John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Epsom knows the value of Act

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Electors have shown strategy of split vote works for them

Act supporters have cheered Rodney Hide and John Banks in Epsom and have the chance to cheer a new candidate. Photo / APN
Act supporters have cheered Rodney Hide and John Banks in Epsom and have the chance to cheer a new candidate. Photo / APN

It never pays to write off an astute political party on the grounds that its nominal leader and sole MP has been discredited, it languishes near zero in opinion polls and lacks any visible life. It may retain a committed, experienced core like the taproot of a hardy plant.

Richard Prebble gave a good answer when I saw him at New Year and asked, can Act survive?

"Well," he smiled, "the people of Epsom have shown that they don't mind deciding who the government will be. They seem to think that's a responsibility they can handle."

Point taken. The residents of that rich blue seat consisting of Parnell, Remuera, Epsom and Mt Eden have given their electorate vote to Act at successive elections now, not because they particularly admired Rodney Hide or had high hopes for the second coming of John Banks.

They are business people and they have worked out how to add value for National by splitting the two votes MMP provides.

All they needed to understand was that an electorate vote for the National candidate would add nothing to their party vote, while a vote for the Act candidate could effectively give National an additional seat in Parliament and possibly more.

This is such an obvious and elementary feature of MMP that you have to wonder why every electorate is not returning MPs committed to supporting one of the main parties rather than standing in its name.

It may be that not many people know how to game the system, or, if they do, they are unsure which of the two votes to use. The Electoral Commission still finds some people confused about the purposes of each vote. The commission's publicity is no help when it continues to insist the two votes are of equal importance. They are not.

But the main reason so few split their votes, I suspect, is that few can bring themselves to vote for someone who is not the candidate of their favourite party or a candidate they particularly like. Business people are more accustomed to putting sentiment aside for important decisions.

The electors of Epsom might not much care who Act will select on the weekend after next as its candidate for the seat at the election this year. Former MP John Boscawen would be the boring choice but boring may be exactly what is required. Voters could be assured he will not rock National's boat. The more interesting choice sounds like Jamie Whyte, a former currency trader and philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University. He wouldn't be the first former currency trader to come back from Britain to pursue a political career in his home country but philosophy might be a problem.

In a submitted article which the Herald published last October, Whyte set out a sophisticated answer to the Opposition's best argument against asset sales. Russel Norman in particular has seemed honestly mystified by the Government's favourite case for the power company sales - that the money would be used to reduce public debt.

To Norman, that made no sense because governments can borrow money at lower interest rates than privately owned companies have to pay. Whyte replied that on that reasoning the Government should own everything in the economy (which Norman might not mind).

The reason the Government should not own these things, Whyte's article explained, was that its lower borrowing rate is based on its power of taxation. Conscripted money, he pointed out, can take no account of hidden costs it imposes on the conscripts. That is how communism failed.

I'm not sure Epsom is interested in cerebral politics but the selection contest could be worth watching. There is life in Act yet.

National might provide a similar electorate for Colin Craig if he stops talking himself out of contention. There will be a nationwide constituency for Craig's child-smacking conservatism unfortunately but it might be hard to find an electorate he could carry now.

National will be even more worried about the naivety that may lead him to put conditions on a post-election deal. Act and Peter Dunne have always avoided that trap.

Dunne makes a more subtle play than Act for an electorate's second vote. He has proven himself capable of working in National and Labour governments and his pre-election commitment is only to "stability", a pitch that might work only in a Wellington seat.

Dunne is still doing penance for a leak he half-heartedly denies. Despite that embarrassment he sounds confident Ohariu will return him this year.

He would dearly love his ministerial job back now rather than after the election. He says he is bored but you can bet he will not part company with John Key before or during the campaign. Dunne has not become one of the veterans of Parliament by backing the wrong horse.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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