Act conference looks toward next election

Act Party faithful will gather in Orakei tomorrow for the party's annual conference - cheered by the performance of its sole MP and leader David Seymour, but with dire poll numbers a reminder of the challenge ahead. Nicholas Jones reports.
Act party MP David Seymour. Photo / File
Act party MP David Seymour. Photo / File

It was a deliberate decision not to hold tomorrow's Act Party annual conference at the sprawling farm of prominent donor and multimillionaire businessman Alan Gibbs.

The Kaukapakapa farm, which is dotted with sculptures that form the world-class Gibbs Farm sculpture park, has been a popular venue in recent years, but new leader David Seymour is happy with the new venue next to Orakei Basin.

Mr Gibbs, who gives the party at least $100,000 each election year, has been described as Act's "godfather", but that influence was overstated, Mr Seymour said.

"I love having it up there, it is just an awesome place, apart from the fact you feel like you haven't achieved anything in your whole life for about two weeks afterwards," Mr Seymour said.

"But the reality is that Alan generally doesn't give us money outside of election year, and even when he does...he is probably at best a 10 or 15 per cent funder.

But, of course, having the conference there every year gives people a false impression that Act is overly dependent on Alan."

Tomorrow's conference will also bring more concrete change as the party looks to next year's election. There will be a focus on upgrading fundraising and marketing abilities, and the board will also be cut from 13 members and seven deputy members to nine members only.


As members talk over how things are tracking, many will toast Mr Seymour's performance since he entered Parliament shortly after the party's poor performance in the 2014 election, in which it secured fewer than 17,000 party votes (Mr Seymour has previously talked of winning 100,000 votes next year).

For former leader Dr Jamie Whyte, one of his successor's chief achievements has been to de-toxify the Act brand.

"There were a series of scandals - even if John Banks' conviction was overturned - still, the sh*t sticks... [David] has de-toxified the Act brand. Nobody thinks David is a toxic character, nobody thinks he is a career politician who has globbed on to this party."

Mr Seymour made headlines with his push to allow bars to open during the Rugby World Cup. He has also built a reputation for being prone to faux-pas - in one instance saying, "the French, for instance, love the coq" during questioning on the flag change.

"It is at least knowing," Dr Whyte said. "It's not in that sense an accident, and it's not something he is trying to avoid, as far as I can tell. It's connected with his youth - he comes across as young. His brand is quite fun and light-hearted, it's not pompous...these jokes are part of that."


Another former Act leader, Dr Don Brash, said his positive assessment of Mr Seymour included how Act had positioned itself on key issues.

"He is speaking to the right issues, I think he correctly decided to vote against the Resource Management Act amendment...I don't quarrel with any of his policy positions at all."

Dr Brash was pleased Mr Seymour had stepped forward to be the champion for voluntary euthanasia. He said that entering legislation in the member's bill ballot shortly after Lecretia Seales' court case and death gave the issue huge prominence.

"Because, a, it was the right thing to do, and, b, because I think a lot of New Zealanders actually feel that way."

Not all Act members would agree, Dr Whyte said. In his experience of surveying potential candidates, euthanasia and abortion were the only two issues that caused any real division.

However, he said voluntary euthanasia was broadly inline with Act's principles, and it was of real concern to people.

"One of the problems that Act has had in people's minds is that we are cruel and uncaring, and all about money. It is difficult to cast the euthanasia debate in those terms."


Act's support in the last Herald-DigiPoll in December had doubled from a year earlier - but was still in the doldrums at 0.8 per cent.

Those numbers were "clearly disappointing, there's no doubt about that", Dr Brash said, but he hoped voters on the right who felt National needed "gingering up" would switch to Act.

"A lot of the people I talk to who are traditionally on the right are disappointed that the Government has been quite timid in a number of areas, and are hoping it will be a bit bolder. RMA is a good example of it."

Right-wing political commentator and lobbyist Matthew Hooton, who will speak at tomorrow's conference, said part of his message would be that Act needed to be bolder.

"Getting the respect of the Wellington media elite is important. But now they really need to get some votes. Act is a 20-year-old start-up in business terms."

Despite the Government's ongoing popularity, the next election would be close and the nature of MMP meant John Key's fourth term would likely rely on Seymour winning Epsom, Mr Hooton said.

"They do have that leverage over him, and there needs to be a case why a vote for Act is a distinct thing from a vote for National.

"They think they need to be very loyal to National in Parliamentary votes, in order to secure the repeat of the John Key endorsement in Epsom, but they may be wrong about that."

In response, Mr Seymour said Act had been bold, but not rude.

"We've said their tax policy is hopeless...we've said they should be dropping the company tax rate...we have voted against their RMA reforms and described them as tinkering cooked up between Nick Smith and the Maori Party.

"Maybe we need to be louder, or nastier or something. But anyone that has followed what I have been saying, we have gone pretty hard on that."


Mr Seymour will focus on the environment during his conference address, particularly what he says are the "four Ps" of free-market environmentalism - pricing, property rights, prosperity, and private initiative.

Former Act leader Rodney Hide called the global warming hypothesis a hoax. Mr Seymour said he believed there was some man-made climate change, but the question of how significant it was was complex.

He personally identified with author Matt Ridley's "climate lukewarmer" position.

"I envy the certainty of people on both sides. I basically think New Zealand should view this as a purely political issue, if we try and get ahead of the rest of the world we will...impoverish ourselves.

"On the other hand, I think being seen to be entirely aloof to the climate issue is actually something that I think damages our reputation internationally."


• 1996 Election - 6.1 per cent: Act elected to Parliament in first MMP election with eight MPs; leader Richard Prebble wins Wellington Central after a tacit endorsement from National PM Jim Bolger

• 1999 Election - 7.04 per cent: Act wins nine seats, although leader Richard Prebble loses Wellington Central.

• 2002 Election - 7.14 per cent: Act wins nine seats again, no electorate seats.

• 2005 Election - 1.51 per cent: Against predictions, new leader Rodney Hide wins the seat of Epsom and brings Heather Roy into Parliament.

• 2008 Election - 3.65 per cent: Rodney Hide retains Epsom and brings in four other MPs, including John Boscawen. Act signs a confidence and supply agreement with National

• 2011 Election - 1.07 per cent. No former Act MPs stand. Ex-National leader Don Brash leads the party to its worst result after ousting Rodney Hide as leader in coup and replacing Hide with ex-National MP John Banks as Act candidate in Epsom. Brash resigns. Banks becomes leader.

• 2013 December. Banks is committed to trial on charges of filing a false electoral return relating to his 2010 Auckland mayoral bid and announces his intention to resign as leader in February and retire at the 2014 election.

• 2014 February: Jamie Whyte made leader, David Seymour made Epsom candidate.

• 2014 Election: 0.69 per cent: David Seymour wins Epsom but no more MPs. Seymour made leader and appointed parliamentary under-secretary for education and regulatory reform.

• 2015 December - Seymour turns down offer of ministerial post by Prime Minister John Key.

- NZ Herald

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