National was reeling last night from a re-opening of the scars of the Bridges-Muller leadership change at the same time as a deep division with the caucus appears to have opened up.
Meanwhile, Leader Judith Collins debated Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the Press Debate.
It offered little that was new.
The Prime Minister challenged Collins over what cuts National would need to make to pay for the $4 billion-plus error in its fiscal costings.
This is a sensitive issue for National since their annual new spending allowance was already screwed down to $1.8 billion, which is likely to be a near-impossible target to meet.
Collins was vague about whether a National Government would cover the shortfall that occurs annually in District Health Board accounts.
Collins, however, indicated that National might further relax its debt ratio targets.
“We don’t have to cut anything because you just take an extra year to pay back (the debt),” she said.
Out on the campaign trail, NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, was revelling in National’s discomfort as he brought his campaign to Auckland.
But he was also having to face up to the pressures facing NZ First from the three alternative right-wing parties and the high level of advance voting.
The question which must haunt Peters is whether it is now too late for him to do his usual electoral campaign phoenix act and have his party rise from the ashes of low polls.
National seems doomed to remain low in the polls too.
Its leadership problems re-surfaced with a tweet from Todd Muller’s former advisor, Matthew Hooton.
It read: “When Nats’ deputy leadership changed in May, there was no policy, no benchmark polling, no campaign themes, no campaign grid & the Curia track polls were worse than any public poll this year. However the election turns out, Judith has done better than what would have happened. “
The reference to the “deputy leadership” is a direct reference to Paula Bennett, who was election campaign chair at the time.
She wasted no time in replying to Hooton: “Bullshit. It just wasn’t shared with you.”
Meanwhile the furore over the leak of an email from Maungakiekie MP, Denise Lee, criticising Collins’ woman-alone style of leadership continued.
It was inflamed by a statement in Lee’s name but emailed to journalists by Collin’s Chief Press Secretary, Janet Wilson.
It admitted she was the author of the email.
“Yesterday I sent an email to my fellow MP’s which was intended for internal purposes only. I completely disagree with the actions of the person who leaked the email and have since spoken with our party leader Judith Collins,” she said.
As is always the case with a leak as damaging as this one, fingers are pointing in the National caucus, but the most likely source would appear to be a small group of MPs, including Lee, who opposed Collins’ bid for leadership, some of whom have subsequently found themselves bounced down National’s list.
Lee, however, last night reaffirmed her loyalty to Collins.
“I remain focused on winning the seat of Maungakiekie and unreservedly support Judith Collins as leader and future Prime Minister,” she said.
For NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, watching his old nemesis, the National Party squirming like this was probably light relief from the pressures of a campaign which is seeing his party being squeezed by both Jacinda Ardern’s massive popularity and three other right-wing parties competing on many of the same issues that traditionally NZ First has championed.
So after a walkabout in South Auckland’s Manukau Mall yesterday he was squaring off against Labour and competing with ACT, the New Conservatives and the NZ Advance Party all at the same time.
And he too was on about errors in parties’ fiscal budgets.
“The ACT party has been caught out real bad at eight point nine billion in terms of mistake, and I think we’re going to set up an adult mathematical class in Epsom because both the finance spokespeople for National and Act (Paul Goldsmith and David Seymour – both standing in Epsom) can’t do their maths,” he said.
“One’s got a seven-point nine billion error already; that’s National.
“The other one’s got eight point seven billion dollars; that’s ACT.
“But here’s the rub.
“The Labour Party has got a massive hole in their in their budget in terms of hydropower in the south and also light rail.
“And none of you (journalists at his press conference) have been able to get them to say this election what it’s going to cost for light rail.”
What Peters didn’t know when he made these statements was that his party’s former president, Lester Gray, Yesterday announced he was voting ACT this election.
“If you are looking for a Party to keep the big guys on the straight – give these guys a tick,” he said on his Facebook page alongside a lineup of ACT spokespeople..
“I am voting “no” in the End of Live referendum, but their reasoning, thinking and ideas on Covid and our recovery are great!”
It is this sort of leakage out of NZ First into parties like ACT which is pushing NZ First below the five per cent threshold in all the public polls and from what POLITIK has been told, the private polls as well.
That would explain why Peters is directly competing with the right-wing parties on key issues like their opposition to 1080, which is used by the Department of Conservation to control predators in forests to preserve birdlife.
ACT, the New Conservatives and the Advance New Zealand Party are all strong opponents of 1080 and that opposition features prominently in their rallies.
NZ First has been much more circumspect up to now.
Peter is now planning a campaign trip to Waiheke Island on Thursday to show off a predator control project there which does not use 1080.
“I just want to be clear that New Zealand First has never been a believer in 1080,” he said.
“We think there should be alternatives and trapping and hunting and all sorts of other range of initiatives should be taking place.
“We believe 1080 is dangerous, but it’s very difficult to get control of this issue, even though we negotiated in the coalition agreement to put millions aside for it when it’s in control of some other minister.”
That ”other Minister” is Eugenie Sage, the Minister of Conservation and a Green.
But Peters is running out of time to turn his party’s fortunes around.
Figures released last night by the Electoral Commission show that so far 271,369 people have already voted; that’s a 76% increase on the number who voted over the first three days of advance voting last election in 2017.
This doesn’t help Peters, and he obviously needs time, so he made a plea. yesterday to people not to vote early.
“Wait and find out everything that is in the mix of policies, because there are clangers after clanger after clanger out there being dropped every day now,” he said.
“Only a fool tests the water with both feet.
“Know all the facts first.”