Mr Jones and the kingmaker

Shane Jones.
Shane Jones.
Like him or loathe him Shane Jones is back in the political limelight.

The erstwhile Labour MP, whose tenure was dogged by scandals (think fisheries, citizenship and porn), became New Zealand’s Pacific economic development ambassador in 2014.

After much speculation, he has now been confirmed as New Zealand First’s selection to contest the Whangarei seat in the September general election.

It is a move that creates further possibilities for a party in perennial rise each election season.

There is no doubt NZ First leader Winston Peters is hoping for a repeat of his own landslide win in the neighbouring electorate of Northland. In 2015, he took the true blue stronghold from a complacent and arrogant National by some 4000 votes in a by-election after the sudden  resignation of Mike Sabin under a cloud. Decades under National, and 11,000 and 9000-vote majorities for Mr Sabin in 2011 and 2014 respectively, were washed away on a tide of anger and frustration.

Mr Peters was scathing of the years of neglect by National (and its belated infrastructure bribery attempts)  and used that to brilliant advantage. Even he and his party were surprised at the extent of the victory.

Winston Peters.
Winston Peters.
It would be naive to think Mr Jones — as politically savvy, charismatic and brash as Mr Peters —  cannot make his mark for the same reasons. He is widely respected in Maoridom and could take votes off National and Labour.It would also be naive to think NZ First’s unashamedly populist sentiments will not find fertile ground here as they have overseas.

Fanning the flames of intolerance and disenchantment may make some queasy, but politicians who can offer real hope for the disillusioned are few and far between at the moment.

NZ First has just begun its "Campaign for the Regions Tour". Mr Jones says "Whangarei is taken for granted" and  Mr Peters says "regional New Zealand has been used and abused".

The party has identified the areas feeling increasingly isolated and overlooked — and the gaps in leadership elsewhere.

Labour is still not  making  headway in areas that should be its bread and butter (namely equality, most notably seen in the current housing crisis). Likewise, the Greens, even as an increasing number of New Zealanders — not just environmental activists — worry about the degradation of the country’s land and waterways.

For those disillusioned with National, NZ First also offers a viable choice.

Protest voters may wish to make a statement, undecided voters may feel there is nothing to lose by taking a punt, and other ‘‘poor cousins’’ could well be convinced to follow Northland’s lead and choose Mr Jones and NZ First.

NZ First often does well in the polls coming into election season, but there is a long way to go.

Shane Reti holds the (supposedly) safe Whangarei seat for National with a 13,000 vote majority. If Mr Jones was to knock him off his pedestal, it is still unlikely to be plain-sailing. Will Mr Peters — the traditional election "kingmaker" — see a challenger to his long-anticipated throne as post-election coalition partner? Will Mr Jones — who once contested the Labour Party leadership — be content sitting in the wings?

The power plays are surely only just beginning. 

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