Tim Shadbolt – a stellar ACT candidate?

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

I’ve talked before how ACT could do with a star candidate to help it build a bigger profile, especially in the 2008 election campaign. It was the personality of Rodney Hide who really saved ACT at the 2005 election from complete annihilation. If another MP had been elected ACT leader in 2004 to replace Richard Prebble, I have doubts that the party would have been returned to Parliament (even though this would not have necessarily prevented Hide from standing in Epsom, first passing him over for leader would not have been a good look, at the very least).

In November, after hearing that ACT would be announcing a candidate for Wellington Central, I pontificated over who the candidate might be:

By the sound of the announcement it must be a stellar candidate, who knows, perhaps a former MP or city councillor? Or someone from media or sport? Whoever it is, he or she will have to be well known to Wellingtonians to have any chance of winning the seat.

Well, as we know, the candidate turned out to be Heather Roy. As I said at the time, this was hardly an earth-shattering decision. Bar a miracle, Heather Roy simply does not have the profile nor the personality to win an electorate seat for a minor party polling 1.5% or less of the party vote. The underwhelming nature of the announcement is reflected in the fact that the only mention I found on Roy’s candidacy was an NZPA report on the New Zealand Herald’s website a day later.

Clearly ACT could do with a real star candidate. But who? Today I opened my e-mail inbox to find that the weekly newsletter issued by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, run by former ACT MP Muriel Newman, had resumed after the summer break. In it, to my surprise, was a guest opinion piece by Tim Shadbolt, mayor of Invercargill. The guest space is normally reserved for such luminaries of the right as libertarian Lindsay Perigo and Centre for Independent Studies (a right-wing Australian headquartered think tank) man Phil Rennie.

In his piece, Shadbolt, whom until recently I had considered to be a mild-mannered (albeit parochial) successful Southlander, gets involved in national politics. Or is that National politics? Of course, it came out over the holiday break that Shadbolt is deeply incensed by the Electoral Finance Act, as it muzzles him from openly opposing the Labour-led government which plans to cut funding at the Southland Institute of Technology (SIT), the fabled income and population generator for Invercargill. Seldom has a local-body politician so vociferously railed against central government – and Shadbolt makes no secret over which party he wants New Zealanders to support at the next election:

My next move, in late January, is to publish the full story on SIT and tertiary funding and then add a ‘Vote National’ recommendation at the end. I intend deliberately breaking the Electoral Finance Act and will fight it out in court with help from Mai Chen and Christine French (Rhodes Scholar in Law from Invercargill who represents SIT).

Now, (in the words of John Campbell) ponder this: Shadbolt is writing in a newsletter run by Muriel Newman, former ACT MP. He is upset about the Electoral Finance Act, opposition to which is an even more natural position for ACT than it is to National, as ACT now stresses its allegedly liberal ideals. ACT needs a star candidate. Shadbolt has been, in his own words, “the longest serving Mayor in New Zealand that’s still in office”, yet is expressing in no uncertain terms a hunger for national political involvement – on the right.

Seeing my futuristic piece last week was quite popular, here’s another one:

1. A secret approach is made to Shadbolt from ACT party president Garry Mallett and leader Rodney Hide for him to stand on the ACT list in 2008, in order to head a nationwide “anti-fascism freedom campaign”. N.B. the ACT constitution allows the selection of one stellar candidate.

2. Shadbolt resigns from the mayoralty, saying he wants to “take Invercargill’s success to New Zealand”

3. In a high profile roadtrip in a yellow ACT bus, Shadbolt travels the country opposing the Electoral Finance Act and supporting “Kiwis’ right to choose”. Hide focuses on retaining the seat of Epsom and maintaining ACT’s “lifeline”.

4. The appeal of South Island-based Shadbolt and nightly TV coverage of his stunts propel half of Invercargill to give their party vote to ACT, while support for ACT lifts elsewhere in the country as voters look to punish Labour but not reward the slick, smiling but safe John Key.

5. ACT gets 5.5% of the party vote and is the fourth biggest party in Parliament, after National, Labour and the Greens.

6. Shadbolt is made Minister of Education in a National-ACT coalition government.

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