Now that Shane Jones has confirmed that he will be standing for Northland in the election, the future of Auckland port becomes even more of a political issue.
Jones is the ring leader of what appears to be a growing wave of support for the New Zealand First proposal that Auckland port shift to Whangarei.
By itself, that is big news in the north.
But what is just as important politically is a campaign that is being led by three northern mayors, Sheryl Mai, Jason Smith and John Carter which is being masterminded by Auckland lobbyist, Matthew Hooton.
Called “Kia Kaha Northland” the campaign promotes a four-lane highway from Whangarei to Auckland; an upgraded rail line; the shifting of the navy to Whangarei and (of course) the port.
But the shifting of the port is the lynchpin on which the other proposals turn.
What makes the campaign of interest politically is that neither of National’s two northern MPs, Shane Reti and Matt King, have backed it. Nor has the National caucus though Auckland Central MP, Nicky Kaye supports the port moving from Auckland.
Support, however, has come from King’s campaign manager from the last election and former National Party board member, Grant McCallum, a Kaipara dairy farmer.
Thus the campaign, at this stage, stands to benefit Jones and NZ First.
That is not to say that National doesn’t back some of the projects, particularly the four-lane highway which Bridges recommitted to at Waitangi, but it is the overall potential economic impact of the port shift which has excited the Mayors.
What is clear is that NZ First is already capitalising on the Mayors’ proposals with its campaigning in the seat.
Peters and Jones were in Dargaville last Friday to announce Provincial Growth Fund money for water storage (that means dams) in the Kaipara district; a timely announcement for an area which has had no substantial rain since last December. They also announced funding for the restoration of wharves and pontoons on the Kaipara Harbour,
They were both keen to establish their connections with the electorate. Jones described them as both “sons of the North”; Peters grew up on a dairy farm near Dargaville and went to school there, and Jones had family connections to the area, particularly through his Croatian whakapapa.
Though the event was supposed to be a formal announcement of Government policy, Peters quickly turned it into a political meeting.
“We have watched over the years as Northland has been forgotten,” he said.
“There are a lot of reasons for that, but far too many people have gone to Wellington and have been lions at home and lambs in Parliament.
“You need people who are the other way around; that is people who are prepared to ensure the voice of Northland, and, dare I say it, the provinces, is heard every time critical decisions are made.”
That sounded very much like what is likely to be NZ First’s key pitch this election year.
“You have got to have the capacity, the ability and the commitment to ensure that no economic or social decisions are made in Parliament without them first asking what do the provinces think.”
Jones was much more formal in his speech, sticking to the details of his Provincial Growth Fund announcements underlining the importance of water storage for the drought-hit region.
“So please savour this opportunity,” he said.
“There are a lot of other regions in the country that will be looking with political envy today that this announcement is being made here when they have these challenges throughout the country.
“But as my boss said, he and I are sons of the north.”
He said the Government wanted to see action on the projects “asap”. But he couldn’t resist a political plug.
“At the end of the day these are projects that you have to own and treasure,” he said.
“This is the transmission of the putea to you to go on and do the mahi.
“And I shall look at you with adoring eyes later this year on the election trail.”
For the Kaipara District Mayor, Jason Smith, a member of one of the area’s most prominent National Party families, the water storage announcement is just part of what he sees as a programme to boost the economy of what has been a deprived region.
He talked about the upgrade of the rail line between Whangarei and Auckland and the upgrade of the wharves on the harbour along with a proposal for an electric ferry from Dargaville to Helensville and the potential for the Auckland port and naval base to shift to Whangarei and the completion of the four-lane highway between Whangarei and Auckland.
“Those projects are immediately before us,” he said.
“These are extraordinary times that we are in here in the north.
“It is unprecedented what I am seeing here for economic development in the north.
“So I thank everyone for their part in that, especially the Ministers, and acknowledge that economic development in Northland is alive and well and we have much to be getting on with.”
The Mayor’s endorsement will be important and will undoubtedly frustrate the current electorate MP, Matt King. His battle against Jones this election campaign will be one of the most-watched in the country.
National cannot affords for Jones to win because that would ensure the return of NZ First to Parliament and almost certainly the end of any dream National might have of making it to power.
On the other hand, NZ First must either beat its current poll rating and get over five per cent or win the seat. And Labour needs them to do one or the other.
But Jones is up against it. He is not a Kaipara local as Peters was when he won the seat in the 2015 by-election, and there are some doubts about his ability to win votes at the electorate level.
The National Party pollster, David Farrar, on his Kiwiblog, pointed out that Jones has stood four times in electorate seats and twice has seen the party vote in those seats exceed his share of the electorate vote.
But then he didn’t have the Provincial Growth Fund or the local mayors backing his campaigns.