Gordon Campbell on Winston Peters as an endangered species

It is still anyone’s guess which major party will Winston Peters support after Election Day 2014, though suspicions are rife. But if we’re being reduced to guesswork, it seems more rewarding to speculate on the chances that New Zealand First will not reach the 5% threshold, and won’t be back in Parliament at all. On that point at least, we have the 2011 election results as a rough guide.

In 2011, New Zealand First got 6.59 % of the vote, or 147,544 votes nationwide. Given that 2,257,336 votes were cast that year, the 5% threshold was 112,866 – or in other words, NZF has a cushion of 34,678 votes based on the 2011 turnout. If, however, the various voter mobilisation drives now under way around the country bear fruit, everyone will need lift their game to reach 5%. So where does Peters’ strongest support currently lie? No surprise to find that Tauranga – where NZF got 14.9% of the party vote last time round – is its stronghold. Less obviously, Peters could still rely in 2011 at least, on a remarkably loyal following in the Maori seats.

In each of the Maori seats in 2011, NZF’s share of the party vote exceeded the 6.59% it scored nationwide, at times substantially: e.g. Waiariki (10.94%) Tamaki Makaurau (10.45%) Te Tai Tokerau (9.86%) Te Tai Hauauru (7.94%) Te Tai Tonga (8.76%) Ikaroa Rawhiti (8.30%) and Hauraki-Waikato (9.83%) Taken together, the NZF tally in Tauranga and the Maori seats combined was 17,674 votes – or around half of all the votes for NZF above the MMP threshold.

Is that significant? Well, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since 2011. In Flagship Tauranga, the NZF standard bearer that year was Brendan Horan, who is now not only estranged from Peters, but on the vengeance trail. This time around in the Maori seats, the Mana Party is shaping up as a far more serious contender than it was in 2011 – and not only in the Maori seats, but in seats with a high number of Maori on the general roll. It will be a much harder road for Peters, this time. So, where else did NZF support show up strongly in 2011?

The good news for Peters is that his support is spread far and wide throughout rural and provincial New Zealand. The Tauranga/Coromandel/Bay of Plenty axis aside, no other region stands out as absolutely crucial. The following is a tally of all the general electorates where NZF’s party vote exceeded its 6.59% tally, overall. They were: Tauranga (14.90%) Bay of Plenty (12.63%) Coromandel (11.03%) Rotorua (10.55%) Northland (10.19%) Whangarei (9.68%) Whanganui (9.53%) East Coast (8.53%) Papakura (8.48%) Taupo (8.39%) Otaki (8.12%) Waikato (8.10%) Wairarapa (7.82%) Hamilton West (7.72%) Hunua (7.42%) Manurewa (7.36%) Taranaki / King Country (7.26%) Rangitikei (7.26%) Dunedin North (7.15%) Rodney (6.97%) Invercargill (6.84%) and Te Atatu (6.75%)

From Wellington, it is impossible to assess what local fallout there might be from the Horan affair, but some impact can reasonably be expected. Given his sporting and media profile and with one solid Tauranga NZF campaign under his belt – alongside a good showing for NZF in East Cape in 2008 – Horan can expect to retain some sympathisers in Tauranga. Mana – as mentioned – now looms as a genuine alternative for those Maori wanting to cast a protest vote. In 2011, part of Peters’ appeal in that regard was that he had been cast out of Parliament in 2008 in the wake of the Owen Glenn affair. The kind of outsider role available to him in 2011 – lets take it to the Establishment by sending Winston back to Parliament! – is no longer open to him, not to anything like the same degree.

Across rural and provincial New Zealand in 2011, Peters was able to credibly offer himself as a protest vote to those voters feeling estranged from the Labour Party led by Phil Goff. True, Labour still has serious leadership and credibility problems. All the same, 2011 looks like a high water mark for New Zealand First, thanks to tides no longer running to his benefit.

Is there enough left in the tank for Peters to reach 5%? As Internet Party leader Laila Harre recently pointed out, the ranks of his former true believers who have totally trusted in the wisdom of whatever decision their one-time golden boy has chosen to make, have been depleted by time – and these days, they amount to well short of 5%. Peters also faces strong competition from the Conservative Party. All up, Peters looks like someone running on the fumes from his past victories. And like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff, maybe his best chance of reaching the 5% threshold is by not looking down.

The main problem with Peters being seen as a credible vehicle for the protest vote is the suspicion that he will – directly or indirectly – endorse a third term John Key government if given half the chance, post election. Those suspicions will have been strengthened by National’s decision not to endorse Colin Craig. The risk for National was that a head to head contest between the Conservatives and New Zealand First could well cannibalise the centre right and leave both of them short of 5%. Preventing that outcome by endorsing Craig might have saved the Conservatives but at the cost of (a) alienating many National supporters within and beyond East Coast Bays, and (b) antagonising much of provincial New Zealand in the electorates listed above, which lie beyond the suburban enclaves of the Conservative Party. Ultimately, keeping Peters on life support as the default setting for National in the hinterland was seen as better serving National’s wider interests.

So much then, for Peters as a credible poster boy for a protest vote. Can Peters sustain his current pantomine of opposition to the government until election day? The crucial (and mobile) part of NZF’s support resides among voters who feel betrayed by the government – yet who also feel no real kinship with David Cunliffe’s Labour Party, with the Greens or with Kim Dotcom. It is a measure of Labour’s desperation that it is trying to get traction with such people by denouncing Dotcom, rather than by recruiting voters in the provinces on the basis of its policy package for regional development. All year, Labour has kept on trying to woo Peters, and has virtually tailored its election campaign around that exercise in futility. It would have been far better off challenging his credentials for the protest vote, head on.

Twin Peaks at 25
Rather than a music track this morning, it seemed that the 25th anniversary of the vastly influential David Lynch/Mark Frost TV series Twin Peaks deserves to be celebrated by us all. This show was the forerunner of the so called Golden Age of television drama that has come in its wake.

Personally, one of my favourite characters was the decent, doomed Major Briggs, who was sadly destined to discover that the owls are not quite as they seem. For my money, this encounter at the diner between the Major and his delinquent son Bobby is one of the highlights of the entire series.