The self-appointed Pied Piper of the North, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, has the words "Follow Me" on the back of his campaign bus. It is a reference to his Twitter account. What is notable is the colour of that bus: blue. The backdrop is a photo of the seas off Cape Reinga. It is no mere coincidence that is also very close to the blue of the National Party.
Peters used to be a National Party MP. But those wondering whether he is returning to his political as well as his ancestral roots in Northland should disabuse themselves of any such notion.
For all the talk about whether Labour should pull its candidate to give Peters a clear run, Peters' target is not the paltry pool of Labour voters. It's the throngs who vote National, and if he has to wear a costume to get them, he'll do it.
Peters is trying to persuade Northland voters that National has taken them for granted. He is also hoping discontent at the resignation of Mike Sabin will work in his favour. "Send them a message," his bus reads. But at the same time, Peters is also making soothing noises, telling Northlanders electing him will not change the Government: National will be safe.
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Peters campaigning in National blue is one of several perverse aspects of the Northland byelection so far. There is another in calls for Labour to do a deal from the very same people who derided National's electoral deals in Epsom and Ohariu. Then there is Bruce Rogan, the leader of the Great Mangawhai Rates Revolt, who has called for Willow-Jean Prime to step aside to benefit Peters even though Rogan himself is standing.
Perhaps the most perverse aspect of all is that the MP who stands to benefit most from a Peters win is Wellington-based United Future leader Peter Dunne. Dunne was quick to work out it would mean National would need him or the Maori Party to pass legislation, rather than just Act's David Seymour. Voters hated it when the tail (one Winston Peters) was seen to be wagging the dog (National) in the 1990s. The smaller the tail, the greater the outrage, and it doesn't get much smaller than Dunne. Yet the minute Peters announced his intentions, Dunne started wagging in delight. He tweeted that if Peters won, "balance of power delivered to UF and/or Maori Party - brilliant strategy". Dunne even started musing about revisiting the confidence and supply agreement he has with National to reflect the greater power he would have. He also identified the first issue he would flex his newfound muscle on - National's Resource Management Act reforms, which he opposes, and which National is campaigning on in Northland.
Dunne and Peters have a long-standing and bitter rivalry. It is the first time Dunne has wanted Peters to win anything. The reason is self-interest. At first glance, it seemed Prime Minister John Key didn't appreciate Dunne's sudden development of the political equivalent of the seven-year itch. But it quickly became clear Key had worked out that Dunne's cockahoop claims to hold the balance of power were one of National's best weapons for neutralising Peters. He observed if Peters was to win Northland it would deliver "a stronger Peter Dunne" and questioned if voters wanted that. United Future's dire election result had answered that question in advance: voters didn't want that. But one person did: Peter Dunne. His reply to Key's question was on Twitter: "If it happens, ah, actually yes I do."
The unveiling of the MPs' election expenses was revealing about just how small a tail Dunne really was. While he spent about $17,000 on his Ohariu campaign, United Future spent a paltry $1995 on its party vote campaign last year. Even United Future has stopped pretending it is anything but a shell party.
The reason for keeping it on life support is that Dunne gets more resources and speaking slots in Parliament as the leader of a registered party than as an independent MP. The same could be said of Act's Seymour, but at least Act put in some effort. Nor has it bothered to try to throw its featherlight weight around.
Key's other technique to shore up National voters has been to point to Peters' longevity. Peters will turn 70 a fortnight after the byelection. Key has indelicately pointed out Northland voters will figure out they might get Peters for a good time, but not a long time. Even Peters will one day shuffle off this political coil and wander off with SuperGold Card in hand. In that respect, depicting Cape Reinga - where the spirits of the dead leave - on the side of Peters' bus was possibly not the type of message Peters was after.