Act’s private polling in the Tāmaki electorate suggests the race between its deputy leader Brooke van Velden and National’s unranked Simon O’Connor is already neck and neck.
The party’s poll of 700 people, carried out by Sentio Group last week, delivered a relatively predictable party vote for the mainly well-heeled electorate, with National on 49 per cent, Act on 18, Labour on 13 and everyone else in single digits.
But for the candidate vote, van Velden already has 34 per cent support, nearly double her party’s level, putting her within the margin of error with O’Connor, who is on just 36 per cent, nearly a third below National’s party vote.
The next candidate, Labour’s Fesaitu Solomone, is on 8 per cent, followed by a generic Greens candidate on 6. No one else rates. The race will be decided by the 15 per cent of those who voted in 2020 but say they are yet to make up their minds.
National didn’t answer questions yesterday about its Tāmaki polling, or even if it had done any. Labour said it had not polled Tāmaki.
The poll may underestimate van Velden’s current support. When respondents were asked who they voted for in 2020, the sample turned out to be skewed towards National, with 58 per cent of respondents saying they voted National last time and just 6 per cent saying they backed Act. The actual election numbers were 37 per cent for National and 12 per cent for Act.
Even more encouraging for Act, van Velden is not yet known by every Tāmaki voter. Only 52 per cent of respondents could name her, compared with 77 per cent for O’Connor.
But the ratio of those who know her and plan to vote for her is 1:0.65 compared with just 1:0.47 for O’Connor. That suggests that when people meet van Velden, two of them will decide to vote for her compared with one who won’t.
For O’Connor, the ratio suggests that when he meets someone they are marginally less likely to vote for him.
When asked if O’Connor deserves to be re-elected, the Act polling suggests only 38 per cent of Tāmaki voters think so, with 43 per cent thinking he doesn’t.
In their attitude to O’Connor, Tāmaki voters therefore seem to have something in common with the National Party itself.
The former Roman Catholic chaplain and chairperson of Monarchy New Zealand – a somewhat unusual combination – was first elected in 2011, the same year as the likes of National’s Paul Goldsmith, Mark Mitchell, Maggie Barry and Scott Simpson.
While three of them ended up in Cabinet, neither John Key, Bill English nor any of National’s subsequent leaders have given O’Connor a serious job.
To put that in context, since 2011 O’Connor has been overtaken by the likes of Shane Reti, Chris Bishop, Andrew Bayly, Matt Doocey and Todd Muller, all elected in 2014; Erica Stanford and Simeon Brown, both elected in 2017; Nicola Willis, who came in 2018; and Nicola Grigg, Penny Simmonds, Simon Watts and of course Christopher Luxon from the class of 2020.
Uncommonly for a sitting MP, he was challenged for the National nomination by Auckland lawyer Andrew Grant and restaurateur Sang Cho, albeit unsuccessfully.
In his election-year reshuffle, Luxon gave O’Connor the relatively minor spokesmanships of Customs, Internal Affairs and Arts, Culture & Heritage. Luxon did not put him in National’s top 20 so he has no chance of being in a National-Act Cabinet, in which van Velden would be a senior minister.
A widely perceived problem with O’Connor, which it seems even the devout Luxon may share, is his extreme religiosity.
Having trained to become a Catholic priest, no one expects him to be a liberal, but his socially conservative activism goes much further than any MP from any other party.
From the point of view of groups like Family First, O’Connor is one of the few MPs to have a near-perfect voting record, religiously opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
He was one of just nine National MPs and three from Labour to vote against outlawing the obstruction and harassment of women seeking abortions within 150 metres of abortion clinics, and one of just eight National MPs to vote against the ban on so-called “conversion practices” that try to turn gay people straight. Even Luxon voted with the majority on both measures.
But it is not mere opposition to such social reforms that makes O’Connor unique, but his passion.
Euthanasia is a difficult issue, but O’Connor sees it as black and white, gratuitously comparing it to the unimaginable tragedy of youth suicide.
Likewise, Parliament voted only 68 to 51 to legalise abortion in 2020, but none of the other 50 opponents felt the need to bellow “Mihi vindicta: ego retribuam, dicit Dominus” across the floor of the House, which translates as “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”.
Nor did any other anti-abortion MP brazenly gloat on social media about the repeal of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court.
Luxon, anti-abortion himself, scolded him, saying “the complete removal of abortion law ... in the US is distressing for many women everywhere and I empathise with them”.
He confirmed again that there would not be any change or even any further debate about abortion laws should he become Prime Minister and that O’Connor’s views did not represent those of the National Party.
Little wonder that Act saw O’Connor as vulnerable in Tāmaki — a wealthy, cosmopolitan and socially sophisticated electorate.
Van Velden, to whom I gave her first job after she came up and asked me for one, is from the “government out of the boardroom; government out of the bedroom” school of politics.
Shockingly, she is the only MP in Parliament to have an economics degree, complemented with another in international relations, and also has experience in the law and order sector through a stint, when working for me, at law firm Meredith Connell, Auckland’s Crown prosecutors.
With her background in economics, international relations and law and order, van Velden is probably the only MP genuinely qualified to be Prime Minister.
As an Act MP, that will never happen, but her winning Tāmaki, along with David Seymour’s Epsom, will ensure Act secures a further beachhead in the heart of Auckland to assure its long-term future.
Voters in Tāmaki, previously the seat of former Labour Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bob Tizard and former National Finance Minister and Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, deserve serious representation again.
The Act poll suggests they are on track to get it.
Matthew Hooton has previously worked for the National and Act parties and the Mayor of Auckland.