ACT stronghold on Epsom due to far more than National goodwill

Like his predecessors, ACT leader David Seymour has proved the doubters wrong, as his party continues to hold onto the ...
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Like his predecessors, ACT leader David Seymour has proved the doubters wrong, as his party continues to hold onto the Epsom electorate.

OPINION: There's been a lot of derision thrown David Seymour's way lately.

The view seems to be that the Epsom MP owes his place in Parliament through National's charity. The suggestion is that he's somehow less legitimate as a result. This notion has become widespread.

Before the election, I played golf with a friend who insisted he couldn't respect Seymour as he had not "earned" his place in Parliament. Winston Peters called him "the most expensive beneficiary in the whole country".

One political reporter ridiculed him last week for having the temerity to believe he would have won Epsom without National's help.

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Before we get into this, let me lay my cards on the table. I have been quite critical of David Seymour. Our political and philosophical views do not really align. I doubted that his strategy for renewing ACT would work. When Trans Tasman named him its 2015 Politician of the Year, I was a dissenter.

But the idea that he hasn't earned his place in Parliament can't be sustained. And there is more than a twang of revisionism in the suggestion. Some remedial history seems to be in order.

The people of Epsom have been returning ACT candidates since 2005, when Rodney Hide won the seat. This was the year of the original "cup of tea" between Don Brash and Peter Dunne. No such implicit endorsement was given to Hide that year.

Indeed, National actively sought to retain the electorate. Incumbent MP Richard Worth had a very large majority and no interest in losing the seat. Moreover, the received wisdom was that tilting at Epsom was a desperation move from ACT with no real chance of success.

But Hide won.

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As an aside, this wasn't the only time this happened that year. The Māori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell won a solid majority in Waiariki, despite Labour's decisive party vote victory there. The same thing happened with Pita Sharples in Tāmaki Makaurau, Tariana Turia in Te Tai Hauāuru and Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau. When voters in an electorate are canny enough, they will vote tactically.

So Hide became Epsom's MP in 2005 and defended the seat in 2008. By now, the National leadership was more comfortable with not holding Epsom. This did not apply to now list MP Richard Worth, who wanted the seat back.

He talked up his chances and argued that ACT's radical disposition on things like, for example, school zoning made Hide a bad fit for the seat. "If there's going to be a true contest of ideas in this election, the ACT policies just are not attractive to Epsom voters," Worth said.

But Hide won.

In 2011, Hide was gone and John Banks stood in the electorate. National gave an overt signal to voters in the seat that it would prefer Banks to be elected (while still standing a candidate). The endorsement notwithstanding, the prevailing view was that ACT would struggle. "Epsom voters taking away ACT's lifeline" proclaimed a New Zealand Herald editorial.

But Banks won.

When the next election year rolled around in 2014, Banks was gone. At the start of the year, prediction market iPredict forecast a 74 per cent chance that ACT would win no electorates. David Seymour was selected, proclaimed a lightweight, and ridiculed by the media throughout the campaign.

But Seymour won.

He won this year too – with a greatly increased majority.

So, looking at all this, there's a reason why sneers about David Seymour and Epsom are misplaced.

First, there's no way to know how decisive National's endorsement was. It certainly helped. But there's no way of knowing what Epsom voters would have done without it. If it's facts you care about, though, then it's worth remembering there was no deal in 2005. Epsom went for ACT this year on the strength of the candidate's own campaigning and the independent agency of its voters.

Denying that is about as "post-truth" as it gets.

Secondly, it's not a great look for the political media, which before this year tended to predict an uphill climb for ACT in Epsom, to now claim to have a great insight into the minds of that electorate's voters.

If National's endorsement made it such a cinch, why was ACT supposedly on the brink of being tipped out of Parliament between 2008 and 2014? You can't have it both ways.

Lastly, let's say Seymour only won the seat because National gave him the nod. So what?

Before winning the deep-red Mt Albert electorate, Jacinda Ardern failed to win an electorate three times. This included the theoretically safe Labour seat of Auckland Central, which she actually lost twice. Three times, however, she entered Parliament due to being placed very, very high on the party list.

And if Seymour hasn't earned his place in Parliament, how has Ardern earned hers? How has anyone?

 - Stuff

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