Liam Hehir writes:
Elite political newsletter Trans-Tasman has named David Seymour its “Politician of the Year”. Seymour, who is the leader of the ACT Party and its sole MP, is said to have played a blinder and to have proved his doubters wrong. In giving him the title, the newsletter editors said they were surprised at “the degree to which he seems to have made ACT a potential vote winner again”.
It’s hard to think of a better example of the disconnect that exists between New Zealand’s political commentators and the voters.
It’s certainly true that, in many ways, Seymour has done very well. As the champion of our right to gather in pubs to watch Rugby World Cup matches, he managed to strike a pose that was both popular and libertarian. His earnest manner, together with his support for bien-pensant causes like the Red Peak flag and assisted suicide, has largely defused the hostility he could ordinarily expect from the liberal punditry, whose default setting would be to tar him as a Right-wing fiend.
He has also proven a stable and reliable support partner for the Government and, by all accounts, has worked well as parliamentary under-secretary to the Minister of Education and Minister of Regulatory Reform.
But while all of this might have been terribly impressive, one thing David Seymour has singularly failed to achieve is improving the standing of his party with the people who really count – ordinary voters. In the 2014 general election in which he limped in to Parliament, ACT received just 0.69 per cent of the vote. And yet despite Seymour’s supposedly outstanding year, the last five public polls (as recorded by Curia Market Research) have shown ACT registering just 0.5 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.5 per cent, 0.5 per cent and 0.6 per cent support in the party vote stakes.
Hehir is right that ultimately performance is judged by voters at elections, and prior to that in the polls.
But I think it is all about timing and foundations. I don’t expect ACT to poll above 1% until an election campaign. That is when people will really focus on whether to change their vote.
What Seymour is doing is changing ACT’s brand from negative to positive, so that potential voters may choose them again. That won’t show up for some time. They’re still at the foundation building stage.
It gives me no pleasure to write this. On an intellectual level I am probably closer to David Seymour than John Key when it comes to the economy and the importance of private property. But while he may have done a good job impressing some journalists in the past year, the people he really needs to make a mark on are actual voters. There is no sign of his having done that yet.
Favourable impressions with journalists and pundits can help with the voters eventually.
To me, there can really be only one contender for the title of Politician of the Year: Winston Raymond Peters. Again, this gives me no pleasure. In my opinion, he is an economic xenophobe who would make the country poorer. Time and time again, he has shown himself to be an untrustworthy cynic.
So I was feeling a bit hopeful when he started to look like he had lost his mojo in 2014. That was the year in which he turned in a parliamentary confrontation with the prime minister over the Oravida issue that was so befuddled and confused that it virtually allowed the Government to draw a line under the scandal and move on. More than a few people asked if we were seeing the beginning of the end for one of New Zealand’s most outspoken politicians.
They’re not asking that any more.
Ever since Peters stole the Northland seat in a by-election this year, he has all but guaranteed himself a starring role in the next election. Assuming he can hold on to the electorate, he has essentially managed to take out an insurance policy against the tyranny of the party vote threshold. In the event that an improving Labour starts eating into the NZ First party vote (which I consider likely), he will still be around to play the kingmaker.
He thought he would be kingmaker in 2014, and he wasn’t. If National can get 45% or better in 2017 and ACT get over 2% (three MPs) then he probably won’t be Kingmaker in 2017. If he is Kingmaker, I hope he chooses Labour, so they can be a one term Government.