It is not often that a byelection can change the Government, even in a subtle way. Those who vote in Northland tomorrow will not remove National from power whatever happens, but they could shift the balance of power in Parliament from Epsom's David Seymour, who is safely in National's pocket, to Peter Dunne and the Maori Party. They will be the real winners if Northland elects Winston Peters.

Mr Dunne might not rock the boat. He prides himself on bringing stability and continuity to governments of both sides. The Maori Party is more independent, voting against Government bills as often as not. But while Mr Dunne's vote alone would usually preserve the Government's majority, he would prevent it rewriting the Resource Management Act in a way that made decision-makers consider economic development along with environmental protection.

Byelections are always difficult for a governing party. Voter turnouts are typically lower than for a general election. A seat normally safe for the party in power enables voters to "send a message" to the Government without removing it from office. Northland has been hearing that phrase often from Mr Peters and his ally in this election, the Labour Party. If Labour people vote tactically, as their leader Andrew Little has indicated they should, Mr Peters is in with a chance.

The Government is sufficiently worried to have promised Northland a pork barrel of bridge replacements, regardless of the NZ Transport Agency's priorities. In doing so it has not only looked desperate, but it has also given weight to its opponents' case that Northland's poor economic performance can be put down to the Government's "neglect". It is a pity for the region that this needy narrative has taken hold and doubly sad if that is the "message" it sends to Wellington tomorrow.

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Northland is no more neglected than any other region. The byelection could have focused on Northland's prodigious economic advantages -- warm climate, beautiful coasts, proximity to Auckland. It ought to be as prosperous as the Bay of Plenty, and could be with proper leadership. It needs an MP who will make things happen, not just turn up for an election campaign for his own amusement. It also needs Ngapuhi to resolve internal differences so that it can receive a substantial Treaty settlement for investment. Mr Peters could be helpful if his heart really has returned to the region of his roots.

National, surprised no doubt by the sudden demise of its previous MP, has done itself no favours in its choice of a new candidate. Mark Osborne appears to have needed close support from the procession of Cabinet ministers to the electorate during the campaign. National has looked worried. It helps to look worried to get supporters out to vote, but the promised bridges speak of real fear. This is not a Government that spends for no reason.

Mr Peters is a formidable campaigner. Whether he wants to attend to an electorate in the twilight of his career is a question Northland voters must decide. Their decision is awaited with interest, especially by two Maori MPs and Mr Dunne.