ACT's lone MP John Banks says he is in favour of talks with Conservative Party leader Colin Craig – as speculation mounts behind the scenes about a merger.
Mr Banks went into coalition talks with Prime Minister John Key yesterday, but his party is reeling after an election drubbing and its board is reviewing its structure. The fledgling Conservative Party managed to score a 2.8 per cent share of the party vote on Saturday, despite only forming in July.
Although the Conservatives did not make it to Parliament, National is keen to explore a relationship. With ACT in disarray and the Maori Party in decline with the pending retirement of its two co-leaders, it needs an ally to bolster its chances in 2014.
National's lack of viable coalition allies is understood to have been canvassed during a meeting of the caretaker cabinet yesterday morning and sources have noted how well-aligned Mr Banks is to the Conservatives' more interventionist economic agenda.
After an hour-long meeting with Mr Key yesterday, Mr Banks said: "Given our result on Saturday, we need to talk to as many people as we can about our future, because I want to make sure we are alive and well in 2014.
"Colin Craig is a class New Zealander. His youthful enthusiasm is what the ACT Party needs going forward."
However, Mr Craig was less enthusiastic about a relationship with ACT.
"I think the issue here is the ACT party are slightly schizophrenic at the moment. You've got John Banks who is at heart a conservative, then you've got a party who is at heart libertarian."
These tensions came to the fore when former leader Don Brash mooted decriminalising marijuana. "And there was Banks going `No way, not, in my lifetime'.
"The tension within ACT is not something I would ever want to go near... And let's face it, most of the conservative voters from ACT voted for us."
But he was more optimistic about a relationship with Mr Banks. "I acknowledge Banks as a conservative. I wouldn't rule out a cup of tea with John Banks ... [but] I can't see us in a merger with ACT – I just think there would be too diametrically opposed issues."
Mr Banks also acknowledged difficulties. "He [Mr Craig] is interventionist when it comes to social policies but the ACT party has people who are not. And that's where we would have to talk."
There are fears within ACT that Mr Banks does not share all of its core principles.
However, before negotiations opened yesterday he deliberately emphasised their importance.
$1.5m Conservative campaign 'worth it'
It cost him about $27 per party vote – but Mr Craig said it was worth every cent, even though he didn't make it to Parliament.
Mr Craig registered the party less than two months ago and bankrolled its four-week election campaign by up to $1.5 million.
From zero polling at the start of the campaign, it secured a 2.8 per cent party vote share on election night – higher than that of ACT, Mana, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture, but below the 5 per cent threshold to make it into Parliament without an electorate seat win.
In Rodney, Mr Craig was beaten by National's Mark Mitchell – a new candidate – by more than 11,000 votes.
He says he stopped counting new members at 2000. "Over 55,000 votes, you can't walk away from that. We are here for the long term and we'll be much stronger next time around."
The party is being put forward as a future coalition partner for National – but Mr Craig says there will be no Epsom-style deals. "I don't feel comfortable stitching something up."
- Fairfax NZ
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