'Catfight' looms in hot seat

COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2013
Paula Bennett
NEW TERRITORY: Paula Bennett has Upper Harbour in her sights.
Christine Rankin
The Dominion Post
STANDING? Christine Rankin may contest the Upper Habour seat.

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The Conservative Party is poised to stand its high-profile chief executive Christine Rankin against National's Paula Bennett in Upper Harbour, setting up a potential battle of the former solo mums next election.

Conservative Party leader Colin Craig confirmed to the Sunday Star-Times that the party's board had formally asked the controversial former boss of Work and Income New Zealand to stand in next year's general election.

Polling had indicated Rankin would do well in the proposed electorate that would wrap around the north and west of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.

Rankin, who until now has said she did not want to enter national politics, told the Star-Times she was "seriously considering" the request and would make up her mind after Christmas.

But Craig said Rankin's candidacy was a "no-brainer" and he was confident she would run.

"It's going to be a fascinating contest between two very strong, determined women," Craig said. "The word that comes to mind is catfight."

Upper Harbour is a new seat proposed by the Representation Commission due to population growth in Auckland.

It had been seen as the site of a possible deal between National and the Conservatives to allow Craig a free run in return for becoming a coalition partner after the election.

But that idea was scuppered when Bennett, a highly ranked Cabinet minister, declared she intended to stand in the seat after her Waitakere electorate was restructured by boundary changes into the safe Labour seat of Kelston.

Rankin's entry would up the stakes considerably, setting up a head-to-head battle on the centre Right in what could become a crucial seat.

Bennett and Rankin have similar back stories; both grew up in households without much money, had children at a young age and raised them alone on the domestic purposes benefit. Both ended up in charge of their former paymaster; Rankin as chief executive of Work and Income New Zealand and Bennett as Minister of Social Development.

Bennett appointed Rankin to the Families Commission in 2009, where she served one term before becoming chief

executive of the Conservative Party. She was re-elected for a second term on the Upper Harbour community board at the Corecent local body elections.

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The Conservatives polled 2.7 per cent nationwide at the last election. The party is increasingly seen as National's coalition partner-in-waiting but needs either an electorate seat or 5 per cent of the party vote to enter Parliament.

Independent polling by Research Solutions for the Conservatives obtained by the Star-Times shows Rankin has 24 per cent support in Upper Harbour, with 20 per cent opting for "another candidate" and a large 56 per cent undecided.

Issues polling showed strong support for changes to the anti-smacking law and ending Treaty of Waitangi claims and the Maori seats - but a virtual dead heat over gay marriage and strong support for asset sales. The poll was conducted after Bennett announced she would run in the seat.

Rankin said she needed to talk to her family and her children about running against Bennett.

"I am not exactly a quiet person and I am not going to do this quietly and it will affect them."

But she said she was tempted by the poll result. "With 50 per cent undecided, boy I could take a big percentage of that. I believe I'd run a really good campaign. I believe I'd be quite a challenge to Paula. I certainly wouldn't do it half-heartedly. I'd give it every thing I've got," Rankin said.

"I think the (voters) will find us very interesting and very competitive. We have got a lot that's similar . . . we're both very strong, pretty stroppy women. And we've both achieved a lot."

Rankin believed Bennett would find it hard to adjust her image for the new seat. "Paula has developed herself with a Westie brand and it's been a very strong brand. This is not a Westie seat. It's far from that, that is not how the constituents of this seat think of themselves."

Craig has yet to decide on where he would stand next election, but it would be either Rodney or East Coast Bays. In a sign the Conservatives are fast gaining in political confidence, he was "not waiting around" for a signal from National about either seat.

"This is politics - it's not actually about making National happy. If they are upset about this [Rankin standing], I think they just need to harden up."

Bennett was dismissive about squaring off against Rankin. "Oh, well, that's [the Conservative Party's] business," she said.

"I don't really have any comment. I haven't even been selected yet. Right now I'm just concentrating on what's good for National."

- Sunday Star Times

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