17 May 2015

Voters in Northland waiting for change

From Insight, 8:12 am on 17 May 2015

Seven weeks after Winston Peters swept to victory in the Northland by-election, voters in his electorate are waiting to see what he can do for them.

Insight examines the reasons for the win and asks what Northland stands to gain by turning maverick.

Team Winston on the Northland CampaignTrail
Winston Peters' campaign team in Northland. Photo: Lois Williams.

It was the campaign that had it all.

There was the hapless political novice in shirt sleeves, expecting a walk-in.

There was the fashionably late entrance of the wily old campaigner, immaculately suited, delivering master classes in heckler management to cheering crowds from Kaitaia to Wellsford.

There was the big blue bus, blaring his theme song, 'Hang on, help is on the way!',  rocking up to every hamlet in Northland to sign up startled new voters .  

And there was a spooked National Party, digging deep in the lolly jar to placate voters who didn't realise quite how disgruntled they were until Winston Peters invited them to send the government a message.

It was all vastly entertaining.

But the New Zealand First leader successfully mined a subterranean vein of frustration in Northland that had been pulsing forever, and became more obvious last winter when storms wrecked highways and virtually cut the region off from the rest of New Zealand for nearly a week.

In the general election, when regional issues were sidelined by the focus on Dirty Politics and David Cunliffe, those same voters returned National's Mike Sabin with a majority of 8000.  

In the March by-election, forced by Mr Sabin's sudden resignation in late January, the spotlight on Northland brought those grievances into sharp relief - and the electorate dumped National for the first time since 1972.

The big slip that closed State Highway one north of Whangarei last July

The big slip that closed State Highway One north of Whangarei last July. NZTA had a detour sorted after a few days but work only started on the repair job in March - during the by-election campaign, in fact. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Looking back, seven weeks later, political commentator Colin James said it was often the way with by-elections.

"In 1969, the National Party had squeezed back into office, and Tom Shand, a very senior minister of high-standing, and quite a charismatic man, died. 

"They had a by-election, and it was a safe National seat but Labour won it. And the National vote dropped by almost exactly the same percentage as it did in the Northland by-election."

Mr James said Social Credit's Bruce Beetham won the Rangitikei seat in a similar way in 1978, when there was quite a bit of disgruntlement with the Muldoon government .

"Winston Peters was very credible in Northland. He comes from Northland; he had sought the National Party nomination there years ago, he is ex-National - so he was coming home and I think that was recognised. And also, National will say they didn't pick the best candidate."  

The reasons Northland voters backed Mr Peters varied from town to town but they all hoped he would get them noticed.

The Northland electorate is vast, stretching from Cape Reinga in the north to Wellsford in the south, but skirting around the electorate of Whangarei.

It is a mix of rich and poor, largely rural with a number of service towns, and there is a sharp contrast between the wealthier east coast, with its tourist magnets like the Bay of Islands, and places like Moerewa, Kaitaia and Kaikohe, where unemployment rates can be many times the national average.

Given the demographics, it is surprising that the vote is not more evenly split between National and Labour.

But more than 11,000 Northland residents are on the Maori roll. They vote in the Tai Tokerau electorate, which returned Labour's Kelvin Davis in the general election.

And a key factor in Mr Peters' victory was the decision of Labour voters, with the blessing of the party and local unions, to vote strategically for him, as the candidate with the best chance of taking the seat from National.

Labour candidate Willow-Jean Prime stripped 2000 votes from Mr Sabin's majority in September; in the by-election her vote slumped from 9000 to just 1300.

Locals speak their minds

The reasons Northland voters backed Mr Peters varied from town to town, but they all hoped he would get them noticed, after years of feeling unappreciated by successive governments.  

Len Lulich, retired Dargaville dairy farmer.

Retired Dargaville dairy farmer Len Lulich - a long-standing National Party member - said he was angry at the handling of Mr Sabin's resignation. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Mr Lulich said National was straying too far from its rural roots, and he was not impressed with the party's candidate, Far North council manager Mark Osborne.

Robert Lourie (left) and Brian Mason at Wellsford RSA.

Robert Lourie (left) and Brian Mason at the Wellsford RSA. Like many Wellsford voters, they are hoping Mr Peters will help them escape the clutches of Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

In the south of the electorate, Wellsford farmer Brian Mason said people were angry they had been forced into the new Auckland council boundaries and they were hoping Mr Peters would help them escape.

Rod Brown, from lobby group Vision Kerikeri, said the big issue in the mid-north was the state of the roads and the fragility of the region's links to the rest of the country, revealed by last winter's big storm.  

The government already spends more than $200 million a year on Northland roads, but locals suspect this is either not enough or is being spent in the wrong places.

Mr Brown said in July last year the Far North was isolated for days on end.

"We were completely cut off, " he said. "If that storm was a single and rare event in the past, they're likely to be more frequent in future, with climate change. We feel very isolated. 

"Most of the region's roading money is being allocated to roads between Whangarei and Auckland, and we need a more resilient roading network throughout the region."

Andrew Wade, Dargaville businessman

Dargaville businessman Andrew Wade is worried about the future of the town. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

In Dargaville, Andrew Wade worried about who will buy his concrete business when he retired. He said the town's young people were leaving; services like the town's maternity ward were run down, then closed, and there was a general feeling of neglect by governments.  

He said it was as if no-one cared about rural New Zealand these days.

"And a by-election doesn't alter the government," Mr Wade said. "It maybe gives it a wake-up call, and makes it think again about what it's doing for the regions."   

Mr Wade said National's hasty by-election offer of 10 new bridges for Northland didn't impress him either.

"It's as if they thought they could just come up and have a lolly scramble and walk away with the seat tucked away then disappear again. Who knows? It might be better if it became a marginal seat," he said.  

Winston Peters makes his victory speech at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell.

Winston Peters makes his victory speech at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell. Photo: Setford

In Kaitaia, leading retailer and farmer Ian Walker hoped Mr Peters' win would make the government think more carefully about the impact of its policies on the regions and especially on businesses.

He said the recent decision by Work and Income to deal directly with Fisher and Paykel when beneficiaries borrow to buy whiteware is a case in point.

In the past, local retailers have supplied the fridges or washing machines to beneficiary households.    

"This new policy may be saving the taxpayers money, " Mr Walker said.

"But it's costing them in other ways. It took $100,000 from my turnover, and I can handle that. But it's money stripped out of the regional economy and at least one business is on the brink of closure as a result, in Kaikohe. 

"At the same time Work and Income is knocking our doors, asking us to employ people."

Potential upset in rural New Zealand

Mr James said his analysis of the polls since the Northland by-election showed no significant change in National's popularity around the rest of the country.

But he said that was not something the government should feel relaxed about.  

"I do think there is developing a feeling in places other than Auckland and Wellington that those cities are getting the goods, and they aren't. 

"If that feeling's going to be expressed politically it needs a vehicle, and Winston Peters was a vehicle."

Mr James said at the moment there wasn't really such a vehicle nationwide.

"But that's not to say one won't emerge," he said. "Winston Peters might be able to pump New Zealand First up into one. The National Party would be unwise to think that the Northland by-election doesn't mean there's no upset in the provinces and rural areas. I think there is."

"This campaign wasn't just for Northland. It was for the provinces of New Zealand who create the wealth and yet they're all forgotten." - Winston Peters

As for Northland's new MP - Mr Peters said he would be the voice for an electorate whose MPs have been silent in the past about too many of its problems, and that he was now in campaign mode for the regions.  

"This campaign wasn't just for Northland," he said. "It was for the provinces of New Zealand who create the wealth and yet they're all forgotten.  
   
"We believe we're already the third-strongest party in the country in terms of popular support. We intend to be in government at the next election, and people have said to me, 'oh, I hope you'll go with National'. But we will go with the party that will tackle the long-standing problems of the regions and rural areas."

Mr Peters is planning to open electorate offices in Wellsford, Dargaville and Kerikeri, and build on the support shown in the by-election.

But Mr Walker said Mr Peters' most important achievement for Northland was getting elected in the first place.

"Whether Winston actually achieves something doesn't matter," he said.  "It's really saying: 'we're here - and we need something to happen'."