Last week the Northern Advocate newspaper took a photo that proved prophetic. It showed National's by-election candidate, Mark Osborne, with minister Steven Joyce putting up a billboard in a paddock with pigs underfoot.

Three days later, out rolled the pork barrel. National told Northlanders it could dance, dance, dance to the 10 bridges.

It was so blatant National didn't even bother pretending. Transport Minister Simon Bridges and Prime Minister John Key both admitted the by-election prompted the announcement, although they also argued that at least three of the bridges would have been upgraded at some vague future point anyway. They even promised more lolly to come.

Despite Key's claim that such antics are commonplace in by-elections, they are not. It is more traditional to emphasise how policies already under way will benefit the electorate in question, rather than promise new things. That is particularly true just six months after a general election. Nonetheless, such is National's concern about the by-election that with each point Winston Peters gains in the polls, Bill English's surplus-induced worry lines increase two-fold.

Advertisement

There is a risk it will backfire on National, hence Peters' argument that it simply emphasises how neglected Northland was.

National's main aim is to highlight to Northlanders that it is in government so its promises actually bear fruit. Peters is not - and while he can promise the world, he could actually do "diddly squat", as Bridges so quaintly put it. This may be true, but Peters will merrily claim credit for improvements anyway, saying the Government had ignored issues until he made the case.

In a YouTube video, Key pointed to Peters' high name-recognition compared with Osborne's. That explains why Key, Joyce, Bridges and other ministers are on almost daily rotation in the north and doing more talking than the candidate. The ballot paper may say Osborne, but Peters is actually up against Key.

Meanwhile various party leaders are nodding and winking as vigorously as a nodding bulldog on a dashboard. On the Left was Labour's Andrew Little suggesting Labour voters support whoever they believed was best placed to deliver a message to National.

On the other side was Act leader David Seymour, an expert in what are delicately called "electoral accommodations". On Tuesday he said National should win without even mentioning Act's own candidate, Robin Grieve. Yesterday he was still telling Act supporters (all 162 of them) in Northland to vote for Grieve, but that could change. Focus NZ's candidate, Joe Carr, is also talking about giving his supporters a nod and a wink to vote tactically, although it is not clear whether that would be for Peters or Osborne.

For Labour the nod is a short-term gain, an attempt at a humiliating poke in the eye for National and a result that would make it harder to get a majority on legislation such as Resource Management Act reforms. But short-term sugar rushes are always followed by a crash.

Enter 2017 and the next election. The reason Peters is a reluctant beneficiary of Labour's endorsement is because he knows Northland is inherently a conservative electorate. It is partly because Peters is also inherently conservative that he has a chance.

If he does succeed in putting the "win" into Winston, Labour could be handing National a future coalition partner.

An electorate seat would be a powerful security blanket for Peters. So far he has refused to say if he will stand again in 2017 - when he will be 72. It's a safe bet he will if he wins the by-election, if only to try to cement his hold on the seat. If he chooses well, he might even get Northland to accept an NZ First successor (hello, Shane Jones?). He will not want to do anything that might imperil his party's hold on the seat and return it to the precipice of the 5 per cent threshold.

Peters has felt the wrath of conservative voters scorned in Tauranga and knows it is National they flock to - and in bulk. Winning a seat in a by-election is one thing. Keeping it is quite another. If Peters wants to hold the seat come 2017, cuddling up to Labour is risky territory. So, if Peters holds the balance of power in 2017, Labour could well find its gift to NZ First was a gift to National in disguise.

Debate on this article is now closed.