The Epsom candidates' debate last night drew out the bizarreness of a race where the frontrunner would rather lose and the ACT candidate is rallying behind the leader of another party. At least the unacknowledged presence in this race was finally discussed by name

It had all the fun a candidates debate should: ACT's John Banks said Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia - enemies on most policies - were high quality MPs and a great ad for MMP; Davia Parker said Labour should have introduced a capital gains tax when last in power, but was not brave enough; Paul Goldsmith said it was tough to be a man and wanted to be a man's MP; Green David Hay sang a Dear John letter to John Key and claimed the Greens had moved from "seriously radical to radically serious"; while Mana's Pat O'Dea declared he didn't want to win the seat because he'd had no idea how to serve people who earned $500,000 a year.

It was the Epsom candidates debate at Somervell Presbyterian in Remuera last night, which I chaired. There was some good policy discussed, with Parker pushing the importance of exports and Banks agreeing that we had to sell more - but also spend and borrow less. David Hay warned of peak oil and urged green jobs. Paul Goldsmith said National had a plan for tough times, but looking at my notes I couldn't tell you what it was.

But the reason Epsom has a profile like no other electorate isn't the policy, it's the politics and ACT's fight for survival.

So I pointed out that Goldsmith was ahead in the polls and asked if that made him happy... or not. He said he wanted to represent the people of Epsom, just how was up to them. But what did he want, I pushed. Did he want to win or not? He wanted what the people of Epsom wanted, he said.

It's hard to tell whether he feels dirty about the game he's being ordered to play. I guess he could always look into the audience to see Mark Thomas and take comfort from the fact that at least he's unlikely to be sacrificed by his leader in the way that Bolger sacrificed Thomas to Richard Prebble in Wellington Central in 1996.

John Banks has no qualms about the National-ACT deal that's defining the Epsom race; I guess he has no choice. I asked him why, when asked on Campbell Live what was the ACT brand, he replied "Brand Key". Why is ACT's brand based on the leader of another party and not his own leader?

He talked about John Key being the most successful politician in living memory and the like. Which still puzzles me, given that it was former ACT leader Rodney Hide who described National as a do-nothing government and ACT has numerous policy differences with National.

But that question opened up the other candidates. David Hay said "ACT used to be a party of principles. Now it's a party of convenience", made up of "National Party rejects and has-beens".

Pat O'Dea brought out an enormous - and it must be said, unflattering - photo of Don Brash, declaring that if Epsom backed ACT this would be their next MP. He derided Brash as dishonest, racist and past it.

At first Banks chose not to respond, saying he wouldn't honour such rubbish with a reply. But with his answer to the next question came something new: For the first time I can remember on this campaign Banks talked - and talked positively - about Don Brash.

Banks said the people of Epsom would expect him to respond to the "gratuitous attack" on Brash who was "a patriot", the best Reserve Bank governor the country's had and knew more about the economy than everyone in the room put together. He angrily removed O'Dea's photo from the front of the lecturn.

It was the tensest moment of the night.

What struck me afresh was the irony of ACT's predicament. The party of freedom is prisoner to National's whims; the party of individual responsibility is dependent on another for survival; the party of small government is relying on political welfare to get into parliament.

Yes, welfare. ACT is, frankly, a political beneficiary, unable to pull itself up by its own boot-straps and get parliamentary work in its own right. Even if Banks and maybe Brash make it into parliament, they will be beholden to National; a tool of the tories, but with little power to pull Key to the right. Banks will be to National what Jim Anderton became to Labour.

Worse, they'll spend three years justifying why they're in parliament at the taxpayers' expense when everything they stand for argues against that.

If any other party was in this position, ACT would be its fiercest critic. While there's nothing inherently wrong with tactical voting and considering coalitions before the election, the contradictions and hypocrisy here is a shame.

They're tied in knots and must know it. You'd expect the true libertarians and activists in ACT will pack up and set up camp elsewhere.

All of which is why Key is holding back his endorsement of this tormented game. We know he's given his stamp of approval thus far; he wants ACT to his right and the Maori Party to his left once more to absorb the fallout from National's more contentious plans. But he has to decide whether he wants to pay the political price of walking into this swamp.

Odds-on he will. Short-term pain for long-term gain. That's the sort of equation Key understands very well. But he'll want to do it late enough in the campaign that he doesn't give his opponents too much time to whack him about it, but not so late that it leaves a lasting impression on polling day.

Key will also be looking intently at the polls. The worst outcome for him is that he has the cup of tea, only for Banks to lose the seat thanks to those utterly turned off by ACT and Labour supporters voting for National.

It was a fascinating night and great to have around 130 people turn-out. And thanks to everyone at Somervell for the hard work organising the event.

Comments (11)

by Andrew Geddis on November 10, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"...while Mana's Pat O'Dea declared he didn't want to win the seat because he'd had no idea how to serve people who earned $500,000 a year."

Just how much ARE you making off Pundit, Tim? Or did Eleanor's book sell rather better than expected?

by The Falcon on November 10, 2011
The Falcon

I'm sure John Banks enjoyed speaking at a debate chaired by a guy who writes hate-filled posts about ACT once a week.

by Andrew Geddis on November 10, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Yeah, Tim. You hater. And wrecker. Bloody MSM and their agenda.

It's all that is stopping ACT soaring to 40% in the polls, you know. Because there is no earthly reason, other than your obvious "hate-filled" bias against ACT, for expressing any critical sentiments whatsoever towards that party. As Falcon will now demonstrate by pointing out the undeniably unfair and inaccurate statements you have made about them on a weekly basis.

Won't you, Falcon? Or is was yours just a quick drop in, give a kick, and then run for the hills comment?

by Richard Aston on November 10, 2011
Richard Aston

Thanks for the update Tim - I am more interested in what is happening amoungst the "good people of Epsom" - what was the vibe ?

I have Epsom freinds - traditional Labour voters who will vote National for the first time in their lives - just to ensure Banks and ACT don't get in. I had heard of locals encouraging their neighbours to vote Nat for the same reason. Perhaps they don't like being taken for patsies by ACT.



by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2011
Tim Watkin

He seemed happy enough when I spoke with him, Falcon. A number of very nice people complemented me on how I chaired it.

Funnily enough the Greens weren't pissy about how skeptical I am about 100,000 green jobs or the Nats about how I think their super fund cuts are dumb or Labour about how awful their track record on law and order is... Unlike some I'm able to hold an opinion and still treat people with respect.

by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2011
Tim Watkin

BTW, apart from just having a moan birdman, are you really saying that ACT's dependence on National ain't even a bit at odds with their (and your) love of self-reliance and survival of the fittest?

by HIlary Stace on November 11, 2011
HIlary Stace

Considering the electorate's recent history, did anyone ask the candidates whether there was anything in their personal life that could embarrass their party should it become public?

by Draco T Bastard on November 11, 2011
Draco T Bastard

You'd expect the true libertarians and activists in ACT will pack up and set up camp elsewhere.

Well, I suppose that they could always go and join Libertarianz and become true Dictators hiding behind liberal values.

the Maori Party to his left once more to absorb the fallout from National's more contentious plans.

The MP is no more left than National is these days. They do the bidding of the Maori Business leaders same as National do the bidding of farmers and financiers.


by Tim Watkin on November 11, 2011
Tim Watkin

Draco, you're not wrong, but you're wrong. Yes the MP are heavily influenced by iwi leaders, but a quick look at their policies shows they're still clearly to National's left. 

by william blake on November 13, 2011
william blake

The Libertarianz put an election poster up, down the road the other day but I thought it read Librarianz as I drove past at speed. Now they would have got my vote.

by The Falcon on November 15, 2011
The Falcon

Andrew and Tim: I take the trouble to learn left-wing arguments so I can engage with you both, so it would be great if you would familiarise yourself with right-wing arguments so you don't make such basic errors in future.

The idea of 'political welfare' is simply irrelevant to ACT. The voting system doesn't operate along the same lines as the business world. Business = legitimate competition, providing valuable services (good practice) is rewarded. Electoral system = illegitimate competition, bribing the great unwashed (bad practice) is rewarded.

Now as left-wingers you obviously believe all business is evil/rigged against minorities/whatever, and that's fine. But be aware that ACT supporters don't see electoral popularity as any measure of value.

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