Almost thirty years ago, John Boscawen lost everything. The sharemarket crash of the late 1980s wiped out the fortune that he started amassing at age 19 with the opening of a mini-golf course in Mt Maunganui.
The former accountant owed several hundred thousand dollars. "Any one of about five different banks could have bankrupted me," he admits. But he avoided bankruptcy, negotiating with his creditors, landing a job and relying on his mother to supply a car and meals.
Within five years he had redeveloped K-mart Plaza in Hastings, a project which made him "rich beyond my wildest dreams." He retired, aged 36, and set off on a belated OE.
Friend and former parliamentary colleague Stephen Franks recalls he applied a dogged focus to repairing his finances. "While the rest of us were going on holiday, having dinners, playing sports, he was working."
Boscawen, 57, doesn’t quite understand what retirement is. In the mid-1990s he joined ACT and took over as chief fundraiser, before entering Parliament as a list MP in 2008. Three years later he retired from politics – but stayed on to campaign in the Tamaki electorate. Just over a week ago he announced he was returning to the political fray: entering the race to be ACT’s leader and Epsom candidate.
Should he beat newcomer Jamie Whyte, Boscawen will apply the same assiduousness to rebuilding the party he has supported for 17 years. Rent asunder by internal divisions, a coup and criminal and donations scandals, ACT’s share of the party vote has plummeted from, at its height, 7.14 per cent (returning nine MPs in 2002) to zero in this week’s Roy Morgan poll.
Since 2005, ACT has relied on the Epsom electorate to remain in Parliament. And if anyone knows Epsom voters, it is Boscawen. He stood in the electorate in 1996, winning a 22 per cent share of the party vote – still a record for ACT.
Six weeks out from the 2005 election, as campaign manager, he instructed Rodney Hide to lobby for strategic voting. The brainwave was inspired by a Wellington dinner with multimillionaire donor Alan Gibbs.
"Rodney was explaining that if he won Epsom, ACT might get three or four extra MPs. Alan didn’t know that and it struck me that if Alan Gibbs, who had put a huge amount of money into the party, didn’t realise that then there was a very good chance that a lot of people in Epsom didn’t [either]."
Boscawen returned to Auckland, promptly locked all of Mr Hide’s hoardings in a garage, and designed his own, targeting National voters.
Widely accepted as the safe option to win Epsom for ACT this year, Boscawen has chimerical ambitions. "I believe I have a strategy to get significantly more than one MP . . .I’m not doing it for one MP," he explains.
He has rented a cavernous office in Newmarket, which will become the campaign nerve centre. Since ACT is broke, he is paying the bills until donations start rolling in.
Last weekend, at Gibb’s fantastical Kaipara Harbour playground, Boscawen and management consultant Whyte outlined their vision to the party’s board. The leader will be selected next week, and Boscawen has stepped down as president in the interim.
He recognises inequality as one of the buzzwords of the upcoming campaign. His quandary is how turn the so-called "party of rich pricks" into one that appears to care about the poor.
Under his leadership, ACT would target by the youth vote by pressing their buttons on housing affordability and rising pension costs.
"Will John Boscawen be able to motivate people? Absolutely. You bet. Because the superannuation ...it’s criminal, the young people are paying for it."
He wants to see the number of charter schools – a flagship ACT policy – boosted to 100. "We haven’t marketed ourselves as well as we should," he says.
"Our competitors...have pigeon-holed us in a certain box and we haven’t got over that. We need to talk about how you change people’s lives."
Around the parliamentary traps, Boscawen is renowned for lengthy monologues on a single subject. Opposition MPs used to amuse themselves by holding their breath until he uttered the phrase ETS [Emissions Trading Scheme] during debates.
Many openly speculate whether he is mildly autistic. This speculation appeared to be cemented in the 2009 Mt Albert by-election, when he continued speaking with a lamington sliding down his bald pate.
He temporarily stepped back from the ACT party after 2006 to concentrate on one of his personal political crusades – the Electoral Finance Act, sinking in more than $140,000 of his own money, launching a court challenge and organising rallies. He was also doggedly fixed on tougher controls for finance companies and the ETS.
Former ACT leader Richard Prebble has described him as "boy scout sincere."
Whyte agrees he is not a natural politician. "He is certainly uncomplicated. I don’t think he can tell a lie."
A query about his perceived lack of charisma generates a lengthy answer weaving around charter schools, his time in Parliament and appearances on TV show Bank Benches, before he has to be gently reminded of the original question.
Like everyone, Boscawen has his quirks. In strange contrast to his serious demeanour he has a penchant for sticky, sweet drinks like pina coladas and Bailey’s Irish cream. "I don’t eat so many lamingtons these days," he jokes.
With his long-term partner Jane by his side, he has travelled to more than 100 countries. Switzerland, which he visited as a young man, remains his favourite. He bought a holiday home in Queenstown because it reminded him of the alpine landscapes.
Jane doesn’t want him to reveal any details about their relationship. The couple are soon to take possession of a retro-doodle, the pup of a Orakei neighbour’s dog.
"I’m not going to be doing Dancing with the Stars, no," he concedes.
But he says he can be "emotional" especially about the failures of the education system.
"I do have a personality. I’m passionate. I know New Zealand could be so much better...People say to me that I can explain things in a simple way," he insists, before meandering off on another soliloquy about the benefits of charter schools.
Later, he calls back to earnestly recall one of his proudest moments from Parliament: that he is the only MP in living memory to have delivered two maiden speeches – after being required to first speak in an urgency debate.
During his five years at Parliament, he was ACT’s housing, transport, energy and economic development spokesman, parliamentary leader and the consumer affairs minister.
In the last two decades, only his devotion to his family has interrupted his dedication to free-market politics. In 2001, he stood aside to care for his cancer-stricken mother Beverley, who turns 83 this week. In 2011, it was her ill-health that brought about his retirement from Parliament.
Friends say he felt duty-bound, as an only child, to devote his time to the woman who sacrificed a career to raise him. His sister Leanne was killed, aged 20, in a car accident which had a "deep effect" on his family.
Boscawen’s father Owen was a pupil and later teacher and principal of Otahuhu College, where he sent his children.
Boscawen is fond of the school, quoting its motto, Kia Tamatane, during his final speech to Parliament, and inscribing it on his father’s tombstone. It means "be like Tamatane" - a lazy boy who strived for a better life after talking with a priest.
A former colleague says people are often surprised at how soft-hearted Boscawen is. "He’s very clever, and give him a project and he’ll do it, no matter what comes up in his way...[but] he’s a genuinely good, decent person with integrity. They are qualities that you don’t often associate with politicians. I have no idea why he wants to be a politician."
Former leader Don Brash, who has known Boscawen since 2008, says: "He’s actually a very caring person and thinks the idea of giving people financial independence is a hugely good idea."
Boscawen explains he was motivated by the kindness shown to him during his financial struggles, and was inspired to join ACT after hearing a speech by education advocate Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi at a party meeting in March 1995. "Because people supported me through my difficult time, I became a lot more interested in public service."
He later struggled with "personality politics" and ACT’s internal strife, perplexed as Hide and his deputy Heather Roy tore each other apart in 2010. The coup which saw Hide ousted as leader in favour of Don Brash also troubled him.
But Boscawen was not immediately taken with the charismatic Hide, and backed Franks in a 2004 contest to be leader. oscawen admits the pair disagreed over superannuation policy. He eventually recognised Hide’s talents, becoming a loyal deputy. Until a fortnight ago he was pushing him to once again stand as leader, reluctantly offering up himself once Hide, and former president Catherine Isaac, ruled themselves out. He admitted this week he was encouraged by a former National office holder, but won’t say who.
Boscawen accepts the party has lost credibility, and believes a return to ACT’s core libertarian principles will revive its chances. Fresh blood and new ideas are necessary, but he says the party needs to be guided by someone with parliamentary experience.
"I rate both Jamie and David [Seymour] very highly...and had I believed their strategy had the best chance of success I would not return to Parliament."
- © Fairfax NZ News
A "fat tax" on sugary drinks is:Related story: PM rejects 'fat tax'