Knocking on Epsom's door
David Seymour has knocked on 8500 doors, wearing out shoe leather on the manicured streets of Epsom. He aims for 20 doorsteps in an hour, and is campaigning for six hours day to call on all 22,000 households in the electorate.
But what's the point, you may ask? One nod from Prime Minister John Key would return ACT to Parliament, propping up the National Government as it has done since 2008. It is likely Key will signal this week which electorate deals National is prepared to sew up with smaller parties.
"I just say to people that I am going for every endorsement that I can get. John Key is an Epsom voter and I certainly hope he will vote for me," Seymour says.
"Not to be too pernickity, you actually can't have a deal, because deals have to be enforceable and votes are secret. Ultimately, it only works if the people of Epsom believe that I am the best candidate."
A series of scandals has left ACT's brand tarnished, and opinion polls have indicated a public distaste for pre-election deals. The now-infamous "cup of tea" stunt in 2008 saw Key give Epsom voters the tacit signal that they should vote for then-ACT leader Rodney Hide. An attempt to replicate the cafe chat with John Banks in 2011 ended in a police investigation when the conversation was inadvertently recorded. By not actively campaigning for the electorate vote in 2011, National's Paul Goldsmith gave Banks an easy ride. But with the former mayor Banks now awaiting sentence for filing a false electoral return, Seymour's path to Parliament is much harder.
The latest Stuff/Ipsos poll has ACT barely registering on 0.1 per cent, down from 0.9 per cent in May.
"He [Banks] is such a polarising figure," Seymour admits. "Some people just think it is disgraceful the way that he has been treated. Other people were quite opposed to him to start with and have put their own filter on it. But I can't change John Banks, I can't change Rodney Hide, I can't change the past of the ACT party."
Which is why, on a freezing Monday afternoon, as Auckland is blanketed with fog, Seymour is striding up and down long driveways to persuade locals to give him their vote. "I'm on your doorstep to work for you and if you'd like to vote for me, then I promise I'll be a very good MP for you," he tells them.
One local took his flier, only to rip it into small pieces and throw it on his driveway. But most folk in affluent Epsom are polite. Many want to talk about health and education policies. If they seem interested, Seymour chalks them up as "persuade-ables" and they may get a call to ask for a donation, or a follow-up leaflet in the post.
He admits it can be lonely, and exhausting, work. But he prefers the personal touch to social media. "I do Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, which is popular in the Chinese community, LinkedIn; I do do that stuff . . . I think the most valuable thing is talking to people face to face."
The one exception is his now-famous "hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi" You Tube video. The clip went viral after his Alan Partridge-style was lampooned. "[It was] mercilessly mocked on Twitter, and the funny thing is that as a result of that it got mainstream cross-over and people . . . thought ‘well, he's a bit dorky but we think he is OK. Whereas on Twitter people were just really, really nasty and so in my second video I thanked them for helping me get mainstream crossover."
So why did a bright 31-year-old, give up a successful career as a policy analyst in Canada, to campaign for a party most people have long since written off? He's not getting paid, and is supporting himself with some contract work and the generosity of friends and family.
His love life has also taken a hit.
"What I have discovered is girlfriends like you to stay in the same country, and moving back between New Zealand and Canada every two or three years has not been conducive. My philosophy also is that obviously no-one wants to be lonely for their whole life but the best way to deal with that is to be the happiest, most attractive person you can and that means doing what you like and what you are good at."
Seymour says he has "really strong beliefs" and it is important someone represents free market views. He wants to shrug off ACT's stuffy image as a party of stale, white businessmen.
"I want to be the representative of a whole generation of people who are young, entrepreneurial and never lived under Rob Muldoon . . . you know Lorde, Eleanor Catton, Lydia Ko, Xero in business . . . you walk around Auckland and it's a fantastic time."
While Banks' campaign was driven by returning Key to government, Seymour is trying to push ACT's policies. However, its desire to scrap the Resource Management Act seems at odds with Epsom residents' desire to protect their prime real estate. And while ACT would see an end to school zoning, the "double grammar zone" is prized.
Seymour doesn't believe he will be lonely in Parliament - and is genuinely convinced ACT can poll enough to return three or four MPs.
"On January 1, we were on 0.0 per cent, with no money and nearly so few members that we could be technically struck off as political party . . . [and] a single MP who was facing some severe challenges. Now we have got money, the membership has gone up quite significantly . . . 40 or 50 per cent and, you know, we've got fresh faces. So, if we end this year with three or four MPs, then I think that will be a fantastic story of political revival."
Ultimately, that relies on a leg-up from National. Pulling Goldsmith from the race to give Seymour a clear run risks humiliating a loyal backbench foot soldier, and alienating National supporters who are robbed of options. Does Seymour believe Goldsmith should stand aside? "I think if he runs, people will have a clear choice."
Labour's candidate Michael Wood believes National will pull Goldsmith out of the electorate.
He says both ACT and National have been polling "intensively" in the seat. "I think people will react badly and feel that their democratic choice has been completely taken away. "When we are speaking to dyed-in-the wool, small-c conservative National party voters, they are just rolling their eyes and sighing when ACT is mentioned. They are embarrassed by the scandal over the last few years, they feel pushed around and abused by the prospect of another deal foisted upon them and they are not wanting to see another deal to get ACT back into Parliament."
The Green party is standing MP Julie-Ann Genter in Epsom: "What I have heard [from voters] there are a lot of people who are unhappy with David Seymour, particularly women . . . He doesn't relate very well to people. Rodney Hide had been a party leader and an MP for a long time.
"And then John Banks had been an MP for a really long time, with name recognition, had been mayor of Auckland twice and was a genuine conservative. So I don't think we can predict what will happen."
Sunday Star Times