It’s already been a hell of a by-election, and it sounds like it might get even fiercer up there but I still think National will win. If you’re watching the TV news then the by-election looks like a train-wreck for National, but – just as in 2014 – the real election is happening off-screen
National will have a database profiling almost every voter in the electorate. In the next eight days every ‘Highly Likely’ National voter in Northland will get a call from a party volunteer or Curia staffer reminding them that the government’s majority is under threat, and advising them of where their closest advance-voting booth is. Scores of volunteers and young Nats will be mini-bused up from Auckland. They’ll door-knock possible soft-New Zealand First voters and repeat scripts that have been focus-grouped to induce anxiety and doubt about Winston Peters and New Zealand First among key demographics. They’ll be staffing booths in malls and canvasing pedestrians in town centers. They’ll mail out personalised leaflets to harder-to-reach rural voters. Peters is a good campaigner but he can’t compete with that. Short of any unforeseen catastrophe, National will win.
What’s interesting is that National has to work this hard to hold one of their safest seats. There’s a mixture of factors in play. The reason for Sabin’s resignation. Winston Peters’ political skills. The poor quality of the National candidate. But one of National’s main problems, I think, is that when they’re fighting against Peters and New Zealand First they’re fighting themselves. Winston Peters is, famously, a protege of Robert Muldoon, and his party is based on Muldoon’s legacy of populist, dirigiste conservatism. National is a big party and thus a ‘broad church’ but it was – for about twenty years – dominated by free market economic liberals, partly as a reaction against the economic disaster that Muldoonism inflicted on the country.
But in the last six years National has undergone a dramatic transformation. They’re no longer ‘economic liberals’ in any meaningful sense. (Although they probably still think they are, much as aging ex-hippies with property portfolios and luxury cars might still consider themselves anti-establishment rebels. People like to cling onto idealistic conceptions of themselves long after any attempt at living up to the ideal has gone.) National is no longer a party of economic or individual freedom – they’re a populist conservative party of economic intervention, mostly indifferent to or openly hostile towards individual freedoms. Their points of difference with New Zealand First are so trivial they’re reduced to running around Northland warning provincial voters that a Peters win might jeopardise a free trade deal with South Korea. That’s the big policy gap between Muldoon’s disciple and the modern National Party.
I don’t know what the long term political consequences of National’s shift means. Muldoonism was very popular even when it bought the country to the brink of economic collapse because it was a form of government exclusively devoted to maintaining its own grip on power. To paraphrase Citizen Kane: It’s no big thing to win elections – if all you want to do in government is win elections.