Opinion: Key goes back into attack mode ahead of by-elections

They are a bunch of ''bozos''; Winston Peters' attacks on Chinese tourists are ''madness''; and Labour's promotion of a capital gains tax is a ''dog'' of a policy.

There is still the best part of 17 months until next year's election, but someone has forgotten to tell the Prime Minister.

Having attached the ''bozo'' tag to David Shearer last year, John Key will not win originality prizes for his latest bit of Green-bashing. Or prizes for accuracy. Mr Peters' target is Chinese migrants - not tourists. And if a capital gains tax is a dog, then the likes of the OECD must be barking.

Perhaps it is the proximity of two by-elections which has John Key in semi-campaign mode. As potential mini-referendums on performance, by-elections get the kind of welcome from governing parties normally reserved for the Grim Reaper.

It is thus Mr Key's very good fortune that the two such ballots this year - one in the late Parekura Horomia's Ikaroa-Rawhiti seat and the other in the Christchurch East electorate of mayoral aspirant Lianne Dalziel - are in traditionally safe Labour seats. That points the blowtorch at Labour's leader when votes are counted.

With National's name absent from the ballot paper in Ikaroa-Rawhiti - the party has not stood candidates in the Maori seats since 2002 - the biggest worry for Mr Key next Saturday will be how well or how poorly the Maori Party does and whether that has ramifications for National's relationship with the troubled party. Meanwhile, Mr Key has been making mischief, this week predicting the contest in Mr Horomia's old stamping ground - which stretches for 700km from East Cape to Wellington - will be a much tighter affair than most expect.

Even if Mr Key's claim is based on National's polling rather than intuition the prediction still has to be taken with a large dose of salt. Obtaining reliable figures from polling in the Maori seats is notoriously difficult.

The Prime Minister's talk of a close result has at least three purposes: to imply that Mr Horomia's near 6500-vote majority means Labour should win easily, thus upping the pressure on Mr Shearer to get a good result; putting the frighteners on Mr Shearer by hinting that National knows more about the likely voting patterns than Labour does; and, to persuade non-Labour voters they should not assume the incumbent party is going to cruise to an easy victory, and therefore should not waste their vote by staying at home.

The worst outcome for Mr Key would be resounding, morale-boosting wins for Labour in both seats.

Three factors are likely to deny Labour such a triumph in Ikaroa-Rawhiti: the relative absence of anti-Government sentiment looking for the lightning-rod of a by-election to manifest itself; the loss of Mr Horomia's personal vote-pulling power at the ballot box, which was most evident in the former Maori Affairs minister narrowly heading off a strong challenge from broadcaster and Maori Party candidate Derek Fox at the 2008 election; and, voter turnout in the Maori seats, which is bad enough at general elections and truly abysmal in by-elections.

Turnout fell under 33% in the 2004 Te Tai Hauauru by-election called by Tariana Turia to validate her switch from Labour to the Maori Party. In the 2002 general election, turnout there was near 60%. The poor turnout at that by-election could in part be explained by other parties opting not to stand candidates. The same could not be said for the 2011 by-election in Te Tai Tokerau. That was another example of an MP precipitating a plebiscite to obtain a mandate for switching parties, in this case Hone Harawira. The difference was Mr Harawira faced stiff competition from the Labour candidate. It was an absorbing, high-profile battle. Yet turnout barely managed to top 40%, compared to 63% at the preceding general electionThese factors might reduce the scale of Labour's win in Ikaroa-Rawhiti. But the win should still be clear-cut. Bedevilled by ongoing leadership ructions, the Maori Party is focused more on its own problems than those in Maoridom. Mr Harawira's Mana seems to have lost momentum and drive. The Greens' candidate too will struggle to make any dent in Labour's vote.

Allowing for turnout, anything much less than a majority of around 2500 to 3000 would see raised eyebrows in Labour circles and questions being asked of and about the leader.

A poor result would also up the ante for Mr Shearer in the Christchurch East by-election which will most likely take place in November after the previous month's local body elections, which themselves provide a rough litmus test of national sentiment.

On one level, holding Christchurch East should be a relative cakewalk for Labour. National has performed one of the great political miracles in stopping post-earthquake frustrations from boiling over into the wider political milieu.

But signs that patience is wearing thin were evident in a recent Fairfax poll which had Labour rising to 40% in Christchurch in terms of support and putting the party within touching distance of National.

Those numbers would be even more favourable in the less affluent, earthquake-blighted east of city.

On another level, however, Christchurch East provides shocking evidence of Labour's decline.

Between 2002 and 2011, Labour' s party vote in the seat dropped from more than 16,000 to just over 9000.

Ms Dalziel's majority is a third of what it was in 2002. In 2011, her majority was boosted by nearly a quarter of those who gave their party vote to National casting their electorate vote for her.

These voters are the lost tribes of Labour currently shacked up with National and can be found in every electorate.

Labour will assume that 2011 was the high-water mark for National - and that from thereon the share of the party vote would begin to shift back in Labour's favour. The need to shift those figures underlines the necessity that Clayton Cosgrove be chosen as Labour's candidate . This is not going to be a by-election for political novices..

The perception is that National has nothing to lose in Christchurch East. It has a lot to lose and - from Mr Key downwards - will fight tooth and nail to halt any drift of voters back to Labour. Mr Key's ridiculing of National's opponents suggests he has already begun.

In that respect, the by-election is going to be the real test of whether Mr Shearer can step up to the mark and not only match Mr Key, but better him as well.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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