Does National's astonishing byelection loss signal some sort of tipping point for what has been an incredibly popular government? There's no clear answer to that question but there is a huge amount of speculation, coming from some interesting commentators, that suggests the gloss is truly starting to wear off both John Key and his administration
Warnings from the right
Today's must-read blog post is by conservative commentator Karl du Fresne, who lists
. But du Fresne goes further than National's abysmal by-election campaign and looks at the wider problems facing Key and his colleagues. His scathing assessment of Key's first six months since being returned to power suggests that even conservative commentators are worried about the quick decline of the Government.
Here's du Fresne's central point: "I detect signs that the old born-to-rule mentality - never the Nats' most endearing quality, but mercifully out of sight for most of the MMP era - is re-asserting itself. It was evident in the government's smug certainty (at least initially) that it would retain Northland, despite the cloud hanging over its former MP. But there have been several other clues that Version 3 of the Key government is of a subtly different character from those of the previous two terms".
He concludes, saying that, "It's as if, having survived the firestorm of the 2014 election campaign with his personal popularity intact, Key has decided he and his government are bulletproof. But like water on rock, suspicions about government integrity have the potential to gradually erode his credibility. And that's essentially what we're talking about here: integrity".
Others on the political right are also turning on this government, with some remarkable critiques. Matthew Hooton's column on Friday on what triggered the Northland by-election and why National are destined for further problems is another must-read:
. He derides the Government for how they dealt with the issues around Mike Sabin's resignation, and says it continues to be a major risk for Key and co.
Then there's Cameron Slater's astute and critical essay titled:
. In this, Slater paints a picture of an administration in inevitable decline, which is being destroyed by heavily factional infighting and led by a Prime Minister no longer in control of his own side. According to Slater, this demise has been going on for some time now, and "The by-election simply has made it more visible in a shorter period of time".
Slater's description of National's faction fighting is worth quoting at length: "Previously, when someone in another faction saw that the PM might trip up on something, they would have warned him. But now, they'll just keep silent and let him trip up. Sabin is a case in point. If we are to believe John Key, and let's assume he doesn't lie for a moment, he didn't know there was a problem. Everyone else was keeping this information from him. He's either incredibly incompetent, or he was set up to fail. And we know he's not incompetent".
For Slater, "the next two years will be interesting as more of the back stabbing and jockeying for position will start coming to the surface. Leaks to the media about National related problems are already increasing, and more will come from within the party. The white anting will become more blatant".
Slater has added to this negative prognosis with a further critique of
And if National's factions are truly eating the party from the inside, then Selwyn Manning's blog post
is also an important contribution to understanding what is currently going on within the party. This account, apparently based on information from a high-level National insider, also suggests there are considerable problems facing the party in the short-term.
Warnings about National's damaging arrogance
The warnings about National's post-by-election decline are not just coming from bloggers and dissidents in the National Party. Other highly credible voices are adding to the picture. John Armstrong's latest column is a major warning, with the statement that "The governing party would be deluding itself, however, if it thinks there are no major ramifications for National beyond that electorate's boundaries" - see:
Armstrong says "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". There's a real chance, according to Armstrong, that in 2017 National could find itself seriously squeezed by Labour and New Zealand First in the all-important provinces.
Similarly, Tracy Watkins says, "The scale of Peters' victory was a devastating blow for John Key's National, a government which knows much about winning than losing. It is also a wake up call for Key, who has been delivered a message by Northland that it has had enough of feeling left behind and neglected. That is a message that will resonate throughout much of regional New Zealand" - see:
Ex-Cabinet Minister Rodney Hide is no enemy of the Government, and his verdict will also hurt Key and National: "The dream run is over. Peters has single-handedly knocked the shine off brand Key and blown a hole in Key's aura of invincibility" - see:
Hide emphasises how much the result shows a rise in anti-National feeling that could suggest Key has arrived at a crossroads: "Can he take the loss and build from it? Or is this the beginning of his end? Northland has sent a message. I think the rest of the country agrees. The message is to National. People are wanting something different. I would say the Northland vote was not a vote for Peters but a vote against National".
Veteran commentator Richard Harman also suggests that the by-election result - and the issues surrounding it - show how "out of sync" John Key has become with the electorate - see:
. Harman points out that "National becomes the first Government since Labour in Timaru in 1985 to lose a by-election in a general seat", and ponders whether Peters can "transform NZ First into a sort of Country Party?"
The seriousness of the by-election defeat is also emphasised today in the Herald's editorial, which says: "John Key has suffered his first setback in more than six years of office. If National goes down to defeat in 2017, pundits might look back to this byelection as the turning of the tide. But whether any of that happens depends on what the Government does next" - see:
Other newspaper editorials point to National's "arrogance problem". The Press says: "If there is any lesson to be drawn from this result it is that a third-term government must not only not fall prey to arrogance. It must also avoid all appearance of arrogance. That lesson, in the eyes of some voters anyway, may not have been learned. Key had warned of the risks, but since the general election the Government has sometimes appeared cavalier. The by-election has driven the lesson home emphatically" - see:
Today's Dominion Post editorial is also hard-hitting, saying that the result is "a humiliating blow for National. Joyce has shown he is not invincible, and Prime Minister John Key has shown he can't keep his supporters asleep forever" - see:
The Dominion Post warns that although this may not be "a tipping point. It, might, however, be a small hole in the dam that leads to bigger things later. What Northland did show, after all, is the cynical side of National. Its leader's bland face is only one part of its character. The other is the dark hidden one, the bit whose motto is, 'Whatever it takes'."
The lists of defeat
National's arrogance is one of the main explanations for the many mistakes the party made during the by-election campaign. Over-confidence - or cockiness - means that politicians become complacent and more easily make misjudgments. This is the argument of Anthony Robins, who says that "arrogance is the thread" running through all of the reasons for National's loss - see:
Lists have become fashionable in cataloging the extraordinary by-election result. Especially interesting is David Farrar's
, which includes criticism of National for running the campaign from Wellington and Auckland.
See also, Claire Trevett's "10 Reasons Winston Peters won Northland" in her article,
, John Palethorpe's
, and Brian Edwards'
National's leadership future
John Key isn't admitting to being too shaken by the by-election loss, and has directly responded to the speculation about a tipping point: "But the beginning of the end? Most people will go yeah, whatever" - see Tracy Watkins's
The punishment handed to National and Key will certainly increase speculation about the Key's future and at what stage he'll want to bow out. Trading on the iPredict website has been interesting with the forecast of Key to depart in 2017 suddenly leaping up to a
The succession question will, in turn, also be raised. Since the by-election, the stock for
has climbed to a new high of 36%. Unsurprisingly,
have now plummeted to a low of 13%.
In terms of the campaign maestro's more general performance, see also Gordon Campbell's
Key might take some comfort from the fact that Labour and other parties haven't exactly triumphed as a result of the by-election. Andrew Dickens explains how all the parties have come out of the campaign with tarnished reputations: "All the major parties need to go back and lick their wounds and realise that none of them are inspiring the electorate. National are cynical, Labour are lost, the Greens are half-leaderless and suddenly invisible while Winston is taking the mickey.
This is not a good look for politics. Carpet bagging, tactical voting and a lack of vision. It's not a major but come next election in two years time, we're going to need a lot more than this from all our politicians. They're coasting. Snap out of it" - see: Northland result a wake-up for all parties.
Finally, to see how the Twittersphere responded to Saturday's upset, see my blog post, Top tweets about the Northland by-election results.
Debate on this article is now closed.