ELECTION2020_DIGIBANNER

Northland voters were told they would benefit financially and socially by returning NZ First to Government while every other party would turn its back on the region.

"Matt King - what has he ever done," asked NZ First's Shane Jones of his National Party opponent and the incumbent Northland MP. "What can he ever do?"

Jones called King an "obscure backbench MP" who was "irrelevant" in comments after a speech in which he talked for the financial benefits Northland - and other provincial areas - had enjoyed from the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, secured in coalition talks by NZ First.

It got personal quickly at the launch of Jones' campaign for Northland where he made clear the contrast he would offer voters - the ability of NZ First to sit at Cabinet and shower benefits on its provincial supporters against decades of perceived neglect by Labour and National.

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Where Jones is minister of regional economic development, King sits well down National's list of MPs with responsibility for regional development only in the North Island, with an associate transport role.

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At current polling, NZ First needs an electorate seat to pull itself back to Parliament and Jones' shot at Northland is considered its best shot.

Jones delivered his message in Whangarei - not in the Northland electorate - at what was meant to be NZ First's national campaign launch.

The sudden illness that struck leader Winston Peters, and the emergency surgery that followed, saw the launch shifted a week into the future and the Whangarei event used as a platform to launch the campaigns of Jones and the party's Whangarei candidate Dr David Wilson.

In a speech to around 300 people, Jones dubbed himself the "Force of the North" and asked what the National Party had done for the region.

"In the North the National Party jalopy is actually falling apart, riddled with rust. In fact, in the North we regard our rusted railway as a symbol of the National Party's attitude to Northland's ambitions.

NZ First's Shane Jones addresses media after his campaign launch in Whangarei. Photo / Michael Cunningham
NZ First's Shane Jones addresses media after his campaign launch in Whangarei. Photo / Michael Cunningham

"For far too long we have tolerated substandard National Party representation for our Northland area. No power or influence. No bite and, in fact, not even a decent bark."

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Jones cast NZ First as a moderating influence against the supposed political extremes of Labour and National.


He said the party was the champion of the provinces. "Never again, folks, the economic cold shoulder in Northland. Our party - your party - is not going to take it anymore."

Jones said NZ First should take pride in the Provincial Growth Fund and the money it had put into projects that "conventional economics would never touch".

He alluded to its popularity in the provinces, regardless of the political position of those who received the money.

"You know it has become commonplace for the National Party to attack the Provincial Growth Fund and unwisely attack indirectly your Force for the North. They criticise it publicly as a lolly scramble but lobby me to fund their own local projects.

"Long-term infrastructure, unlike a lolly, does not disappear under the sun."

Jones appeared to acknowledge the party's current polling, saying "this party is not afraid of hard work - this party's definitely not afraid of a hard fight, and Lord knows we're got one in front of us".

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In a textbook NZ First attack on journalists, he accused media of "not writing about us, but foolishly writing us off" and "other parties believing they don't need us or forgetting they only got where they are because of us".

The only way is up - NZ First's Shane Jones says the party has a tough fight ahead of it in the 2020 election. Photo / Michael Cunningham
The only way is up - NZ First's Shane Jones says the party has a tough fight ahead of it in the 2020 election. Photo / Michael Cunningham

King, who took the seat from Peters by about 1300 votes in 2017, said he listened to part of Jones' speech and heard "hypocrisy and irony" in every sentence.

He said voters needed to consider Jones' claims against his presence in Helen Clark's 1999-2008 government, during which "nothing" was done for Northland.

The contrast King offered was infrastructure projects in the region - fibre, the infamous bridges of the 2015 byelection and roading projects - had occurred under a National Government.

Northland will be a critical battleground for NZ First with political polls plotting the party's pitiful plunge to 2 per cent support, well below the 5 per cent trigger for returning to Parliament. An electorate seat - and Northland seems the only real contender - would allow it to return without hitting that electoral benchmark.

The Northland electorate has been painted National's blue for decades, with a brief interruption in 2015 when Peters won the byelection in what was seen as a protest vote against the then incumbent government.

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Bring me your votes - NZ First's Shane Jones appeals to Northland voters. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Bring me your votes - NZ First's Shane Jones appeals to Northland voters. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Northland's push for the relocation of Auckland port will also be a point Jones will want to push. While the NZ First politician and Government minister has been open in his support for the port move, National struggles to hide its rejection of the initiative.

There has been speculation locally Labour might do a deal to allow NZ First the chance to return, providing a coalition partner. The Herald understands that's not going to happen.