Its been five days and the smoke is now clearing after the shootout at Ratana Pa on Monday.
And in the tradition of any good western (and plenty of Samurai films as well) the aftermath has seen a trail of bodies, blood and left open the possibility of further violence (or sequels).
The trigger for all this bad juju came when Gareth Morgan unexpectedly opened fire on Winston Peters which then saw further parties taking the opportunity to add to the body count as Labour sought to bury the hatchet, in the back of the Mana party (by dismissing it as irrelevant as Maori/Mana struggle to get past their differences) and convince Maori voters that they are worth voting for as he struggled to get past the previous dismissal of Labour by the Maori King last year.
The only party truly unscathed (only to get ambushed by the Peter Theil/NZ Citizenship for creepy billionaires scandal) was Bill English who appears to have made a tactical decision to walk away from the more fractious Waitangi Day celebrations but make an obvious play for keeping the Maori vote onside by going to Ratana.
So lets break it down past the functional but bland coverage we got in the media.
If it was not clear before that The Opportunities Party and New Zealand First were never going to be compatible (except to the brainless dingbats at TVNZ who have only just figured that out when they declared "One thing is for certain, there'll be no opportunity for an alliance between Gareth Morgan and Winston Peters" in their coverage of the event) due to their both coveting the middle ground voter it is now.
Because there is never going to be enough true middle ground votes to go around and if Morgan and TOP were to get even a few percent in the polls, let alone more than 5%, it would gut Peters power as king maker and either transfer it to Morgan and leave the door open to a Labour/Greens/Opportunities government or simply neutralize the NZ First vote pool so that it would not be enough to keep National in power.
The mechanics of this are simple but a little hard to discern when having to pick through poll data to get at it but the fact is that National is unlikely to be on 46% when it goes to the polls nor Labour on 28% as the usual dynamic in the lead up to elections is the gap between the government and the main challenger closes and that often breaks down to the higher declining and the lower rising (specially with a third term government).
So what we have always known would happen was that come the final score tally it would fall on some middle ground party (normally NZ First) to add its weight to one or another party and ensure that a government was formed.
But as I have discussed before NZ First is never going to go with Labour if The Greens* are in the mix which in effect means NZ First backing National as the default option because it would make no sense for a middle ground, king making, party to sit on the fence and withhold its vote block as that would achieve nothing and leave it unable to gain the concessions for its voters it would normally covet as the price of supporting one side or another.
And this was the expected scenario until Gareth Morgan and TOP came on the scene (see my Thank You Gareth Morgan, Thank You! post from late last year for more) and aimed to upset Winston's apple cart.
And if you thought his attack on the MP from Northland was crude and personal you would be right but that could only have been a calculated move on Morgans part as it would be impossible to think that he has not grasped the simple fact that there is not enough middle ground votes for two middle ground parties AND remain effective as the king maker.
So what you saw at Ratana was Morgan deliberately attacking Peters, as he has nothing to loose and as well as deliberately positioning himself as an alternative to any middle ground (or potential middle ground) voters out there.
Morgan is not going to get votes by being nice and simply making policy statements, he has to get in the game and go to the mat with his one true opponent, Winston Peters, to make any headway in the political space and this is why his attack on Peters at Ratana is just the first shot in what will be an increasingly bloody war of words right up until polling day.
Simply put, Morgan can only get voters from the limited pool of middle ground voters and possibly from the inner fringes of Labour and National, but to do that he needs to get past the gate keeper to that sexy voter base first, Winston Peters.
And don't expect Winston to play nice either, his savaging of Morgan two days after on Morning Report, was classic Winston, great on edible soundbites and headline making quotes as well as enough personal attacks to more than equal anything he got at Ratana but sounding rather hollow at the end of the day as everyone knows Peters has a pretty mouth but cannot be trusted to remain reliable in support.
Both Peters and Morgan understand that there is only room for one in this narrow political space and its only going to take a few percentage points to drag NZ first back under 5% (currently NZ First sit at 8%) or for Morgan to crack 5% (because I have personally seen enough groundswell of support for TOP to convince me that they will naturally get 2-3% in the polls by natural attraction) so every little bit counts and there is no room for personal niceties, it will be bad blood, slander and insults from here until the polls close.
Which means for Winston and NZ First this will be the first time, in a long time, that they will actually have a fight on their hands.
Normally come elections, Labour and National have avoided antagonizing Peters too much because they know that if they get enough votes they will have to woo him to their side to make a government but Morgan does not have that worry, its the exact opposite, he is seeking to usurp the kingmaker and its a struggle to the death, only one can prevail.
In sheer fight metrics Peters has the skills and experience but Morgan has one advantage that Peters does not and cannot get, something I term the First Time Syndrome.
Just as Peters drew in a large numbers of voters in 1996 by campaigning as a true independent opposition party to National rather than Labour so too can Morgan and TOP, this one time only, tap into a potentially big pool of disaffected voters who sit on the middle fringes of Both Labour and National (and possibly in NZ First as well) and who are looking for someone not sullied by the dark stains of politics to give their vote to.
The First Time Syndrome only works once because that's how it politics works but its there for Morgan to take advantage of this time around and its magic is potent.
If Morgan can make a convincing enough argument he could easily draw in over 5% and bring in enough seats in the house to decide the next government and in doing so also sound the death knell of NZ First.
Oh Winston might survive by holding onto his seat in Northland but it would sink the party as Winston is NZ First and everyone knows it. None of the talking heads that sit and nod when Winston pontificates in parliament is worth a hill of beans and if Winston were to fail to get in or the party vote went below 5% they are looking for new jobs come the day after the election.
So it will get mean and personal and don't for a second think that National and Labour wont be trying to swing things for their favored party in this rather tight space because National knows that NZ First is the natural keystone to their electoral success if they sink low enough in the polls that Labour and The Greens could beat them by combining.
In such a situation NZ First would sweep in and add enough to National to again get ahead of Labour/Greens and form a fourth term National government.
On the flip side, while Morgan has made no clear statement of supporting Labour its clear that much of what is driving him is based on the current state NZ is in and National has enabled these problems so it seems likely that to bring about change the natural position is to back Labour and the Greens and not National.
So Morgan is playing for all the marbles and Peters cant do his old song and dance and avoid the kind of blows that usually are traded between National and Labour.
Thus while Labour and National will keep most of their ammunition and plans on hold until campaigning starts in earnest Gareth Morgan has set the process in motion by attacking Peters at Ratana and Winston cant back away from this one.
This will get ugly.
*-I had this reinforced to me by a colleague in Wellington who is a member of the National Party (dines with John Key on occasion) and gleefully pointed out, in significant details, the dynamics of the hate between NZ First and the Greens which extends form sheer political dysfunction down to a raft of personal animosities and blood feuds (I will be discrete here and not name names but it seems that if left alone and unsupervised in a locked room for any period of time there would be blood seeping under the doors and into the halls in short order as both sides sought to literally kill each other)