Was it Mark Osborne or Steven Joyce who lost Northland. And did Labour lose more?
It was as bad as the polls predicted.
And thus National becomes the first Government since Labour in Timaru in 1985 to lose a by-election in a general seat.
Timaru was a provincial sheep-farming seat and not surprisingly therefore always a marginal seat for Labour. Its loss was not surprising. Add to that the fact that 1985 was the beginning of a devastating rural recession.
Neither factor applies in Northland, one of National’s safest seats, whose dairy farmers have been enjoying one of the biggest booms they’ve seen in 50 years.
Fingers have already been pointed inside National as to why it lost.
There are two big targets — the candidate and the campaign chief, Steven Joyce. More subtly, there is also a good deal of criticism of former National MP and now chairman of the Far North District Council, John Carter.
THE WRONG CANDIDATE
The candidate, Mark Osbourne, won selection largely on the back of votes from the northern end of the electorate centred on Kaitaia where he lives. Those votes were marshalled by Mr Carter.
Mr Osborne defeated the much more locally credentialed Grant McCullum from Wellsford who is also a member of the National Party Board.
The problem with having the north select the candidate is that the largest segments of the population live in the south, around the Bay of Islands and across to the west coast around Dargaville.
Kaitaia is over 80 kilometres away and Mr Osborne, who manages a Council facility there, is simply not a big enough name for the people in the south to know much about him.
That might not have mattered if Winston Peters had not decided to stand.
Peters went to high school in Dargaville, the family farmed nearby and his Iwi, Ngati Wai, own much of the coast between the Bay of Islands and Whangarei.
The southern part of the electorate is his turangawaewae.
A conversation with a woman on a Dargaville street about how she met him when she went to photograph her friend, his sister’s wedding is typical of the personal relationships and histories that thread through the hinterland of this sprawling electorate.
Everybody knows everybody.
That counted against Mr Osborne.
On the campaign trail he looked a stunned mullet, plainly out of his depth with little charisma and nothing much to say.
But it would be unfair to blame him alone.
National badly misread the mood of the electorate and here the fingers get pointed more obliquely, more subtly at Mr Joyce.
Small towns like Dargaville and Kaikohe have been badly hit by a whole series of services and facilities being shifted to Whangarei – or even Auckland.
When the Prime Minister did his walkabout in Dargaville’s main street maybe the reason one of the police there gave a subtle thumbs up to a car with NZ First flags was that police numbers in the town are being reduced.
In fact during the walkabout the first person the Prime Minister spoke to was actually a protestor complaining about the Court being closed in Dargaville.
The small town being shafted by big government (and also big business, because centralisation is a private sector thing too) was easy pickings for Mr Peters whose fundamental political philosophy is about protecting “the little man”.
So swooping into the electorate and announcing 12 new bridges didn’t do anything.
AND JOYCE IS TO BLAME FOR OTHER THINGS TOO
Maybe Mr Joyce should have hear the complaints of Ken Rintoul, a well-known Kaikohe contractor and businessman, who told Mr Osborne that once there were 26 contractors around Kaikohe, now there were seven.
This was a reference to a Treasury driven programme which began when Mr Joyce was Minister of Transport and which saw the New Zealand Transport Authority at one stage propose there be only two main contractors (Fulton Hogan and Downers) for all state highway road works across the entire country.
That has now been moderated to 23 contractors for all of New Zealand but nevertheless the desire of the Government to reduce the number of companies it deals with hits hard in small communities.
“The big guys are getting bigger and the small guys are getting pushed out,” Mr Rintoul said.
“What are you going to do about it?”
Mr Osborne did not answer the question and instead waffled on about the Rules Reduction Taskforce.
But Mr Osborne might also have had his hands tied by Mr Joyce.
A National campaign source said the team, recognising the mood in the electorate, wanted Mr Osbourne to be more independent and even take on the Government on a few issues.
“That didn’t happen for some reason,” said the source.
That reason was almost certainly Mr Joyce who plainly saw the by-election as an exercise in defending the Government.
But he played it wrong from the beginning with his sudden announcement of the two laning of 12 one way bridges.
The electorate clearly saw that as a bribe and Mr Joyce’s first strategy of spreading Government largesse over the electorate had to be hurriedly curtailed.
This U-turn was so abrupt that Conservation Minister Maggie Barry went to the electorate to announce more funding for the kauri Dieback programme only to be told it was not be announced.
National had recognised the damage the bridge “bribes” were doing so it simply cut off a whole planned series of announcements of more spending in Northland.
Even in National’s caucus there was apparently scepticism with backbenchers asking what they had to do to get their bridges made two lanes.
“Resign,” the Prime Minister is alleged to have replied in a candid admission of the cynicism of the bridge announcement
JOHN KEY DIDN’T HELP
John Key was out of synch with the electorate in other ways.
New Zealanders are not allowed to know why Mike Sabin resigned (unless they know which Australian websites to lookup) but John Key did and almost everybody in Northland seemed to have heard one rumour or another.
Those who had heard the rumours were asking why Mr Key had not acted earlier against Mr Sabin instead of saying he was a potential Cabinet Minister. When the legal process allows it, those questions will become more intense.
Watching Key’s walkabout in Dargaville on Thursday was revealing. Most of the people he spoke to were either protestors or National Party supporters. The general public stayed away.
Maybe the gloss is wearing off?
COMING FROM DIPTON HELPS
Finance Minister Bill English, who unlike Mr Joyce has a background in electorate politics, read the mood much more acutely in a question and answer session in Dargaville when he responded to a barrage of questions from business leaders about the reduction of services and depopulation in the town.
He openly admitted the Government had gone too far on some issues — the centralisation of drivers’ licence testing, for example — and frequently cited his own experience with similar problems in small towns in his former Southland electorate.
But by the time he turned up it was too late.
Mr Peters’ bus had already driven straight through the doors that National had left open.
The big question now is what happens next.
LABOUR MIGHT ALSO BE LOSERS HERE
Will National’s rural MPs get nervous that they too could face a similar small town revolt against centralisation?
Can Winston transform NZ First into a sort of Country Party?
And perhaps forgotten in this election, there are questions about Labour.
For a start why did it stand a candidate at all? Why did it rush in?
Many of Mr Peters’ votes have come from people who voted Labour last time.
But what Labour may not have calculated is that it is possible those defectors may now stay with Winston just as former Labour voters moved across to Social Credit in the 1970s and kept Labour out of power during the Muldoon years?
The fundamental Labour assumption that Winston is anti-National may well be wrong. Remember that back in 1996 he was happy to do a deal with Jim Bolger who he had been slagging him off for years.
And by late last week he was already floating ideas as to how he could do a deal with National over the Resource Management Act.
BUT IS NORTHLAND WORTH WORRYING ABOUT
Ultimately the Government will need to make a hard-nosed decision and that is whether the price of hanging on to electorates like Northland is worth paying.
After all much of the justification for the centralising of services is about efficiency and efficiencies help to increase productivity particularly in the big export oriented industries. That has obvious urban spinoffs.
It may be that National seizes this opportunity to get closer to Mr Peters and NZ First with a view to having them prevent Labour from winning votes from what is likely to be a growing wave of disillusionment in the country’s provincial electorates while it focuses on Auckland and other urban seats.
And it may also be that the party as a whole asks whether the Minister of Most Things, Mr Joyce, has the time or the focus to run election campaigns as well.