WIN OR LOSE, National won't forget the 2015 by-election in Northland in a hurry. And win or lose, hopefully it will have learned not to take the region's support for granted.
By-elections differ from general elections in that the chosen electorate is the sole focus. Voters can expect to be bombarded by Cabinet ministers, and indeed have been in Northland over the last few weeks, and promises tend to be electorate-specific. National has made its share of those, most notably to widen 10 one-lane bridges throughout the region, but might have been disappointed by the response.
Cynicism was probably the most common reaction, given that these bridges, including those at Taipa, Kaeo and Rangiahua, have been the subject of complaints to unreceptive governments for donkey's years but have suddenly become a priority. They have also given some of the more patronising commentators from further afield the chance to point out that they will be a waste of money, in that we in the Far North are generally too poor to drive cars anyway, and even if we do have wheels we have nowhere to go and all day to get there.
We really are becoming two countries - the provinces, where the vast bulk of national income is generated, and the supercilious cities, whose opinion of their economic contribution to our way of life is vastly over-estimated and who tend to look down on the likes of us as, at best, quaintly backward.
This has been a strange campaign even by by-election standards though, thanks exclusively to NZ First leader Winston Peters' participation. He's quite right when he says that anything National promises is down to him. If this campaign was solely between National and a worthy Labour candidate with no hope of winning and a motley crew of odds and sods it would pass by all but unnoticed. With Winston Peters in the mix it has become a serious test for the current government, which won't fall if National doesn't win but will struggle to maintain its legislative programme.
That, perhaps, offers the best argument for National supporters, or at least those who want to see the Resource Management Act reformed at last, to remain loyal. Losing Northland will seriously hamper the National-led government's ability to do what it said it would do prior to last year's general election, and one would expect that plenty of those who will vote on Saturday have a keen interest in seeing the RMA rehashed.
For some there will also be the galling prospect of having a carpet bagger as the local MP for the next two and a half years, and the strengthening of UnitedFuture's hand in re-negotiating its post-election deal with National. Mr Peters is widely expected, even by those who say they will vote for him, to be an absentee MP, however strong he says his Northland ties are. He wasn't concerned enough about us to stand a candidate here in any of the last three general elections. And while we don't know precisely what Peter Dunne would like in return for his continued support of the current government, the prospect of his solitary vote having greater influence in terms of how the country is run won't have universal appeal.
For all that there is certainly a mood in Northland to use this by-election to stick it to National, as Hobson did in 1966 when it elected Social Credit's Vern Cracknell. That experiment wasn't a huge success, although it did reap rich rewards for the electorate in 1969, when National made it clear that it wanted us back. That will happen again in 2017 should Mark Osborne not win on Saturday, and some people might think two and a half years isn't too long to wait for some serious bribes to materialise.
Meanwhile National insists that 10 two-lane bridges are not contingent upon Osborne winning. Perhaps we shall see. If National loses and the bridges don't come to pass we will have a whole new ball game in 2017, and Mark Osborne's political career will be over. It is difficult to imagine that the party would be so spiteful as to renege on that particular promise, but it is a given that we won't be getting much else if Peters wins.
His promises are meaningless, given that whatever happens he will still be in opposition and will have no ability to deliver anything. The chances of this government giving his electorate anything at all will be zero. Every gain NZ First might achieve for Northland would be trumpeted by Mr Peters as evidence of his effectiveness, and National will be reluctant to give him any opportunity to do that.
The best we could hope for would be the investment we say we need and deserve to be promised in 2017, an election that will probably be won by Labour. And National in opposition will be as effective in promoting our best interests as NZ First will be after Saturday.
Then we have candidates and parties saying we should not vote for them. More than one has conceded that they have no chance of winning - only two have any hope - and has suggested that votes would be wasted on them. Even Labour, which has always poured scorn on National's machinations in Ohariu and Epsom, has effectively descended to telling its supporters not to waste their votes on Willow-Jean Prime.
Quite frankly it is difficult to see Mrs Prime or any other Labour candidate ever winning Northland, but it must irk her and her supporters to be abandoned like this. She might well be rewarded one day with a winnable seat somewhere else, although that might not tempt a woman whose heart clearly belongs to the North. This manipulation of the democratic process is distasteful, however, albeit for once a negative development that cannot be sheeted home to MMP.
The worst aspect of this by-election, however, is the degree to which some people have descended to personal abuse. This newspaper has received some disgraceful letters commenting on candidates' personal attributes in a manner that the writer has not seen before, and doesn't want to see again. The writer has long argued, slightly tongue in cheek, that rather than talking about how we vote we should look at who is allowed to vote, and this campaign has vindicated that perhaps jaundiced view. People vote as they do for all sorts of reasons, some of which are beyond all comprehension.
At the end of the day most of those who vote will hopefully do so with the aim of contributing to the best outcome for Northland. There is no doubt that we could have expected more in return for 46 years of loyalty to National, and there is no doubt much to be gained from pointing out that loyalty is a two-way street.
Whether National now understands that, or needs to lose Northland to learn that lesson, is a moot point, but in terms of this electorate's future we need to make it clear that this rebellion, if that's what it turns out to be, is no flash in the pan. It will all be a waste of time, money and emotion if we go back to sleep like we did in 1969. Whoever represents us as of next week must be left in no doubt that they are expected to perform, and that that goes far beyond 10 two-lane bridges.