NZ First claim that National is preparing a dirty campaign to combat Shane Jones candidacy in the Northland electorate.
National needs its candidate, the current MP, Matt King, to win to prevent NZ First using the seat to return to Parliament.
NZ First must win to be absolutely sure of returning otherwise it will have to get 5% support in the overall poll which may prove a challenge given that it is currently on less than 3% in published political polls.
Jones believes that because the seat is so critical, it will be a dirty campaign.
“What I need to be very, very wary of is that the National Party will play dirty in this campaign because they believe that they cannot afford Northland again,” he told POLITIK.
“National Party friends of mine have said to me, tell all your friends, family and associates to be extra careful because the party is going to run an incredibly dirty campaign against you.
“I’ve even seen e-mails to this effect.
“The tone of those e-mails was they cannot afford for a rerun of Winston Peters and NZ First winning this seat again.”
National, not surprisingly, reject Jones’ claims and there is certainly no evidence now nor was there during the last general election campaign, that National was playing it dirty in Northland.
The party’s Northland campaign chair, Grant McCallum, told POLITIK THAT National was running a very focused campaign to get King re-elected.
“We’re certainly not interested in running a dirty campaign,” he said.
“We will be working hard to earn the support of Northlanders again.
“We acknowledge that Shane Jones will be a formidable candidate and we also acknowledge that Willow-jean Prime (The list Labour MP and Labour candidate) is well respected in the electorate.”
Jones’ claims about National may have been more about defence than attack.
On Friday NZ First announced that its MP, Clayton Mitchell may not be contesting this election.
Mitchell has been responsible for much of NZ First’s fundraising. POLITIK understands he has been caught up in the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation which allegedly held funds that were thought by donors to have gone to the NZ First party.
The Kiwiblog website, run by National’s pollster, David Farrar, said yesterday: “I think his retirement is because they know there is a fairly high probability he will be charged by the Serious Fraud Office.”
The Serious Fraud Office investigation hangs over NZ First, and Jones has been careful to distance himself from the NZ First Foundation.
He told POLITIK that everyone knew that in the past he had received money from the fishing industry, but he had always declared it.
“So anyone who donates to my campaign, you can expect to see them, read about them in my donation register,” he said.
However, the two campaigns do agree on one thing; that the key issue in the north will be jobs.
Unemployment across the region has been falling and at the end of the first quarter this year at 4 per cent was the sixth-highest of the country’s 12 statistical regions.
With tourism a major employer, that figure is sure to have climbed since the Covid-19 lockdown.
And incomes in the north are low.
The Parliamentary Library’s electorate profile shows the median income in the electorate at $51,400 against a national median of $72,700.
Jones, through his Provincial Growth Fund, has poured money into the region.
“Even the most churlish of my critics can not walk away from a billion dollars has been dedicated in three years to the Northland area,” he said.
“Admittedly the largest single infusion is the 650 million to build the four-lane highway from Whangarei south.”
Jones is talking about the proposed four-laning of State Highway One from Whangarei to the Marsden Point turnoff. Work is scheduled to start in 2023/24, and it will open in stages from 2025/26.
However, the current Government has not approved the continuation of the four lanes from the turnoff to Te Hana and then ultimately to Wellsford.
National is committed to building the four lanes.
“This is a project desperately needed in the north and, if built, would provide a huge boost to the economy and employment of our region,” said Matt King in 2018.
There are other similarities between Jones and King; both are bluntly spoken; both have little time for urban sophisticates, and both have a habit of raising political eyebrows with things they say.
King is thought to have supported Judith Collins in National’s recent leadership contest.
But NZ First’s biggest challenge in Northland will be that it will have to defend the Government on policies that are unpopular in the region which include not only roads but also the Resource Management Act.
“We’re in a wrestling match with the RMA to get these things delivered sooner rather than later,” said Jones.
“That’s another thing I am going into the campaign with is that we are going to fight to have a lot of the restrictions that have grown up in our economy loosened up.”
While Jones will be fighting in Northland, the party leader, Winston Peters, will be campaigning nationwide.
He too will have to walk the thin line between being a part of the Government while at the same time he “brands” New Zealand First as being sufficiently different to attract votes.
He would be enormously assisted with this if National relaxed its refusal to work with him after the election.
Its new leader, Todd Muller, has been anon committal on whether he would maintain the ban on NZ First imposed by his predecessor, Simon Bridges.
On the other hand, his deputy Nikki Kaye has reaffirmed the ban.
POLITIK understands that the party hierarchy is not willing to relax it even though Muller may well be.
Meantime National may have won a minor skirmish with its selection of Rotorua City Councillor, Tania Tapsell, as its East Coast candidate.
She was a keynote speaker at last November’s NZ First conference hand the party was obviously courting her as a potential candidate.
Tapsell’s great uncle was former Maori All Black and Speaker, Sir Peter Tapsell.