MAKE no mistake, the outcome of the Northland byelection last Saturday is a political boilover of seismic proportions.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters won one of the National Party's safest seats with an election night majority of more than 4000 votes, erasing a National Party majority of over 9000 votes in the general election just a few months before. Winston Peters' final majority is likely to increase when the nearly 1000 newly-enrolled special votes get included in the total.

This 13,000 vote turnaround is unprecedented in our political history, but it is the internal dynamics of Peters' triumph that should give Prime Minister John Key and National Party campaign manager Stephen Joyce pause for very serious reflection.

Apart from a governing party losing a safe seat, two statistics set this contest apart from any previous byelection. About half of the voters chose to cast their ballot before election day and the level of participation was huge.


The early voting phenomenon is unprecedented, and it exceeds a trend in recent polls.

The turnout level is a genuine abnormality. It has been a rule of thumb for years that byelection turnout levels are half of the previous general poll. The Christchurch East byelection saw 13,000 electors vote compared with the 28,000 who had voted in the previous general election.

This is the established pattern.

Northland broke that mould. With 28,000 voting in the byelection, this wasn't much short of the 34,000 that voted in the general election five months before.

These two statistics suggest anger, and we should explore what National did wrong, what the other parties did right and what this might mean for electoral politics in New Zealand.

National was overconfident to the point of arrogance.

Although National knew about the likelihood of a byelection before anyone else and Key decided on the date, they were the last big party to nominate a candidate. National then took a week to get its billboards up and they chose to plaster their candidate's image over recycled former MP Mike Sabin hoardings.

When the rains came some local punters were faced with images of Sabin, just the man National wanted everyone to forget.


The malign influence of Australian political consultants Crosby Textor was also evident and almost certainly counter-productive.

This outfit specialises in the political equivalent of sledging and their newly-minted New Zealand affiliate, Hannifin de Joux, having opened its account with a duck in Northland, will be ruing its timing.

The Young Nats' nasty attack on Peters based on his age was stupid beyond belief. The Northland electorate has a high level of retired voters and everyone knows they'll be Winston's age sooner or later.

To cap off a tour de force of incompetence, National's panicked promise to convert 10 one-lane bridges to two lanes backfired badly. It simply underlined Winston's theme that the electorate had been neglected by National and showed that Joyce and his crew had no grasp on the real infrastructure requirements of the region.

I was surprised that some old hands like Matthew Hooton and Michelle Boag were not involved in National's campaign. This might have avoided destructive clangers like Joyce getting caught prompting his candidate from behind a camera when the hapless Mark Osborne appeared on Q+A on TV1.

Boag or Hooton would have known that if you need to do this, (and sometimes you do) then get a discreet earpiece and don't advertise it.

New Zealand First, by contrast, ran copybook campaign focusing on Winston's roots in the North and cleverly offering to send a message to Wellington without destabilising a government most had supported just a few months before.

Andrew Little and the Labour Party handled a nasty situation with real aplomb. When polls showed Labour's candidate Willow-Jean Prime in third place, Little carefully guided Labour voters in behind Peters having prepared his candidate for the inevitable.

The result was no humiliation for Willow-Jean Prime who is now an obvious pick for a high spot on Labour's 2017 general election list and will be a good reason to give a party vote to Labour in that poll.

This byelection is Key's first electoral defeat and dents an image of invincibility. No one would expect to lose a seat as safe as Northland seemed, but the longer-term implications are not clear.

It is possible that the neglected provinces like Northland and Hawke's Bay are ripe for revolt given a decent option, and if Key has any sense he'll start listening to people in Dannevirke, Gisborne, Hastings, Whanganui and Wairoa.

The "rock star" economy can only be found in Auckland and Christchurch. The rest of the country is lagging badly.

If Labour can carry on with its rebuild, then the 2017 election is theirs for the taking.

-Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is a supporter of pro-amalgamation group A Better Hawke's Bay (Amalgamate Hawke's Bay). He is chief executive of the NZ Howard League and a former president of the Labour Party. He is a political commentator and can be heard on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon programme at 11am on Mondays and Sean Plunket's RadioLive show at 11am on Fridays. All opinions in this column are his and not the newspaper's.