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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8 Responses

  1. Oliver Woods says:

    It’s an amazing proposition, but with Shadbolt, you can’t really ever write anything off. It would be the most ridiculous political transformation of anyone – considering Shadbolt was once a proud Maoist and communist youth leader.

    Don’t forget, Geoffrey, that Shadbolt stood for New Zealand First in the 1994 by-election in Selwyn.

    But I guess ACT for a political pragmatist like him could well be a useful political vehicle if there were a series of backdoor deals to give SIT more funding if Rodney Hide got into a coalition deal with National…

  2. Thanks for that information Oliver, I had overlooked that. But it just adds weight to Shadbolt’s fury – he was positively venomous in his opinion piece towards Labour and John Minto as well.

    In my dissertation, I talked about how ACT has long needed a “circuit-breaker” like other parties such as United Future (the 2002 leaders’ TV debate) and National (2004 Orewa speech) have experienced. ACT is so mundane at present that it’s just not rating in voters’ minds as an option, which is its main problem. Shadbolt’s entry would be so outrageous that it would be hard not to bring attention to ACT.

    Note that I envisaged Shadbolt trying to capture the party vote, rather than just an electorate seat. ACT is unnecessarily fixated on electorates at the moment, having not only Hide stand in Epsom but Roy in Wellington Central. This is quite stupid. Hide seems to have Epsom very safe, and even if he didn’t, Roy is not going to win Wellington Central, so it’s hardly a back-up!

    Moreover, while voters might give Roy their electorate vote, the Epsom experience shows that in this case voters will nearly always split their votes, giving the party vote to National (usually). So the end number of seats they will get will remain unchanged.

    That’s why I thought a stellar candidate like Shadbolt should travel the country – and with his nation-wide, crossover appeal, he would be well positioned to do this. And the ACT roadtrip is something the party has done reasonably successfully before, such as in 1997 on its “Heartland Tour”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “ACT is unnecessarily fixated on electorates at the moment”

    Do you have any proof to back up this statement Geoffrey? Heather is running in Wellington Central, but she has stood in Ohariu in the past and it hasn’t made her “unnecessarily fixated” as far as I can tell.

    Similarly with Rodney. I heard him speaking awhile back saying that his job for 18 months was to tighten his grip on Epsom, so that he could put his attention elsewhere in 2008. From that statement, I don’t think he is unnecessarily fixated on the seat. It seems almost certain he will win it, meaning he can put emphasis elsewhere.

    Have you actually heard anything from the upper echelons of the party to help you back up your statement? If not, it is difficult for you to know what is actually going on in the minds of Rodney and other senior people in the party.

    Not sure I agree with Shadbolt running either. I would rather have people like Graham Scott or Hamish Stevens.

  4. rolla_fxgt says:

    Shadbolt should run in Invercargill for the electorate seat, as he’d easily take the seat from Eric Roy, though I think if Shadbolt did get back into national politics it would be as an independent, or who knows maybe he’ll get back in with Winston & NZ First as there saviour at the next election, since Winston has no chance of winning Tauranga if Bob Clarkson runs, even die hard Labour voters vote for Bob over Winston because they’re so sick of him

  5. To Anon: thanks for your comments.

    ACT is now standing both of its MPs in constituency seats. Last year the talk in the party was about putting someone in to win the Rakaia electorate, but that appears to have fallen through either because 1) the electoral boundaries changed, presumably to ACT’s disadvantage (this split the Rakaia electorate in two) or 2) a suitable candidate could not be found, or 3) a combination of both. Building on the success of “Survivor: Epsom”, there is definitely a fixation on electorates in my view.

    Let’s be clear: making Epsom an ACT “fortress” is a smart idea, very smart indeed. Not only does it guarantee that ACT remains in parliament, but it sends a signal to voters that a party vote for ACT will count. This signal was jammed in 2005 by erroneous polling and unfair negative commentary by commentators. In 2008, however, it should have some effect.

    To do so, however, ACT needs to concentrate this time on getting the party vote! Hide will not be able to say “OK, Epsom’s safe now, I’ll be able to go around the country”. No! If there’s a hint of that, Epsom voters will quickly start to think they’ve been deserted and this will leave ACT open to a slick campaign from National and/or Labour to win the seat. At best, Hide will be able to be away around 20-30% of the time without losing credibility.

    Before November, I would have said that’s fine. Heather Roy will be able to travel the country and talk to interest groups predispositioned to vote ACT. Think the farmers, business groups etc. etc. But now Roy will be tied up in Wellington Central and ACT will have the worst of all worlds.

    – Roy won’t win the seat
    – She’ll be tied up in Wellington for the campaign
    – ACT will miss out on a lot of potential party votes from voters in the Wellington Central electorate because people might be prepared to give Roy one, but not both votes

    There is one possible saviour to all this: a deal with National, as I outlined in my post last week. This would bring ACT “into the conversation” and make it matter to voters, thereby giving ACT an increased value in the news media and in its own paid advertising. ACT would now have serious “coalition potential” – the lack of which has been a barrier to it expanding its support at previous elections, as I discussed in Chapter 4 of my dissertation.

    As for Graham Scott/Hamish Stevens: this highlights another of ACT’s problems: too often it has selected candidates solely on their internal appeal. More than ever (to dovetail with Hide’s “new strategy”), ACT needs someone different, while still supporting ACT’s “principles” (obviously). I think Shadbolt could be that person.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m a little perplexed at three of your assertions…

    1)
    “Building on the success of “Survivor: Epsom”, there is definitely a fixation on electorates in my view.”

    Where do you get this view? As I mentioned, you cannot possibly know of the internal discssion at Board level.

    2)
    “Before November, I would have said that’s fine. Heather Roy will be able to travel the country and talk to interest groups predispositioned to vote ACT. Think the farmers, business groups etc. etc. But now Roy will be tied up in Wellington Central and ACT will have the worst of all worlds.”

    I agree with you she won’t win. Just like she wouldn’t win Ohariu. Somehow, I don’t think she is under any illusions either. As David Farrar mentioned after her announcement, it’s a very smart move to have a sitting MP representing the party in Wellington Central, the most high profile electorate in NZ. Running there will not stop her campaigning in other places, just as she has done previously when standing in Ohariu.

    3)
    “As for Graham Scott/Hamish Stevens: this highlights another of ACT’s problems: too often it has selected candidates solely on their internal appeal.”

    I’m not sure where you are from but in Manukau Hamish Stevens is very well known and respected as the leader of Peoples Choice, the ticket that stood Dick Quax for the MCC Mayoralty (getting 2nd). Graham Scott is former head of the Treasury. Let me ask you, how many people knew John Key prior to his entering Parliament? Scott in oparticular is widely respected and would certainly provide a signal to those who originally supported ACT that all is not lost. That policy still exists in a party that has arguably become more about populism. I’d expect, if nothing else, a very good boost in donations.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Anonymous’ comments, but can appreciate that from an outsider’s perspective it appears Act is fixated on winning electorate seats.

    I would note that Heather herself has said she wants to win the seat, but I suspect even she doesn’t seriously believe it will happen. I believe Act’s decision to challenge for the seat is really about doing a deal with National closer to the election where Heather in facts runs a half-hearted campaign in the seat in exchange for National doing the same in Epsom.

  8. I agree that Graham Scott would be a very good MP for ACT to have in Parliament. But he’s not going to put the party “on the map”. His placing at number 5 last time on the list (if my memory serves me correctly) was about right. Perhaps you could move him to place 4, but I wouldn’t go much higher than that.

    ACT is simply out of the conversation at the moment and needs some bold moves to push itself back into the spotlight. I think a stellar candidate, whether Shadbolt or someone else, could help to do this. But what really would help make ACT part of the conversation would be a formal alliance deal with National. Suddenly people would be looking at what ACT offered, what policies it would try and implement if part of government. This would be for the first time since the 1999 election, when ACT last had a credible chance of being part of government.

    Anything more than Hide standing in Epsom represents a fixation on electorates. ACT stands to gain far more from playing MMP rather than FPP: remember, it gained 9 list MPs in the 2002 election. It’s sensible to keep Epsom as a lifeline, but that’s the only lifeline ACT should be considering.

    Remember, ACT is already missing out on party votes in Epsom, because voters will only give Hide one of two votes. The party vote in Epsom went overwhelmingly to National last time.

    So why set up the same situation in Wellington Central, only worse? 20,000 people might like Heather Roy enough to vote for her in the electorate vote, but these votes will be wasted if she doesn’t get in. Most of these voters will split their vote and give National the party vote, if the Epsom experience is anything to go by.

    By contrast, the party vote is never wasted, even if ACT can only get 10,000 votes here. Make Shadbolt a candidate and get him to do a tough anti-Labour campaign in Invercargill and get another 10,000. Do that in another few electorates, and you suddenly have half a dozen MPs. Maybe ACT will go for “8 in ’08”?

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