The Act Party has taken the bold option in its choice of a new leader and a new candidate for the Epsom seat. The safe choice would have been former MP John Boscawen, a known quantity if not an exciting one. New leader Jamie Whyte is a newcomer to New Zealand politics, a wealthy intellectual recently returned to his country to pursue this career. The candidate for Epsom will be David Seymour, who is known in political circles, having stood at previous elections then joined the staff of Act's retiring Epsom MP, John Banks, at Parliament.
Mr Seymour's immediate task is to be a candidate capable of appealing to National voters in Epsom. It is fair to assume National's leadership finds him suitable for endorsement, though the Prime Minister expressed support for Mr Boscawen early in the selection contest. National needs Act to win a seat almost as much as Act needs National to help it win a seat. It is inconceivable that Mr Seymour would have been selected without a nod from the Government.
Dr Whyte is a different proposition. He impresses as a liberal thinker who is in politics to apply principles and ideas, somewhat in the mould of Act's founder, Sir Roger Douglas, and former leader Don Brash. Both of them have been kept at arm's length by John Key. He would not have Sir Roger in his ministry when the economic reformer came back into Parliament with Act in 2008, and he hardly hid his scorn for the economic advice of a panel led by Dr Brash in National's first term.
Mr Key will be wary of Dr Whyte and Dr Whyte may be equally wary of saying anything that might create difficulties before the election. He has already indicated his libertarian views on drugs will not be Act policy, or not yet. With his selection, Act's organisers and backers have made it clear they are looking beyond the next term of Parliament. Like any party, Act needs at least one seat in Parliament to keep itself in the political frame between elections, but it wants to be more than an extra seat for National, albeit a crucial one.
Act's new leader could do worse than look across the House to the Greens, polar opposites in political philosophy but occupying a similar tactical position. The Greens consistently win more than 5 per cent of the party vote at elections, enabling them to take positions independent of Labour. The Greens appeal to a left-wing extreme that might not exist on the right. But they also have an appeal to young people whose culture and technology they employ to good effect.
There seems no reason that Act with younger leadership could not similarly connect with new voters.
The Greens' independence, of course, has not endeared them to Labour in government. Helen Clark formed coalitions with Peter Dunne and even Winston Peters in preference to a party that would pull her away from the centre.
National, too, would prefer centrist partners if Act becomes a stronger and more purist party of the right.
Under former leaders Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide, Act was not a purist party. It decided there was no significant constituency for economic principles. It survived largely on issues of penal policy and race relations. Ironically, it has applied its core principles more effectively in this term under Mr Banks and former president Catherine Isaac, bringing charter schools to New Zealand.
Dr Whyte has been out of the country for most of the past 20 years. He may bring a fresh perspective of New Zealand's politics and Act's role. With the party at zero in the latest poll, he can hardly make its position worse.
He and Mr Seymour have some hard work ahead.