Nats hold back after ACT leadership change

NEW LEADER: Jamie Whyte speaking to the media in Auckland today.
NEW LEADER: Jamie Whyte speaking to the media in Auckland today.

Prime Minister John Key is so far refusing to call on Epsom voters to back ACT, despite last month naming the party in a list of potential coalition partners.

Newcomer Jamie Whyte and former ACT Auckland candidate David Seymour were named as the party's new leader and Epsom candidate respectively at the weekend.

That was over the head of former party president and political veteran John Boscawen, whom the prime minister had all but endorsed for both roles.

This morning, Key said ACT had decided to go for a generational change.

"It's interesting splitting out those roles," he said.

"You can sort of see the pluses and minuses of it, but in the end they're going to have to go out and do what every political party is going to do come election day and try and maximise your vote."

And Key said he would not be aiding them to do that just yet by telling Epsom voters how to cast their votes.

"It's not [the message] at this point," he told Breakfast.

"What I said earlier in the year when we laid out who we thought we could work with, and ACT was clearly one of those parties, was that come the election, and obviously before that, we wanted to be a little more transparent than maybe has historically been the case with political parties."

Whyte was refusing to call his party, which polled at zero per cent in the first major poll of the year, a "poisoned chalice".

"My view of why it's sitting at zero is that although there are a lot of people in New Zealand who agree with what ACT believes in, they've stopped hearing about it from us," Whyte told Firstline.

"They keep hearing about ACT, there have been a series of petty scandals and some stuff about infighting and so on, and we've become a bit of a soap opera."

He said he was confident he could turn the result around.

"We need to go back to where we once were, where we were a party of clear bold ideas and principals. When we were like that we had about 7 per cent support," he said.

"We're not going to get 7 per cent by the election, but we can start moving in that direction and I plan to do that by returning to those roots."

Whyte said his selection ahead of Boscawen's wouldn't hurt the party's chances of working with National.

"All they really said was John Boscawen was somebody they know, somebody they've worked with before and he's a reliable guy, which is true," Whyte said.

"By going with me instead of John . . . John probably was the safer option.

"I think the board of the party who made the decision, have decided they want to show a little bit more ambition, they think that I can spread the word, get the vote up around the country and that's what they've punted for."

Meanwhile Boscawen has said he could not back the party board's decision to split the roles of leader and Epsom candidate - an electorate crucial to ACT's survival.

If ACT fails to lift its 1.07 per cent share of vote from the 2011 election, Seymour could be the party's sole MP, leaving Whyte, 48, as a leader outside Parliament.

Boscawen quit his role as party president immediately after the decision was announced.

"This strategy, I think there is a real risk we will get no MPs," he said.

"I'll be very happy to be proved wrong. I think the National Party will sit back and watch and see how things unfold."

Boscawen has poured tens of thousands of dollars into the party in his 17 years as a member.

He has now also pulled out of bankrolling a campaign call centre and offices in Auckland, but insisted he was not "throwing my toys out of the pram".

Fairfax Media