Fight for rights in the party

Roger Payne
Roger Payne

Roger Payne has proved a persistent ache in the backside of the National Party for the past eight years. Matthew Littlewood looks at the Orari farmer's long-running fight to reform the party's selection process.

Roger Payne is sure he is right. When he strides into the Herald office, it is with the absolute assurance of someone who cannot be diverted from his mission. He has a story to tell.

"It is all out there. My life is an open book," he says.

In Payne's eyes, his struggles to fight what he sees as the two major parties' "flawed" and "abominable" candidate selection processes are akin to Ralph Nader's battles with General Motors. Nader challenged GM over allegedly unsafe practices throughout the 1960s and 1970s and the corporation finally made seatbelts mandatory. Nader was vindicated and Payne says he will be, too.

"We are very rarely getting the party candidates we deserve," Payne says, "because the selection is decided by a small few."

Why is it, he wonders, that you can get up to 100 expressions of interest for a high-flying executive job, but scarcely anyone will put their names forward for the higher calling of public office? Why is it that promising candidates – such as himself – often don't even survive the first hurdle of the selection process?

Payne's story goes right to the top.

As he speaks to the Herald, largely unprompted, for nearly two hours, he says if he is successful in getting National's veto of his candidacy overturned and the costs he has been ordered to pay waived, democracy will be better served.

He says he has built up "an extraordinary number of high-level contacts" and has a lot of high-level support for his cause within the party. It is only a few who are keeping him from proving it.

Payne has made headlines again in the past couple of weeks, after the National Party attempted to have him declared bankrupt in an effort to recover costs from Payne's unsuccessful High Court petition for candidacy.

This week, he won a stay of execution, meaning the proceedings will be adjourned for three months and the various parties will discuss the best way forward. Payne is refusing to pay the more than $20,000 in court costs, not because he is bankrupt (his credit record proves he isn't), but as a matter of principle. He deems it to be in the public interest.

Payne says the latest news was the culmination of a sequence of events which even by his reckoning is bizarre.

"This is only the last card placed on a house of cards that has been built in systemic court failures. Once the cards in the house of cards are corrected the whole system crashes."

The case stems from a battle to become the National candidate for Selwyn in the 2008 election. David Carter was initially announced as the candidate but Payne, among others, felt the way he had been selected was untoward.

"There were four other prospective candidates who were interested. One of them was a person like myself, who had done a similar number of things in the trade industry, and I was encouraged that someone like him was willing to put his name forward.

"Instead of getting an interview, we all received a letter saying our candidature was rejected without reason. Shortly afterwards, The Press published a story which said Carter had been selected as the Selwyn candidate unopposed."

Appalled by what he saw as back-handed and "rigged" practices akin to match-fixing, Payne approached then-party president Judy Kirk.

The Press reported in December 2007 that the heads of three National Party branches in Canterbury, supported by Payne and 35 other party members, made a formal complaint about Carter's selection to Kirk, alleging breaches of the rules by the pre-selection committee.

The Selwyn candidacy was readvertised – Carter stood aside, and 10 people, including Payne, put their names forward. Carter got a position on the party list and was made Agriculture Minister after the 2008 election.

"If Carter had the same confidence in his own ability as I did in mine, he would have put his name forward," Payne said.

Payne's candidacy application was again rejected "without reason". He was not one of the five on the short-list.

"This was pure bully-boy stuff," he said.

He sought an injunction appealing the rejection but, for reasons too complicated to relate in full here, the case could not be heard until after the selection process – by which time Amy Adams had beaten the four remaining prospective candidates, Todd Nicholls, Alex McKinnon (son of former deputy prime minister Don McKinnon), John Stringer and Dugald McLean.

Adams won the Selwyn seat in the 2008 general election.

"If it hadn't been for me, there wouldn't have been the opportunity that Amy had got. So what I had done was basically create an MP career for her. I have nothing against her – we were never competitors," Payne says.

Payne lodged an election petition with the High Court. He lost the case, and after nearly a year's worth of court battles, was ordered to pay more than $20,000.

The reports of the case make colourful reading.

On April 19, 2008, The Press reported that Payne "compared his situation to Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela, both politicians who had overcome rejection", and said he was "ready to go straight into Cabinet and would win National Party selection for Selwyn easily if members were given the vote".

The National Party's lawyers said during the case that Payne was bankrupt (he denies this), and was disloyal in standing for Christian Heritage in Rakaia in 2002 when he had been a prospective candidate for National (this is true, but only part of the story, he says).

"Instead of exposing the selection fixing, the initial decision had endorsed that the process was OK. Amy Adams didn't come into it at all, it was about flawed process. At the very worst, if I had won, there would have been a by-election and I would not have got in because the very same people who rejected me were still on the selection committee.

"I have talked to a number of people since last week, and this whole situation has caused puzzlement. How can this come about?"

Justice Pankhurst's judgement said the reasons for National Party Board's veto were not only due to Payne's conduct in the 2002 Rakaia nomination and his public criticism of the remaining candidates, Mr Connell in particular, but also because of concerns surrounding Payne's conduct during "protracted Family Court litigation with [Payne's] former wife which resulted in numerous court hearings and, eventually, newspaper comment in 2005 concerning action taken to evict Mr Payne".

Payne says he still has enormous loyalty to the party.

"The National Party's principles of personal responsibility and fairness are my own. This is the reason why I have pursued it."

Andrew Geddis, Associate Professor at the Otago University Faculty of Law, gave Payne some advice, which included an article he had written on electoral law.

"[Payne] then used it as the basis for his complaint to the court (and which the courts subsequently cited a number of times)," Geddis says. He did not assist Payne further with putting together that complaint.

"[Payne] seems to be a man who has a very keen sense that he has suffered an injustice, and is prepared to fight to the bitter end (and beyond) to have that fact recognised. He seemed convinced that if the grassroots members of the National Party were permitted to hear from him and have the opportunity to select him as a candidate, they would do so," Geddis said.

The case is of very strong precedent value.

"It's the only time the law in this area has been tested post-MMP (and following the insertion of a requirement to follow `democratic procedures' into the Electoral Act 1993)," Geddis says.

"So the court's interpretation and application of the law in his case is essentially the only word we have on the legal duties that parties owe to prospective candidates."

Payne's battles with the National Party, however, stretch back even further – to his bid for the then-Rakaia electorate in the 2002 general election.

"I didn't approach the National Party, they approached me. The president at the time, Michelle Boag, had this idea that the party needed new blood, and the best way to get this was to approach people who had done a range of things, people who had seen a bit of life. She talked to a range of people, such as John Key and myself."

The Rakaia electorate was a true vacancy: former prime minister Jenny Shipley had retired, so Payne believed that, all things being equal, he had as good a chance as anyone.

"It sort of was obvious to me that I would be a suitable candidate, but I wasn't a member. Michelle told me it didn't matter, because she would offer me a waiver, much like she did with John Key."

Payne believed his career in the public service, which stretched from the Department of Agriculture to Treasury, as well as his business interests and work in the trade sector, put him in good stead. He received more than the 10 nominations required for candidacy.

While there were other prospective candidates, he says it soon became apparent there was only one frontrunner.

"I could see that in the real world, I was very competitive. But there was this man who began to make some amazing claims about himself. I thought I had done well, but this guy seemed to have topped all of us."

That man was Brian Connell, who was eventually selected for candidacy and won the Rakaia seat.

The other four candidates were Stuart Boag, (former Environment Canterbury councillor) Angus McKay, John Skinner, and (Conservation Minister) Kate Wilkinson.

Payne says his candidacy was shut down "without reason", and he was not one of the final five to go to a public vote.

By the time it got to that stage, Payne says it seemed the other four prospective candidates challenging Connell were unimpressive "straw men".

Eventually, he became increasingly concerned about Connell's claims about himself, to the point where he approached National and its president.

However, when the Herald approached Michelle Boag, she denied most, if not all, of Payne's claims.

"I never approached him to be a candidate, he approached me. I had no knowledge of him beforehand."

"I thought he was an articulate man, with a strong personality, who had a very high view of his own potential. I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, I am a glass half-full kind of person."

Boag says Payne's claims for himself were very high, particularly the long CV that he sent.

"I did not do any due diligence on them at that stage."

Payne says he was one of a number of people who became increasingly suspicious of Connell's background, but by the time he approached the party, Connell's candidature was sealed.

"But by that time I had gained so much experience I felt it would go amiss to waste it."

Payne says he was approached to stand for the Christian Heritage party – he took the offer, directly contravening what he had signed when he was a prospective candidate for the National Party.

However, Payne says he stood for Christian Heritage in the public interest, and with the understanding that National would support his move to a complementary, non-competitive party.

"I asked [the Christian Heritage party staff] where the money was going to come from, but they said the National Party people would encourage people to vote for me. The National Party reneged on the deal, but I am not a quitter."

Connell won with a substantial majority. Payne received 1100 votes, but he was pleased with the result, given the circumstances.

He didn't think much about it again – until he heard Connell's maiden speech, which he says was misleading.

Payne approached National MP John Carter and, with the help of many of Connell's former associates, gave him a report documenting his concerns.

The 14-page document quotes executives from PGG Wrightson and Westpac Trust, and sources a couple of concerned members of the National Party.

Payne says the party had to sack Connell.

As it happened, the National Party never actually sacked Connell – but the caucus did bar him from speaking in 2006, after a quite spectacular flameout in which Connell publicly criticised leader Don Brash, accused MP Nick Smith (now the Environment Minister) of trying to sabotage his career and stated his ambitions to be prime minister.

"His very downfall vindicated my very suspicions," Payne says.

Fast forward to today, and Payne says pretty much everything that he has suffered at the hands of the National Party is down to a few people who were scared of the fuss he caused.

Asked whether he would consider putting his hand up for National candidacy, he said he would do so again, but says that wasn't the point.

"I want to see good made of this story. Not for me, but for the community. It would be a shame for this scenario to be wasted."

"I am in a position to do something about this. Take Rangitata at the last election – there was a chance for a new candidate, and Jo Goodhew was the only nomination.

"We live in an age of fairness. There might be some grounds to stop people from running for candidature – they could have a criminal record – but those people wouldn't even be nominated in the first place. And you end up wasting a good candidate in the prime of their lives.

"I have been incredibly loyal to the National Party. I am a reasonable person. There have only been one or two people in the party who are against me. The president of the National Party, Peter Goodfellow, has nothing against me."

One of Payne's closest friends, Alan Henderson, director of sauna company Sunlight Wellness, believes Payne will prevail.

"Roger is an authentic Kiwi hero," Henderson says.

"I have admired the man ever since we were first elected to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in 1992."

Henderson was one of Payne's referees for his prospective candidature in 2008.

"When you see what Roger has been up against, the man's strength is just amazing. I embrace the man, he has more integrity and intellect than the entire National Party caucus."

He acknowledges Payne can polarise people.

"You can see why he gets up some people's noses, because he is so rigid and so proper, but the things he has done for the community are amazing. With him, it is others first, and Roger second."

Henderson says he admires the work Payne has done for Geraldine, particularly for the organisation Go Geraldine.

"I have lived in Wellington for more than 40 years, and I have seen what happens to enterprising people; they get knocked down by mediocrity, people who are afraid. This is what is happening to Roger."

Henderson is certain the truth will out.

Yet National Party member and blogger David Farrar, who vetoed Payne's application for membership in Wellington Central, has a different take.

"He had broken his written word to not stand against the successful candidate in Rakaia in 2002," he says.

"By doing so, he automatically forfeited his party membership and in my opinion should never have got it back. The declaration that you promise to support the successful candidate, if you do not get the nomination, is a very important one."

Payne argues his fight is for the greater good and that he had the word of National.

As for how to reform the candidate selection process, Geddis says it would be complex.

"It's difficult to create a "one-size-fits-all" process here. If you try to micro-manage the selection process through law, you inevitably invite more court cases," he said.

"Trying to have a judge determine who is right or wrong in such disputes just won't work. So the law probably does as much as is needed at the moment."

Geddis even goes so far as to say Payne probably made it easy for the courts to decide that the National Party's rule giving its board a veto power was lawful.

"Payne looks like just the kind of person the rule is there to deal with, and having such a rule makes sense when someone like him might otherwise become the party's public face for Selwyn.

"The initial Carter selection for Selwyn is a quite separate issue from Payne's later fight to get himself selected.

"In other words, just because National might have slipped up in how the initial choice was made doesn't then mean that the later selection process was flawed ... the party leadership may have felt that the way he drew attention shows he would not be a good "team player" within the party caucus, and so he shouldn't even have his name go to the floor. That seems a legitimate decision for a party to take."

Everyone the Herald has spoken to admits that Payne is persistent.

Whatever happens next, Payne feels he has been vindicated – Carter's selection process was exposed in 2008, Connell left Parliament in disgrace, and he has been granted a stay of bankruptcy proceedings to allow him to pursue the matter with the party.

"I am blessed with good health. I am 63, but age is just a number, you can have 50-year-olds who are very tired and very old in their ways, but I am still committed to the community."

Payne just wants justice, and fairness, and if the National Party were willing to offer him a place on the party list, all the better.

He says he will carry on until there is a better class of selection process, which will lead to a better class of candidates.

"When you look at so many of them, you get the sense that they are ruled by fear. It's easy to see why."

The Timaru Herald