NZ First strategists believe the stars have aligned for yet another resurrection of Winston Peters.
As delegates head to Christchurch for this weekend's "renewal" conference, NZ First argues that the media positioning next year's election as between the two most extreme governments of the MMP era plays right into Peters' hands.
Vote for the Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori (TPM) bloc, they argue, and you'll get ever-more insufferable Grey Lynn wokeism, world-first climate taxes on provincial New Zealand designed solely to bolster Jacinda Ardern's international brand, radical separatism and ultimately some kind of "Tiriti-ocracy".
But vote for the National-Act axis, they say, and a hapless and policy-less Christopher Luxon will be pushed far right by a much better organised and ideologically committed David Seymour.
Only the good old NZ First handbrake will prevent one or the other from destroying everything you hold dear.
The rhetoric may be typically inflated, but this is plausible enough for a campaign narrative — and no one can deny Peters and NZ First have remained steadfast in the centre.
Things never worked out, but Peters has been Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley's Treasurer and Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern's Foreign Minister.
Peters seems to have taught Meghan Markle and Prince Harry everything they know about playing the victim.
His friends say he is furious that he and his network have endured what he perceives as witch-hunts by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) three times since he left National in 1993. They say it's utu time.
Peters will deliver a good rant about the SFO over the weekend but his grievances are ultimately not of much interest to voters except conspiracy theorists — and it reminds everyone else of NZ First's sometimes opaque finances.
Peters and Shane Jones will find more fertile ground talking about law and order including ram raids, Ardern's climate-change posturing, and the plutocracy in government departments and big business in downtown Wellington and Auckland. NZ First hasn't the market research budgets of National, Labour, Act and the Greens, but Peters' and Jones' lines for the weekend have been well tested on smaller audiences, including in recent table-thumping speeches in Warkworth and Tauranga.
Both seem to believe their Māori whakapapa gives them licence to talk about the demographics of violent crime that is unavailable to their rivals on the subject, Luxon and Seymour.
Jones' old "nephews on the couch" are set to be replaced by a new caricature of a young ram raider in South Auckland, abandoned by family and government.
Ardern's announcement this week that New Zealand farmers will be the only ones in the world to pay farm-level climate taxes on their methane and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could not have been better scripted as a lead-in to the NZ First conference.
If her positioning of the new taxes as a world first was designed to prop up her base, it underlined to everyone else the complete idiocy of her move. New Zealand dairy farmers have the lowest GHG emissions per unit of production of any in the world. The same is broadly true of sheep and beef farmers.
Their climate efficiency is such that a block of New Zealand butter sold in London has a smaller climate footprint than one produced in the UK. Every time a Chinese consumer buys New Zealand milk powder over an American, European or Australian equivalent, the climate is theoretically better off.
Yet, right now, government policies mean our dairy herd is declining while the US herd is growing. Every time there is one less cow in New Zealand and one more in the US, the world gets just that little bit hotter.
Ardern knows this, as do Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who attended her haybarn announcement. In my view they are knowingly reducing the competitiveness of the New Zealand agriculture sector relative to its competitors, threatening the survival of provincial communities while consciously increasing global emissions.
Two arguments are made in response. The first is that New Zealand exporters will gain a premium for having the world's lowest GHG emissions. Except for a tiny sliver of products that might be sold in specialty stores, everybody in the agriculture sector and hopefully even the Wellington bureaucracy and Beehive know this is nonsense.
Were evidence needed, New Zealand could already advertise that our food products are the world's most climate-friendly but the reality is that international consumers, let alone the global milk powder and hamburger patty auctions, don't care.
The second claim is even more ludicrous, that, as claimed by Shaw on Tuesday: "Countries grappling with the same challenges as us are once again looking to New Zealand for climate leadership."
Unlike the claim about the alleged market premium, it is possible the likes of Shaw even believe this. But in reality, nobody looks to New Zealand leadership on anything, whether nuclear non-proliferation, free trade or climate-change policy.
That was true even when the rules-based international system prevailed in the 1990s and 2000s, but it has now unravelled.
China's GHG emissions are now double those of the US and still growing. Those two countries, plus India, the EU, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil, are responsible for 60 per cent of global emissions and growing.
In the current international environment, it is extremely unlikely that Xi Jinping, Joe Biden, Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin are remotely interested in whether or not the world's most climate-friendly farmers are paying Ardern's new tax.
In contrast to Ardern's fantasies about world leadership, on Tuesday Greta Thunberg took to the Guardian to lambast the world's leaders for failing to take any meaningful action. Citing German climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf, she claimed there is enough ice on Earth to raise sea levels by 65 metres, about the height of a 20-storey building.
If Ardern and Shaw were remotely interested in climate change as a genuine policy issue rather than an opportunity for virtue-signalling, they would immediately shift the entirety of New Zealand's effort from mitigation — trying to stop it from happening by eliminating our 0.15 per cent of global GHG emissions at the expense of provincial communities — to adaptation, preparing for the effects that now seem to be upon us as a result of Chinese, American, Indian, European and Russian indifference.
Peters and Jones remain in competition with Seymour for the votes of those who seek what I would describe as a rational climate change policy, but not with Luxon, whose party is part of the multi-party consensus.
There is great scope for Peters and Jones to lampoon all this over the weekend. They may only be polling 3 per cent in the latest 1News-Kantar poll. But they only need another 58,000 or so votes and Peters will get to choose the Prime Minister once again.
- Matthew Hooton is currently interim head of policy and communications for incoming Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown's office. These views are his own.