Like all persuasive political spin, National's attempt to put the blame for its thrashing in the Northland byelection down to "a unique set of circumstances" will get some traction because that rationale contains a strong element of the truth.

The governing party would be deluding itself, however, if it thinks there are no major ramifications for National beyond that electorate's boundaries.

Sure, the circumstances triggering the byelection were unique in making voters angry about being kept in the dark as to why previous MP Mike Sabin was obliged to resign from Parliament.

Sure, the Far North's economy has long drifted off the pack. While economic indicators suggest an upswing in the region is under way, the locals clearly cannot feel it or simply do not believe it.


Likewise, the entrenched and widespread view that the electorate has been taken for granted by National for too long and has missed out when it comes to government spending on local infrastructure, such as roading.

Cabinet ministers can quote all the figures they like to try and prove otherwise. The local perception is that the region has suffered from neglect by successive governments. Such perceptions are extremely hard to shift.

Sure, no other New Zealand politician is as adept as Winston Peters at exploiting the mood of alienation that is the inevitable product of such perceptions.

Sure, Peters has milked his family connections to the electorate for all they are worth.

Sure, it was an unusual move for a party leader to be a candidate in a byelection.

Unlike general elections, however, the blow torch is turned up to high for candidates in a byelection. Peters knew that. National's candidate Mark Osborne discovered that. There has not been a contest as one-sided since Christians were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum.

But it was a one-off. Peters will not be able to repeat the exercise should there be another byelection in this parliamentary term.

National will be grateful for that. But Peters' victory potentially has far wider electoral repercussions.


It is too early to talk of seismic shifts in the political landscape. The polls show support for National nationwide is still running at levels which could see the party winning a fourth term.

The Northland result, however, leaves National with plenty to ponder.

First, Peters has punctured John Key's aura of invincibility. That is likely to have a major impact on party morale, particularly the Opposition. The daily political battles will be fought on a more equal footing.

Second, Peters' large majority was partly the result of voters defecting from National. They may have defected only with their constituency vote and may well still cast their party vote for National. But there is less certainty that will happen.

Worryingly for Key, The Force of the North sucked up a large number of votes in normally solid National territory, like Kerikeri.

Third, Peters' message of regional neglect will have pushed buttons in other parts of the country, such as Hawkes Bay, Gisborne, East Cape and the West Coast.

He could well use his victory in Northland as the launching pad for a wider offensive by pitching himself as the Voice of the Provinces.

It is an old adage that to win elections, you have to capture the hearts and minds of provincial New Zealand. Peters' spectacular triumph in Northland plus a resurgent Labour Party might well put the squeeze on National's party vote in the provinces in 2017, to National's ultimate cost.

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