party (except a niche party like NZ First) has to straddle the growing gulf between urban and rural New Zealand.
Over the past year, it has become evident at National Party selection meetings and regional conferences that many of the party’s farmer members feel under siege from city dwellers.
The “dirty dairying” campaign and the TV exposure last year of the maltreatment of bobby calves are obvious examples of what the farmers consider to be “demonisation” of them.
But there are serious questions about how much more intensive New Zealand agriculture, particularly pastoral farming, can get.
English is not ready to say no more.
“We are smart enough, and we’ve got the tool kit to be able to continue as a successful growing food exporter and have high environmental standards”” he told POLITIK.
“I think what has become clear in the campaign is that the other political parties have been out of touch with the intensity of effort going on, particularly in our rural areas.
“If we are elected as the Government then our view is that everyone is in this together.
“We’ve got the rural issues that are being dealt with.
“Ahead of us are the urban issues where the water quality is as much of an issue and at least as challenging to resolve so in our view Labour and the Greens have carried on as if no one had been doing anything and suddenly they have become the conscience of the country about water quality nd that’s completely out of touch with what has been happening, so that has been divisive.
“You have seen that.
“If we are elected as the Government it will stop being a divisive issue.”
English agrees that farmers and the Government have failed to really explain how modern agriculture is changing its attitudes to the environment thus leaving the media space open to some of the views seen in Morrinsville yesterday.
But in a way the rural-urban divide is essentially a political divide, something that can be moderated or even resolved by more effective communication.
What has clearly come as a wakeup call to English has been the less easily resolvable urban issues of poverty and homelessness.
He is cautious in the way he talks about them, but the underlying message is clear; the Government has to do better.
He talks about one of his goals, if he is re-elected will be to head a government which “spreads the benefits of growth.”
“You know, across the whole community including into some of the tougher social problems.”
“It’s clear that if we earn the privilege of being Government, then we need to make sure that we are clearly focussed on concerns around housing, around pressure on family incomes and that we deliver on the undertakings that we have made with respect to those.”
That English should emphasise the need to address some of these deep seated social issues comes as no surprise.
His background at Treasury was in social policy and his Attorney General, Chris Finlayson, believes he is deeply influenced by his Catholicism and a sense of compassion which runs through that Church’s approach to social policy.
However, he sees the emphasis on social policy as a logical continuation of what the National Government has been doing.
“It’s been building up, and if we get a mandate from this election, we’ll be able to push it along pretty hard.
“We’ll push it along with some real energy.”
It is something he is obviously passionate about.
What has been revealing this election campaign has been how much English is now starting to look like his own man.
He has spent nine years in the shadows behind John Key and since his own previous failed term as Leader he has tended to portray himself through a sort of awe shucks modesty.
That is going.
He’s proud of the way he has performed on the campaign, and he has surprised many of his own colleagues and supporters.
Nearly five weeks ago, at the start of the campaign, he was in Christchurch announcing Government funding for a new AMI stadium.
A number of Cabinet and party luminaries attended the announcement. His next stop was to be the Riccarton Mall, an idea that didn’t meet with much approval from the luminaries.
It was, said one, full of whingers who would give English a hard time.
They needn’t have worried. He dived into the mall, had endless selfies taken and engaged with children. He looked to be enjoying himself.
And over the weekend at a Rotorua amusement venue packed with families and children, we saw the same boyish enthusiasm which he seemed to get an equally enthusiastic response to.
If National does win enough votes this weekend to not need New Zealand First to form a Government, this would be Bill English’s victory.
It would give him the authority within the caucus which he didn’t entirely get when he took the leadership last December.
His Cabinet changes after he took the elaership were incremental rather than the bold changes some in his caucus were calling for.
Could he now make those changes?
“I just haven’t given it any thought,” he said.
“This is a Cabinet and a Caucus that has realised it has got to do a lot of hard work to earn the opportunity to govern again and there has been no discussion about this.”
But what if he can’t quite pull it off, and he has to get into talks with NZ First about forming a Government.
How would he deal with their big spending wish list?
“I think New Zealand First would go through a reality check around expenditure and bottom lines,” he said.
“Of course voters have the option of reducing that uncertainty by making a choice between the two big parties.”
And ask if this is now the goal for the week and you get one of those cautious, carefully worded formal replies from English that has so often in the past such as in his rigidity about reducing the budget deficit that masks an almost austere determination on his part to reach a goal.
“We’ve got to establish that we can be the larger party with more support than Labour and aim for getting sufficient support that we can form the kind of Government that will enable the sound management of the economy and the Government’s finances to continue while we respond to the direction that the campaign has set for us from the voters.”
Some continuity, but some change too.