OPINION: The ACT Party board is taking a gamble by appointing Jamie Whyte the new party leader and David Seymour the Epsom candidate for the general election. It may be, in fact, a do-or-die decision for the party, which has been in existence for almost 20 years.
Whyte and Seymour together present the appearance of a party attempting to reinvent and capture a younger demographic. Whyte is 48 (younger than both John Key and David Cunliffe), Seymour is 30. Whyte has a doctorate in philosophy and has been a Cambridge academic and Times columnist in Britain, where he has lived for most of the time ACT has been in existence. Seymour, who also has degrees in philosophy and engineering, has been with the party since his student days and worked as an adviser in the office of current leader and lately sole ACT MP John Banks.
The pair's appointment to the two key posts seems to be a deliberate attempt by the party to make a new start while Banks faces court charges of allegedly filing a false electoral return, and following an opinion poll that put ACT's electoral support at zero. In its heyday, in 1999 and 2002, ACT could command 7 per cent of the vote and nine MPs. Now, its parliamentary survival seems to hang on Seymour's performance in Epsom and Whyte's appeal to party voters nationwide.
One of the quirks of the MMP voting system is that a party that can win any electorate can bring in list MPs, even if it polls below the 5 per cent threshold. With the knife-edge electoral balance of recent years - forecast to be even closer this year - those handful of seats can be crucial to forming a government. This means that, like it or not, ACT and its potential one or (less likely) two MPs are still a force to be reckoned with.
Prime Minister Key would probably prefer to do his reckoning on ACT stalwart and financial supporter John Boscawen, who he had endorsed as someone he could work with in a coalition. Following ACT's rejection of Boscawen, Key has declined - at this point - to advise National's Epsom voters to support Seymour, which will make ACT's survival bid even harder.
Whyte believes potential voters might have been turned off by the party becoming "a bit of a soap opera" with petty scandals and infighting, and that might well be true. His job now is to present a steadier and surer image to convince voters who supported ACT in the past to come back to the fold.
The way the MMP voting system is working at the moment means that a party on the outside of National's centre-Right position is probably inevitable. At times, support for that sector of the Right wing has been substantial - in the 1999 and 2002 elections more than 145,000 people cast their party votes for ACT. Now, with such a sharply new and determined change of direction, it remains to be seen what the electorate can expect from the two relative unknowns who are Whyte and Seymour. And if they can retain Epsom and claim back even a fraction of past support, they might have a disproportionate influence on a future government.
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