Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Small parties under pump as polls loom

Late phase of election cycle adds further tension to Act and United Future's need to back National while keeping their own supporters happy.
It is a tricky time for the leaders of the Act and United Future. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
It is a tricky time for the leaders of the Act and United Future. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

It is the time of the electoral cycle when the smallest of Parliament's parties start to have existential crises. These are real crises for Act and United Future, given they look into the abyss of extinction every three years.

There is precious little oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by Government support parties. If evidence was needed it came this week when Dunne tried to remind people of his existence by issuing a press statement setting out the three policy themes he would be focusing on in the lead-up to the 2017 election. The themes were: an economy that provides fairness, choice and opportunity; establishing core environmental bottom lines; and embracing and celebrating a modern, multi-cultural New ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzz.

It was effectively a campaign launch. It fell with the impact of a feather.

It is a tricky time for the leaders of the two parties. Act and United Future are dependent on either wooing 5 per cent of voters to get into Parliament or on keeping a grip on an electorate seat.

Neither has come close to the 5 per cent mark for some time and nor are they likely to. In both cases, the electorate seat deal is the only option.

They need National's nod to give them some insurance in their electorates of Epsom and Ohariu. But they also need to slap National about the chops a bit to try to prove they are independent.

Act leader David Seymour has taken to that with some vigour, even turning down the offer of a ministerial post to give him greater chop-slapping licence and keep him at a greater degree of separation from National. In the wake of the Budget he was one of the Government's greatest critics. In between voting "aye" to each measure, as he is required to do, there was much wailing and moaning about the deficiencies in the things he was voting aye to. He lambasted National for delaying tax cuts, accusing it of "campaigning from the right and governing from the left".

This week saw further chop slapping. Dunne wanted more taxpayer money for the very young while Seymour wanted less taxpayer money for the very old. Dunne railed against National's veto of Labour's bill to lift paid parental leave to 26 weeks, claiming the veto was anti-democratic and hypocritical.

Seymour's anti-Government protest came in his call to lift the retirement age. Seymour said Key had hog-tied himself in 2008 by pledging to resign if he changed superannuation entitlements. "John Key could relieve himself of this promise by campaigning on reform and gaining a mandate from voters at the next election."

It is a tricky time for the leaders of the two parties.

Of course, such a course of action could also see Key relieving himself of any hopes of getting a fourth term in Government. The seniors lobby is so sensitive they don angry faces and wave placards to protest over forking out $15 for a Hop card. Imagine the riots if they had to wait an extra five years to pass go and collect their pension every week.

Raising the age of super is the kind of thing Key might have managed in his first term, when he had a global financial crisis to justify it, an acceptance in the public of the need to make sacrifices, and the stockpile of popularity to withstand it. It would be a brave and foolhardy politician who embarked on such a mission when trying to secure a fourth term, whatever the pressing need for something to be done.

Seymour knows his plea is futile. He has to stick to Act's core principles to woo back Act's traditional voting base. And he has to do that without alienating the National Party voters of Epsom who keep him in Parliament.

Ask Seymour how that electorate is going and he launches into a dramatic tale involving rats on Mt Hobson and cows rampaging on Remuera Rd, both of which were terrorising the fine ladies of Remuera.

It is not just the fine ladies of Remuera he has to consider, but the migrants. Act is pro-immigration but immigration is also one of the issues on which politicians can make a cheap buck. Seymour proved he was not immune when he called for refugees to be bound by a "New Zealand values statement" before gaining entry. That is meaningless jingoistic patter. It earned him the dismissive label of "puppy whistling" instead of dog whistling from NZ First leader Winston Peters.

In Seymour's case, targeting super is one thing - only 11 per cent of Epsom voters are over 65. But a full dog whistle approach to immigration would prove a kamikaze mission - 37 per cent of those in his electorate were born overseas compared to 24 per cent nationally. His criticism of the Government failings on housing affordability are also perilous, given his constituents do not want their house values to fall.

Sometime next year, Key will set out National's preferred coalition choices for 2017. His preference will be a government with Act, United Future and the Maori Party. NZ First will sit a bit further down the scale. He will not rule out scrapping all three of his current support partners if he does need NZ First and dumping the rest is the price of forming a government.

He will also set out electorate deals. Soon Act is having a Matariki fundraiser. Matariki is something the Act of yore did not know existed, let alone bothered to celebrate. Encouragingly, the Prime Minister is a star turn at the fundraiser, held in Orakei. That bodes well for another Epsom deal come 2017. There is no reason not to repeat it.

Things are far more precarious for Peter Dunne in Ohariu. That will depend on whether National thinks Dunne can hold on to the seat, which is far more marginal than Epsom. If the Greens do not stand a candidate to boost Labour's chances, National will have to consider withdrawing its candidate as well to ensure it does not split the vote and let Labour come through the middle. That will be a hard call. National has never completely withdrawn its candidate from the seats it does deals in - a tacit acknowledgement of the cynicism of the deals. It will likely be punished should it start to take that further by pulling candidates and leaving voters who can not stomach such machinations without a choice.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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