National and Act seem to have come to an arrangement over the Epsom electorate, so why is Richard Worth still fighting?
Richard Worth is on the phone to the mayor’s office. He’s trying to clarify some points of protocol for an up-coming do, patiently explaining to the person on the other end of the line that “we want to run it the old way”. In his blue and white striped shirt with its crisp white collar, the 60-year-old former lawyer has a lot of the old way about him. From boarding school to post-grad study in Dallas and Paris, from a highly successful law career, becoming chairman of glamour firm Simpson Grierson, to his current extra-curricular position as the consul for Monaco, Worth has true-blue tradition stamped all over him. He was once even president of the elite Northern Club in central Auckland.
Every deep blue box is ticked. Or at least, it was. From 1999 until 2005, Worth was MP for Epsom, the smallest, wealthiest, least Maori electorate in New Zealand. But in the last election he was beaten out of the seat by Act leader Rodney Hide. Despite being written off by many, Hide ran an aggressive campaign urging Epsom’s largely right-wing voters to split their vote—Worth would get in on National’s list, Act would survive to play a role in the new parliament, and Epsom would effectively get two MPs. So it panned out.
The strategy—and the resulting loss—clearly puts a wrinkle in Worth’s otherwise immaculate demeanour. In an interview this week, the first point he makes is that “I’ve beaten Rodney twice and he’s beaten me once”. During the course of our conversation he says three times that the vote-splitting strategy simply “didn’t work”. The failure, in Worth’s mind, is that it didn’t produce a National-Act government and Act’s presence in parliament has been too small to have any notable influence on the national debate. He dismisses Act as a “celebrity” party.
Does that make Hide vulnerable this year?
“Yeah,” Worth replies, “I can beat him. I think it may be a close contest... a lot of people are spooked by Act’s policies. I think Sir Roger Douglas [who is third on Act’s list and has said he wants to be finance minister again] spooks them”. By his reckoning, Act’s school voucher policy allowing pupils to take their state funding to the school of their choice would “see the end of school zoning”, while its opposition to interest-free student loans would hit middle-class constituents in the pocket.
“If there’s going to be a true contest of ideas in this election, the Act policies just are not attractive to Epsom voters,” he says.
Hide, of course, disputes Worth’s claims about his party’s policies, saying he is just “making it up”. For a start, Act intends to keep school zoning. National’s economic policies are so close to Labour’s that “Epsom people are left gasping”, he adds. “A vote for National is a vote to dump Helen Clark but keep Michael Cullen’s policies.”
Hide is driving to Rotorua when we talk, a sign of the difficult balancing act he must perform as both his party’s leader and an electorate MP. He’s got to be everywhere at once. It’s a trick that was too hard for Jeanette Fitzsimmons, who won and then lost the Coromandel seat as Green Party leader. Jim Anderton, Winston Peters and Peter Dunne have all retained seats as leaders of minor parties, but they were established major party MPs before going out on their own. Hide has only ever stood for Act.
“What that tells me,” Hide says, “is that the Labour and National brands are very, very strong. So my thought had been that because National is doing so well it would show up in the polls. I thought I could be coming second and may need to run a reminder campaign.”
However, Act’s polling, according to Hide, shows him still in front. Act is the only party to admit it has polled the electorate and Hide says he was four points ahead of Worth last November and seven points ahead this August. His lead is a reflection of the “hard yards” he has put into the electorate and the brutal political reality that “Act stands or falls in Epsom”.
United Future’s Janet Tuck, however, says Hide risks taking the community for granted. Tuck says he “did a lot of footwork” in 2005, “but I’ve just not been aware of him doing the same amount of work this time”. Her impression is that many people who voted Act last time are turning back to National, politely describing Sir Roger Douglas’ high place on the Act list as “a gamble”.
The critical question that hovers above Worth’s quips and Hide’s work-rate, however, reaches higher than Mt Eden and deeper than Hobson Bay. It’s all about MMP politics and Act’s status as National’s only reliable coalition partner. If Hide holds Epsom and returns to parliament with one other MP at his side, as current polling predicts, those two seats could be vital in National’s ability to get a majority—or even a stable minority—in the House. In short, Worth’s bosses have a vested interest in his losing. Worth insists there have been no orders from HQ to roll over for the cause. “That’s just not a message I’m getting,” he says. He believes the race is closer than last time and says his message is simple: “Tick National twice”.
Labour candidate Kate Sutton snorts at the denial. “Richard Worth hasn’t worked hard enough, he hasn’t shown the vigorous energy required. As far as I can see, he hasn’t been making a play for the electorate seat, or if he has, he’s been doing a terrible job of it."
Does she think National is leaving the way clear for Act?
“You could say that.”
If National was serious about re-taking Epsom, they wouldn’t have stood Worth again, she believes. Hide, with a back-handed compliment, makes much the same point: “Richard’s a good MP. To be quite honest I think he quite likes being a list MP.”
In 2005, Labour’s candidate Stuart Nash urged his supporters to party vote Labour, but cast their electorate vote for Worth. Helen Clark publicly endorsed the strategy in an attempt to kill off Act once and for all. Thousands took their advice, with Nash getting around 6,000 votes to Labour’s 10,000. But more split Hide/National and Hide won by just over 3,000 votes.
Sutton says a strategy decision like that is made by party leaders and “there hasn’t been such an indication at this election”. She’s running a “two ticks for Labour” campaign, but realises many of her supporters will again vote for Worth and Labour.
Worth insists it would be downright foolish for National to offer Act a free pass. “We could lose significant party vote from the middle ground if we appear to be too close to Act”. Yet Hide himself says that’s exactly what National has done.
In a startling admission, Hide says that over the course of several meetings with John Key earlier this year, the pair came to an understanding. Key had seen some Epsom poll results from just before Christmas and spoke to Hide “over the summer”. Hide says Key told him that National “was not going to go all out to try to get Rodney Hide out of Epsom and that they would be standing Richard Worth”. Hide dismisses Worth’s insistence that National is running a two-ticks campaign, saying simply, “these were leader-to-leader discussions”.
With a month to go to the election, the question is whether or not Epsom voters will see the Hide-Key agreement as a cynical back-room deal or simply smart MMP strategy. Worth may have been hung out to dry by his leader, but he is still talking the talk. As I’m packing up to leave his office, a half smile crosses his lips.
“I think Rodney’s such a talented fellow, he could be successful in any sphere of life. For example, I think he has huge potential in the dancing world and shouldn’t underestimate himself. Perhaps he should consider African dance? There’s a whole continent of people there who don’t know him, and he might not have to come home too often...”