Small halls central to Act’s campaign

Act New Zealand leader David Seymour on the campaign trail in Wānaka. Photo: Milo Long
Act New Zealand leader David Seymour on the campaign trail in Wānaka. Photo: Milo Long
It is a glorious sunny Friday late afternoon in Wānaka and the lakefront cafes and bars are looking very inviting.

But not to me, or 80 or so locals they don’t ... we have an Act New Zealand public meeting to attend.

Tonight’s gathering is one of 73 its leader David Seymour has scheduled for this election campaign, almost literally from Cape Reinga to Bluff; and that’s not counting the many last-minute additions to a schedule that always crop up.

This is his fourth speech of the day, so it’s not surprising that Mr Seymour does not need any notes.

There are many reasons why Act has its best asset in the Lake Wānaka Centre in prime time, rather than strutting the stage somewhere more populous.

First and foremost, it is a formula which has worked. Act’s 7.5% of the party vote in 2020 was built off the back of hundreds of small meetings like this; Mr Seymour toured non-stop, like one of those classic rock bands that plays anywhere that will have them.

Second, Act is in a race to hold what it has.

Last Friday’s meeting was held soon after a poll which showed Act support had slipped two points from a high tide mark of around 13%. At the time, the party was arguing that the result was an outlier, but several polls since suggest this was actually the first sign of a trend.

No wonder Mr Seymour made passionate pleas at the start and end of his address for people to party vote Act, and to tell their friends.

And finally, quaint as it might sound, Act has an old-fashioned belief that all its MPs should get out and meet the people who ticked the box for them - or, to use the phrase the party is deploying at the moment, the people who lend Act New Zealand their party vote.

That does mean that you are rather subject to the whims of the people ... all Act meetings have a Q&A session, and Friday’s resulted in Mr Seymour fielding several curly questions about whether a party vote for Act really would make a difference, and just how influential he might be in a National-lead coalition.

Say what you like about Mr Seymour - and I’m sure many of you could say plenty - but he sticks to his principles.

When asked about whether he would shut down the public interest journalism fund (to which the answer was yes) and bring the media to heel, he no doubt dissatisfied his quizzer by saying "no" to the second part of the question, on the grounds that the party of freedom and freedom of speech was hardly going to try to tamper with media freedom.

And the many who questioned him about co-governance might have been surprised at Mr Seymour’s insistence that many Treaty grievances remained to be settled and that Act supported the process, albeit with the caveat that settlements needed to be full and final.

Act candidates (from left) Burty Meffan (Taieri), Tim Newman (Dunedin) and Nicole McKee (Rongotai...
Act candidates (from left) Burty Meffan (Taieri), Tim Newman (Dunedin) and Nicole McKee (Rongotai) drum up support in Mosgiel. Photo: supplied
Fast forward to Tuesday and an even more grassroots Act meeting, in the down home surrounds of the Taieri rugby club rooms.

Shorn of the star power of Mr Seymour - Act list MP Nicole McKee is tonight’s guest - the party managed to draw another 33 people out to hear its message.

In many ways Act is on a hiding to nothing in the southern city.

Its Dunedin candidate Tim Newman was a late entrant in a seat where Act was a well-beaten fourth in 2020, while its Taieri candidate Burty Meffan - who with his heavily bandaged hand looked like he might have been trapped at the bottom of a ruck recently - is standing in a seat where the party’s 2020 candidate got just 1291 votes.

Both men are also in unelectable positions on the party list, at 53 and 49 respectively.

But in other ways it is all to play for.

In the two seats it landed a combined 5527 party votes in 2020, and given the lack of effort by National in the city - it has seemingly benched Dunedin candidate Michael Woodhouse and leader Christopher Luxon is the only party leader not to have made an appearance in Dunedin during the campaign - it must surely think that there is an opportunity to profit here.

Ms McKee is a persuasive and powerful public speaker - there is a reason why she is a previous winner of the Communicator of the Year award - and despite still suffering from a serious respiratory infection, another regular election trail pitfall, she puts on an impressive performance this evening.

Not that all of her audience seem that attracted by it ... at times they seem more interested in having their own public meeting to discuss what is a woman, what should be done about veterans’ mental health or how to rein in the troublesome youth of today.

On the latter Ms McKee, her party’s justice spokeswoman, has plenty to say, brandishing both a carrot - an increased focus on rehabilitation - and a stick - building a new prison and reinstating the Three Strikes law.

You sense that there are some in the room who might favour an even more punitive prescription, but that is what Act is campaigning on, and taking to the small halls of New Zealand to offer to any or all who might listen.

Mr Seymour estimates that it takes about 25,000 extra votes, about the 5% threshold, for a party to pick up an extra MP. While 80 or so in Wānaka and 30 or so in Mosgiel is far removed from that lofty figure, Act has long been in the business of making small add up to something much larger.

It is going to take a big last quarter of the game though.

Commencing countdown, engines on

As has been noted before, of the many spokesmanships Southland National MP Joseph Mooney has, it seems that "space" is a personal favourite.

It might even be a harbinger of a promotion.

On Thursday, with Mr Mooney in close attendance, National leader Christopher Luxon announced that it was party policy to establish a Ministry for Space - which might seem far-fetched, but given the announcement was made at Rocket Lab, and the sector contributes several hundred million dollars to GDP, maybe it’s not so out of this world after all.