It’s turned into one of the strangest and most surprising safe seat by-elections we’ve seen for some time. Here are 9 bizarre aspects of the current Northland by-election.
1."Nail fail" videos
Sometimes it's the unlikeliest events on the campaign trail which capture the public's interest. The PM repeatedly failing to hammer a nail into an election hoarding has been the standout viral "success" of the by-election so far, even making international news - see the video, which has now had 1.3m views: Nailed it! Not... John Key admits: 'I'm no handyman'.
Of course Winston Peters wasted no time in taking advantage of the PM's inept hammering, posting his own Winston Peters nailing video on Facebook, along with the statement, "No nail fail here. This is how a real Kiwi bloke handles a hammer." It's had 95,000 views.
Political commentator and satirist Dave Armstrong has expressed some sympathy for the PM, arguing Key's "hapless hammering" is the type of imagery that can be "far more influential than a major policy or a carefully worded piece of legislation" - see: Key should concentrate on his Northland DIY disaster
But the most cutting satirical take on the issue was Jeremy Wells' Radio Hauraki parody of Mike Hosking reflecting on the PM's nail fail - listen to the 2-minute A Mike Hosking Rant on nailing the PM. To hear the rest of Wells' 38 parody rants, go to The Hauraki Breakfast "Like Mike" playlist.
2. National's "Bridge bribes"
National's incredible announcement of a bridge-building programme for the Northland electorate has been met with widespread condemnation. Electoral law specialist Andrew Geddis has described it as essentially amounting to corruption in most people's eyes - see his blog post, To call each thing by its right name.
John Armstrong has condemned it as "Brazen, shameless, cynical and more than a little desperate" - see: National crosses into the cynical side of politics. And Matthew Hooton declared, on the basis of this announcement and other issues, "for ethics and proper administration, this is the worst government New Zealand has had since July 14, 1984" - see his column, Bridges disgrace gives win to Peters (Paywalled). Hooton says that "Even if, as the prime minister claimed untruthfully this week, this was just a routine announcement brought forward a few weeks in the interests of transparency, it sends a destructive message to the polis that this is how things now roll under John Key".
Other National-sympathetic commentators have expressed their criticisms of the apparent bribes - the NBR's Rob Hosking says that the lesson from the announcement is that "The government is biddable. Highly biddable, and, to be blunt, a bit weak. That is potentially toxic for future policy development" - see: National blowing its credibility in Northland (paywalled).
Amongst other intelligent analysis of the bridge announcement, it's worth watching Anna Burns-Francis' 6-minute Campbell Live video, Bridge bribe money well spent? , and reading the Herald's scathing editorial, pointing out how the Government is being "insulting on so many levels" - see: Northland vow leaves other regions wanting.
Key's claim that the bridge building announcement would have been made earlier if not for the action of his opponents was met with widespread ridicule - see TV3's Key: Dotcom, Hager prevented bridge announcement last year.
This wasn't National's only enticement to Northland voters - see Tova O'Brien's 2-minute video item about the latest offerings: National's Northland promises nothing new.
If National's bridge bribe was bizarre, then so was Key's warning that the infrastructure was at risk if National didn't win the by-election - see Hamish Rutherford's Nats: Roads in doubt if Winston wins.
Or as Joshua Drummond (@cakeburger) put it on twitter: "John Key to my home district: 'Those are some shitty roads you've got there, Northland. It'd be a shame if they got....shittier'."
3. Other parties' bribes?
National is suggesting that Winston Peters is also making promises that look like bribes - see David Farrar's The Northland Bribeometer.
This mainly relates to Peters' advocacy of the development of Whangarei's port and a new rail link into Northland as a way to increase economic development in the region. Rob Salmond has argued because Whangarei's container port isn't actually in the electorate, National's counter-claims of bribery don't apply - see: Stinky cologne (2)
In terms of the merits of such development ideas, Rachel Smalley says "Winston Peters is making sense" - see: The Bridge By-Election.
It seems that regional development is suddenly back in vogue, and for an intelligent explanation and discussion of the previous demise of regional development in New Zealand, see Brian Easton's blog post, Regional Development Policy?
4. National's onslaught on Northland
The National Party appears to be descending upon the Northland electorate in a manner akin to disaster relief. There's a flood of limousines, ministers, and backbench MPs onto the hustings. As a result, the use of taxpayer resources for electioneering is under scrutiny - see Claire Trevett's PM defends use of cars in campaign. Strangely, it appears that the rules for ministers use of resources are much more lax than for backbench MPs.
The PM is using the "I'm entitled" defence, ignoring the fact that this normally goes down very poorly with voters who view such rorts set up by politicians to be illegitimate despite their legality - see Hamish Rutherford's John Key shortens Japan trip for Northland by-election. It also appears from reports that electioneering MPs could be using taxpayer funding to stay in hotels in Whangarei and nearby that are just outside of the actual electorate so that they don't have to pay out of their own pockets.
National's onslaught on Northland appears to be a result of the party's fear of what exactly a Peters win might mean in the longer term. This is explained well in John Armstrong's latest column, Questionable tactics in race for Northland votes. He says "The stakes are not just high; they are stratospheric. They go beyond the effect Peters' win will have on the balance of power in Parliament and the consequent difficulty National would have in passing controversial legislation. Victory for Peters could be the harbinger of a New Zealand First renaissance which loosens National's grip on other supposedly safe seats. National will not want to see the Northland "disease" spreading beyond the boundaries of that electorate".
5. Nationals' inept campaigning
According to the iPredict trading website, National's chances of winning the by-election have dropped from about 95 per cent (a few weeks ago) to a 33 per cent chance, giving Peters a 67 per cent chance (http://bit.ly/1AK5o9m).
How did such an easy win in a safe seat become a likely loss? According to Tim Watkin, nearly everything about National's campaign has either been mismanaged or has backfired - see: How National is gift-wrapping Northland for Winston
And, why did National pick such an inexperienced candidate to go up against Winston Peters? This is explained in Jane Clifton latest Listener column, Bridges of sighs (Paywalled). Here's the key part: "It's an open secret the "wrong" candidate was selected, with wily ex-MP and local mayor John Carter demonstrating Northland is still more his seat than the party's by successfully campaigning to get council staffer Mark Osborne selected instead of head office pick Grant McCallum".
National might yet bounce back. According to Andrea Vance, "ministers are giving up their weekend to man the phonebanks. Party machinery cranked into top gear - targeting around 14,000 wealthy, white supporters in Paihia, Kerikeri and other eastern settlements. Convoys of volunteers' cars and vans will transport voters to polling stations" - see: Nats feel the heat in north
6. Winston Peters' candidacy
The fact that Winston Peters is standing in the by-election at all took most pundits by surprise. To take advantage of such an unusual decision, the National Party has been tweeting an infographic on How much does Winston care about Northland?.
There have been some interesting pronouncements from Peters about turning the region into New Zealand's Florida. But mostly his campaign has gone from strength to strength - for an idea of this see Geoff Cumming's report from the hustings: Peters' ticket to ride in Northland. For example: "He's greeted like a rock star - women queue to be photographed with him, truck drivers stop to shake his hand".
Similarly, a report from Hamish Rutherford says, "Here in Northland, as in many corners of the country, Peters is extraordinarily popular. One primary school pupil in Kaeo asked him if he was 'the famous-est person in the country'?" - see: 'Famous-est person' can afford a sly smile.
So far, Peters has managed to leverage on the poor economic health of the Northland region, making it the main campaign issue. And for a comprehensive picture of the electorate, including how impoverished it is, see the Parliamentary Library's report: Northland: Electoral Profile. And for more on the plight of Northland, see Dita De Boni's Northland needs help, not hot air.
But today there's a suggestion that Peters' campaign on health issues in Northland is off the mark - see Annabel Reid's Stoush over imaginary Wellsford medical centre.
7. Labour's strange positioning
Labour has been stuck between a rock and hard place with the by-election, which has meant Andrew Little has had to pull back from his "cut the crap" persona and send his own thinly veiled message on the issue, essentially knee-capping his own candidate in favour of Peters. Little refuses to give Peters an outright endorsement, instead preferring to repeat the New Zealand First campaign slogan by telling those in Northland to send a message" with their vote.
Why has Labour been so cagey about helping foster a National loss in Northland? For the best explanation, see Claire Trevett's Winston Peters panic sees National roll out the (pork) barrel. She argues that "Labour could be handing National a future coalition partner", especially because a victorious Peters would then have to shift his party towards the right in order to retain the seat in the future. See also Brent Edwards' Playing politics in Northland.
8. Minor parties and list MPs
The smaller parties have played a small but strange role in the by-election so far. One of the candidates has even been arrested, and faces being jailed, for allegedly growing cannabis on her property - see TVNZ's Northland by-election candidate facing charges
Act, in particular, has probably received more coverage than is proportionate to its chances of success. And now the party is set to do a U-turn and endorse the National candidate instead of its own Robin Grieve - see Claire Trevett's Act ups ante for Northland . The problem is that, "The impact of Mr Seymour's gesture is likely to be minimal - Act got just 162 votes in Northland in 2014".
The Act Party is also looking to challenge the result of the by-election if Peters wins - see TVNZ's Act threatens legal action over Winston Peters' Northland bid. This is because a Peters win might see Parliament gain a new MP in the form of New Zealand First's next candidate on the list. This is all explained by Graeme Edgeler's blog post, The Northland by-election; or The so-called Tizard Effect.
The chances of Act succeeding in legal action, according to Andrew Geddis, are "nada" - see his blog post, If we're gonna go that way you're gonna need a bigger knife. He says, "the nub of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing in the Electoral Act that prohibits a sitting list MP from standing as a candidate at a by-election".
9. Strange by-election satire
A strange by-election has made for some excellent satire. The two must-read items are Steve Braunias' The secret diary of Winston Peters and Toby Manhire's The kauri files - byelection leaks.
Finally, cartoons have also yielded some cutting and interesting commentary about the Northland contest - see my blog post, Cartoons of the Northland by-election.