We were rolling up State Highway 2 from Wellington, heading for Hawke's Bay, when we came to an abrupt halt behind a near-stalled line of vehicles on the main street of Dannevirke. Families with small children lined the pavement through town, clapping, waving and cheering.
A giant tractor heading in the opposite direction bearing a sign "Enough is Enough" trundled past, followed by a long line of other farm vehicles, utes and cars with flashing lights. We were trapped in the middle of a Groundswell protest that was doing endless loops of Dannevirke's shopping district. Sigh.
For a small rural town, Groundswell had attracted big numbers, and rural areas are traditionally National Party territory. Yet the Nats' share of the vote in so many polls shows it languishing in the mid- to low 20s. The fact that Act has managed to double its support since the last election to the mid-teens is testament to the fact that National is completely failing to harness the country's anger and unrest to its own advantage.
It is not just the question of its leadership; the whole structure of the party – its organisation and its policymaking – seem in disarray.
A classic example of why it has flopped is its bipartisan accord with Labour on the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, which aims to create up to 105,500 new homes over the next eight years by allowing three houses of three storeys to be built on single sections without resource consent on unprotected sites.
If you are one of a long line of frustrated aspiring homebuyers, you might say, "Great!" If you are one of the large number of homeowners who have traditionally voted National and don't fancy the idea of your quarter-acre of the pavlova paradise being hemmed in on three sides by enormous three-storey dwellings, you are probably less enamoured.
If you are a ratepayer, you might be even less keen on the burden placed on your town's tenuous infrastructure by suddenly tripling the use of your suburb's antiquated wastewater and sewage system.
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Obviously, there are plenty of folk who support the idea of a surcharge on petrol guzzling SUVs, a better system of managing the country's waters, and providing more and cheaper homes. But there is also a sizeable slice of the electorate who don't agree and they should be fertile ground for an opposition party. National is dismally failing to gather their support.
It has also missed the mark in exploiting growing discontent over the Government's slow extraction of the country from Covid-19 restrictions. Four levels of restraint have given way to a convoluted red, orange and green "traffic light" system with an electronic vaccine pass arrangement. Let's see how well that works.
Meanwhile, internal borders around Auckland will soon be lifted for the vaccinated. Woohoo for Aucklanders wanting a Christmas holiday, but a relative in Christchurch wrote to me of Canterbury's horror at the thought of "the impending zombie apocalypse" pouring south. In Northland and other holiday zones, locals are bellowing at the big city, "Stay home for summer!"
A look at social media confirms Auckland's angry frustration at more than three months of isolation. Abroad, the many thousands of vaccinated but trapped Kiwis and their relatives rail about the redundant MIQ system and its hopeless lottery for access.
National's utter failure to exploit this discontent means Labour is comfortably heading for a third term, and unless it somehow seriously blunders in dealing with Covid-19, a fourth term may even be on the cards.