Brazen, shameless, cynical and more than a little desperate - yesterday's contribution from National to the Northland byelection campaign was about as subtle as the concrete blocks which will go into the construction of the replacements for no less than 10 existing single-lane bridges in the electorate. Now we know why the Transport Minister goes under the name of Bridges.

The announcement heralded the return of pork-barrel politics - not so much with bells on as an orchestra at top volume, and with a lot more pork and precious little barrel.

The phenomenon never went away, of course. But it was far less obvious in the two decades which followed the free-market economic reforms of the 1980s. Cost-benefit analysis was the new orthodoxy; "subsidy" became a dirty word. Politicians may have been dishing out dosh in their electorates, but they didn't make a lot of noise about it.

The good intentions were never going to last. Pork-barrelling has become less furtive under John Key's prime ministership. The Future Investment Fund - which holds the billions of dollars from the sale of shares in the big state-owned electricity generators and Air New Zealand - has long been attacked by National's opponents as the ultimate "slush fund" which the governing party uses to fund capital spending on major infrastructure items, such as new schools and hospitals.

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Yesterday's announcement is classic pork-barrelling. It indicates three things: that National is seriously worried that Winston Peters may well carry off what initially was seen as an unlikely victory; that such a victory will have serious implications for National's legislative programme; and that National has few scruples about how it halts Peters' momentum.

Peters' success in this byelection has a lot to do with his catch-cry that Northland voters "send them a message" - "them" being National.

National is more than willing to show it is listening. The announcement on replacement bridges is clearly targeted at a crucial bloc of usually National-aligned voters who are drifting New Zealand First-wards by letting their hearts rule their heads. Or so National believes.

Judging from the scale of yesterday's announcement, National will pepper Northland with a lot more sweeteners.

Many voters will see this as added justification for voting for Peters.

National is punting on scratching enough itches in the electorate to nullify whatever Peters may be offering. The one advantage National has over Peters is incumbency. National can promise things which will happen. Peters cannot give such a guarantee. It is an advantage Key is going to exploit to the maximum.

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