A battered fringe party hoping for rescue

Don Brash has written a memoir. It should be quite a read, given his trajectory, from Presbyterian left believer who found classical-liberal economic truth doing his doctorate in Australia, to the World Bank, merchant banker, failed National candidate and kiwifruit king, to Reserve Bank governor, National leader and an ACT takeover.

Brash is an almost unfailingly courteous man who sometimes does discourteous things. Rodney Hide’s summary execution as ACT leader by a Brash cabal three years ago was a blinder: a takeover by Nationalists of an allied fringe party.

That gave Epsom a former National minister who never got the catechism quite right and did no better for votes and arguably worse than Hide would have. National’s candidate, a biographer of Brash, was nearer ACT in his instincts than the official ACT candidate.

The imposter, known as John Banks, may be the excuse John Key — a man nearer to National’s ACT end than to its mainstream moderate conservatism — employs for a September election. If Banks is convicted on charges related to his failed mayoral campaign in 2010, Parliament would kick him out, leaving Key dependant for a time for his majority on a Maori party edging Labour-wards.

Having Banks dumped on him by Brash skewed Key’s judgment: an ill-advised public showcase with Banks in a cafe, an ill-advised standoff with the media and an ill-advised spotlight on Winston Peters, which helped Peters build his vote, which has made Key’s post-2014 numbers dicier.

Meanwhile Brash’s biographer, who is also Banks’ biographer — Paul Goldsmith by name — will be assumed from on high to cede the seat again to ACT, this time to David Seymour who is real ACT, that is, more ACT than Goldsmith. Reward: a ministerial post, though Goldsmith qualifies for that on wider grounds than services to Epsom.

The cynicism in the Epsom manoeuvre and in Ohariu for the other one-MP party, who has been in two National-led and two Labour-led ministries, has prompted some annoyed democrats (not just in Labour) to label it a “gerrymander”. Taking that a logical step further, some in National have been musing that safe seat incumbents could nominally stand for a new party to bolster numbers.

There are other wrinkles. Take Russel Norman’s bother about Kim Dotcom’s froth about a new party, which might take votes from Greens but not get seats. Take the obvious advantage to Labour if Te Ururoa Flavell were to choose Labour post-election and maybe bring in another MP with him. Labour would do even better if the Maori party were to win all Maori seats and lock into Labour, as Ratana did in the 1930s-40s.

The point is that micro-parties, even if in serious decay, matter in a small-ish MMP Parliament, especially if the race is tight and if they get a electorate seat and with that list seats proportional to their slim vote without having to get over 5 per cent.

Hence Norman’s political slagging of Colin Craig, who called it defamation. Craig’s problem is that he is a public figure, for whom the Lange v Atkinson rule raises the defamation proof bar high, though, of course, rich Craig can fine Norman by forcing legal costs on him and his backers.

Key was blunt last week that Craig needs to thicken his skin if he is to fit into Parliament. That intervention reflects National’s interest in finding Craig an electorate seat, thereby acquiring three or four not-too-influential Craig MPs on Key’s side. A high-profile court case within sight of the election would not help National.

National also has a theory that Craig, properly nurtured, might slice enough votes of Winston Peters to get him under 5 per cent. That would give Key cruising space into a third term.

But, because votes are votes only when they are counted, Key will nurture Seymour.

Seymour is young, smart, presentable and a capable exponent of ACT as it could be reformulated to appeal to a generation born after the Rogernomics years, that 1980s golden age for classical-liberal believers when New Zealand became a poster-country for such believers offshore.

We will get an updated feel for how well Seymour might do that at ACT’s conference this Saturday. He first came to notice at the 2010 conference, though the headlines went to Heather Roy who put the heat on Hide.

Seymour has with him as leader Jamie Whyte, an accomplished intellectual exponent of Enlightenment individual liberty. They look and sound like the ACT Brash’s coup didn’t deliver in 2011.

So the ACT on show on Saturday will be back on track ideologically and probably on track to hold Epsom.

But if ACT wants to be a player 10 years hence, it needs much more: members, money and a sales campaign to build a durable 5 percent-plus constituency.

Well, Richard Prebble is back. There is a touching belief the old codger can repeat history. This time in 1996 — 18 years ago — Prebble became ACT leader and took it from near-zero to 6 per cent.

His job is miles harder this time. But never say never in politics.