Editorial: Northland may be a bridge too far

OPINION: 

The Northland by-election has become hilariously unpredictable. National's blatant election bribe - 10 upgraded bridges for the Far North - is a black joke. This is the panic reaction of a Government seriously worried that it is going to lose. As Nikita Krushchev remarked, a politician promises a new bridge even when there is no river.

The trouble with pork-barrel funding is that, taken to excess, it causes a backlash. It is said that the now-departed Northland MP Mike Sabin lobbied for a long time to get some of the bridges upgraded.

Only now, on the eve of a difficult by-election, has the Government agreed to do something. This plays straight into NZ First leader Winston Peters' hands.

"The only time the Government stops neglecting you," he will tell the voters, "is when it thinks you're switching sides."

Northland voters now know they have a demonstrable power to get improvements in their downtrodden region. The Government will respond if it is threatened. So why not put an Opposition MP in power and hold the threat over the National-led Government for the rest of the term? After all, the Government doesn't change - but now it has to listen to Northland.

Labour is now in the awkward position of having to tell its voters to vote for Peters even while continuing somehow to back its candidate, the brilliantly named Willow-Jean Prime. Prime has no chance and the more Labour voters support her, the riskier is the victory for NZ First.

But experience has shown how mulishly stupid the party faithful can be. Some would rather waste their vote on Prime rather than cause trouble for National by returning Peters.

Misguided Green and Labour supporters did the same thing in Epsom, guaranteeing an ACT lap-dog for National. Tribal voters don't know their own real interests.

Labour is stuck in this dilemma partly because it railed too much against "sleazy deals" like the one National did in Epsom with ACT, and partly because it made the mistake of standing a candidate in Northland. It could, after all, have done what the Greens and the Maori Party did and flag the whole contest. Its intelligence from the north was clearly defective. It didn't seem to know that early soundings were showing that Peters could take it whereas Labour simply couldn't. If it did know this and decided to stand anyway, then it is simply inept.

Poor Prime is now in exactly the same position that the hapless National candidate Mark Thomas was in Wellington Central in the 1996 election.

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Thomas was abandoned by his leader, Jim Bolger, who could see that Richard Prebble was likely to take the seat and didn't want his man to stop it. Prime's blustering and aggressive interview on Morning Report shows the frightful emotional conflict of the double-crossed candidate. Labour could have saved her and itself all this grief.

However, for the rest of the country, the Northland by-election has been a splendidly entertaining farce that just keeps getting better.

 - The Dominion Post

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