The ghost of the Northland by-election loss stalked the rooms of SkyCity as the National Party spent the weekend rediscovering regional New Zealand.
So sensitive was the party to suggestions of Auckland dominance that it even broke up the seating arrangements so that all the Auckland electorates were spread across the three aisles of seating rather than being in one block.
This didn’t stop one Auckland delegate, Auckland Council member, Linda Cooper, from telling Communications Minister Amy Adams that the Council embraced over 90 rural sites where broadband reception needed upgrading.
But the pitch to regional New Zealand threatened to become bizarre when the new immigration points scheme was relentlessly spun by the Prime Minister as a boost for rural New Zealand.
Asked how it would impact on Auckland house prices, he said it wouldn’t except at the margins.
It was left to Primary industries Minister Nathan Guy to introduce a note of reality into the proceedings.
Mr Guy had been around the regional conferences with a very upbeat forecast of New Zealand’s primary industries and how they could contribute to Steven Joyce’s 25% increase in exports.
That presentation appeared again in Auckland but with an additional slide which showed how dairy prices has fluctuated since 2002 (when Fonterra was established).
But whilst the clear implication was that just as prices had risen and fallen before, they would do so again, Finance Minister Bill English in his speech to the conference was not so sure.
It represented a marked change of tone from with its downbeat realism.
“It is going to be a tough winter — it has been already – for the dairy industry. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
“Lower dairy prices are going to have an impact through the economy.”
And ion contrast to Mr Guy he said we didn’t ye know whether the dairy price drop was cyclical or structural.
“We don’t yet know to what extent they are a short term or long term phenomenon.”
But he did say that other export industries were benefitting from the lower dollar and lower interest rates.
And that appears to be the Government’s hope; that as dairy falls red meat, tourism and horticultural exports will keep the regions from falling into recession.
This optimism was given a big along by the upbeat optimism of Steven Joyce and his regional economic surveys and strategies which he has spent much of the last few weeks promoting around the country.
It was a message repeated time and time in various ways.
One of two Ministerial panels on the Sunday was entirely on regional infrastructure.
Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson ticked off his treaty settlements on a large map clearly making the point that a couple of hundred million into a region’s iwi was likely to benefit the whole region.
Associate Trade Negotiations Minister Todd McClay was careful to point the regional importance of his work – particularly the upcoming EU – New Zealand Free Trade Agreement negotiations which seems to be his baby.
But standing in the background right through the conference was one of the party’s iconic figures, Sir George Chapman, now 88, and president of the party from 1972 till 1983.
Sir George steered Sir Robert Muldoon and the National Party to three election victories under first past the post.
And each election night he would make the point that there had been two elections — one in the cities and a second in the provincial centres.
He didn’t play any part in the conference. He was happy to just catch up with old friends and to marvel at how many delegates (700) had turned up.
“It’s incredible in a third term,” he told POLITIK.
But his fundamental point remains as true now as it did in 1975 or 1978 or 1981.
National will not win the cities and the regions with a one size fits all campaign in 2017.
That was what they ignored in Northland.