An SFO investigation during election time is like political poison. But its effects aren't uniform on all involved. National probably won't be hurt that much by the SFO, New Zealand First will likely be hurt a lot more, and Jami-Lee Ross may as well kiss his political fortunes goodbye.
Ross' chances of winning Botany back on September 19 were slim anyway. Only one MP has won a seat as an independent since World War II, and that MP is the Right Honourable Winston Raymond Peters.
Much as Ross might like to believe he could repeat the feat, he has nowhere near the appeal, the profile or natural charisma of Peters.
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Now that the SFO has charged Ross in relation to donations he allegedly processed for National, the chance that he might win Botany has fallen through the floor. It's unlikely the court case will be wrapped up before the election, which means he'll be asking Botany voters to return him despite the questions over his integrity and despite the fact that, if convicted, he'll be forced to resign from Parliament. The alternative for voters? Christopher Luxon. It's a no-brainer.
National will likely be the party least hurt by its entanglement with the SFO. Of course, it's not entirely in the clear. Those SFO charges relate to two $100,000 donations meant for the National Party. But, it favours the Nats that Ross is no longer an MP, which means their continued attempts to (wrongly, in my opinion) distance themselves are slightly more believable to supporters. And while it hurts Ross that the court case will likely not be wrapped up before the election, it arguably benefits the National Party, because Ross won't have the platform of court to make allegations against his former party. As long as Ross' charges are still before the court, there's very little that he can say — and media will report — without breaching sub judice.
New Zealand First, though, probably won't escape as lightly as the Nats as long as the SFO continues to look into the party. The best-case scenario is that the SFO finds nothing to worry about and closes the case. Worst-case scenario is that it presses charges here as well. As I see it, NZ First doesn't have an arm's-length defence like the Nats. Sure, Peters might try to shift the blame to the New Zealand First Foundation's trustees Doug Woolerton and Brian Henry, but how credible that is to voters is questionable. It's been reported Peters was present at a meeting where the NZ First Foundation was established. And in any case, to many supporters the words "New Zealand First" and "Winston Peters" are interchangeable.
Probably the biggest problem for NZ First, should the SFO still be interested come election day, is that this isn't the first time the SFO's sniffed around the party. Once is unfortunate, twice furrows the brow. So, if the smell of trouble still clings to the party on September 19, it might be enough to repel desperately needed voters.
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How desperately are those voters needed? It depends on a few game changers between now and the election — a deal from Labour on the Northland seat, the SFO pressing charges, the PM deciding to reprimand Peters — and the polls. TVNZ's Colmar Brunton poll puts NZ First at a worrying 3 per cent. Internal Labour polling apparently puts the party at slightly more than double that.
Depending on which set of polls you believe, depending on how much tolerance the PM has for a continued association with NZ First's issues, and depending on how long the SFO keeps sniffing around, the poison could be hard to survive.