The Northland byelection would be a dream for country and western singers, such has been the focus on roads.

Winston Peters is living the dream of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads, as he scaled the Brynderwyns back to his turangawaewae to be emperor. Since then he has slung in a bit of AC/DC as he set about laying a Highway to Hell for National.

National have taken inspiration from Simon and Garfunkel, promising to build bridges over troubled water. They added their own creative twist by also promising a bridge over troubled kauri roots in the case of the Joan and Darby Bridge.

But there has also been attention to how MPs are getting around on those roads. National has deployed a cavalry of ministers mounted on the the Crown limo BMWs. It is highly likely National ministers Paula Bennett and Nikki Kaye are being given the silent treatment by their colleagues for the cardinal sin of making them look bad by deciding not to use the Crown cars on the Northland byelection campaign. But others, including Simon Bridges, Steven Joyce and Bill English, have exercised different scruples.


National criticised Labour for using taxpayer funded flights for its leadership contest, but Prime Minister John Key declared a byelection was different because democracy was at stake. The BMWs were a noble beast of burden to ensure that was achieved.

His second defence was it was the job of a Government to tend to its majority. A victory for NZ First candidate Winston Peters would slim that majority. So it was the very duty of ministers to use all means at their disposal to stop that, even if that meant a $700-a-day BMW. In practice, refusing to use the Crown cars in the byelection would not save the taxpayer much, if anything.

Last year, ministers racked up a total of $1.6 million on the limo service, according to their expenses. That was about half the $3.1 million in 2009 - although that change is illusory. It is the result of a big drop in the charges for use of the cars in 2013/14, replacing the revenue with a heftier fixed annual charge. The Budget sets aside $7.4 million to pay for the VIP Services' cars' use by ministers, judges and other VIPs.

But there is a matter of principle involved. National are not the only party to have used the Crown cars for campaigning. There are those who recall seeing Winston Peters in Crown cars in campaigns when he was a minister, despite his howling at the moon over the National ministers.

But this is coming from a political party which has taken a strong stand against state funding for political parties and the use of taxpayer-funded resources for electioneering. And despite Key's attempt to paint the limos as essential tools for democracy in Northland, it is hardly democratic to give one side an advantage over the others. Other MPs on the campaign trail must pay for their own rental cars or taxis.

Key deserves a great deal of credit for tidying up excesses in the perks MPs got and blocking off the routes they could take to maximise those allowances. Many aspects of ministers' allowances and entitlements have now been handed over to the Remuneration Authority, but the Prime Minister continues to set the rules for the Crown cars. The rules state ministers can use them "at any time for any purpose, at the Minister's discretion".

That means they can call them in for a ride home after a night on the town, go to the opera, or even to to wait outside the hairdresser (as Bill English has done). Just because they can use the cars doesn't mean they should, especially for electioneering. The justification MPs put up for using domestic flights for non-Parliamentary reasons is that the Remuneration Authority takes the value of personal benefit off the base salary they would otherwise get. No such argument can be mounted for the cars. The latest determination stated that while there was some personal benefit in the use of the Crown cars it would not deduct any sum for it because they were "tools of trade".

Peters, meanwhile, has his own tools of the trade. He has confronted the National cavalry with his bus and on one occasion bypassed the roads altogether by getting into a chopper. His primary aim is to shove National and its BMWs on to Annihilator's Road to Ruin.