The ACT party held its campaign launch in Auckland on Sunday and unveiled new policies, with a new team it hopes will bring a return to the days when it was more than a one man band. Mark Jennings reports.

If the number of people paying to attend a political campaign launch is any indicator of electoral success then ACT is on its way up. The ASB theatre on Auckland’s waterfront almost proved too small to seat the crowd of around 600.

ACT leader David Seymour boasted that at least 540 of them had swelled the party’s coffers by paying $50 each to attend. A light lunch was thrown in.

Seymour received a spontaneous burst of applause when he arrived at the packed theatre straight from an appearance on TVNZ’s Q & A programme.

The Party’s former leaders, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Don Brash, John Banks and its biggest donors, including Dame Jenny Gibbs, sat in the VIP seats.

President Tim Jago strode to the stage and announced ACT would spend a million dollars on its election campaign and if the current trend in opinion polls continued over the next two months ACT could end up with 7 MPs. Party membership had more than doubled in the past twelve months, he said.

The confidence exuded by Jago and Seymour on Sunday was in marked contrast to a year ago.

Back then, ACT was struggling. Fewer than 200 had turned up to the party’s annual conference and only the stalwarts were buying the T-shirts.

Seymour was wondering what, if anything, he could do to get traction with voters.

The Colmar Brunton Poll then had the party at 1 percent and going nowhere. Seymour himself had been reduced to the ridicule of reality TV in an effort to boost his profile.

Jago, as new party president, gave an uninspiring speech as ACT revealed its new branding. The only difference seemed to be the addition of the colour pink to its logo. Seymour admitted he was struggling to attract high calibre candidates with electoral appeal.

Twelve months on, things look very different.

Deputy leader Beth Houlbrooke has gone and been replaced by 27 year old Brooke van Velden – a staffer in Seymour’s office.

Seymour describes her as “very smart and the most likeable candidate that ACT has ever had.”

Van Velden did much of the work on Seymour’s ‘End of Life Choice’ bill that passed through Parliament in November last year.

She is well known, and said to be well thought of, by the parliamentary press gallery. Seymour acknowledges his deputy’s relationship with the media is an important asset for the party and, in an interview with Newsroom, added:  “Those press gallery journos love her.”

A former St Cuthbert’s pupil, van Velden is likely to be Seymour’s successor in Epsom.

She joined ACT almost by accident after walking into a bar in Mt Eden where Seymour was holding a meeting.

The party will be hoping that van Velden can grow its appeal with younger voters. Her speech on Sunday was polished and focused on issues that resonate with the demographic – jobs, housing and mental health.

ACT’s new line-up is clearly designed to have diverse electoral appeal.

Rural spokesman and 8th on ACT’s party list, Northland dairy farmer Mark Cameron, wore his gumboots on stage and told the audience rural New Zealand had been abandoned by the past two governments. Cameron described himself as a “head-down, bum-up sort of guy,” who had milked “300 cows twice a day for 32 years.”

Nelson secondary school teacher Chris Baillie is an interesting addition to ACT’s stable.

A former policeman of 14 years, Baillie ripped into his teaching colleagues who had supported students attending climate change protests describing them as “buddies (of pupils), not educators” and “accepting of truancy.” Schools, he said, had become part of the “cauldron of woke conformity,” but he claimed many of the kids he taught could see through it.

“The thought police are out in force….We now have casual dress days instead of mufti days. I haven’t been able to find out what is wrong with the word mufti.”

Baillie, number four on the list, is also the owner of the Honest Lawyer pub in Nelson and brings familiarity with the SME sector – another group to be wooed at election time.

ACT’s biggest vote winner is likely to be its star recruit and third on the list, Nicole McKee.

McKee runs a firearms instruction business and previously worked for a gun importer. She represented New Zealand – “I’ve worn the black blazer with the silver fern” – at fullbore rifle shooting.

McKee, a mother of four, gives the impression she is not a person to be messed with and told a hushed audience of a time when she was so broke that “the only meat we could afford was what we could hunt.”

Gathering her own “wild, lean and unprocessed meat” had turned her into a keen hunter.

McKee attacked the Greens for wanting to eliminate the Himalayan Tahr instead of allowing hunters to control the population.

“The Greens approved a plan to drive this animal to the brink of extinction. When the snow is so thick (in the high country) that they can’t run away – they send in the helicopters.”

McKee said ACT’s firearms policy was to stop punishing responsible firearm owners and go after the gangs and their guns.

Gangs caught with illegal firearms would have the assets seized. The policy, whether by design or not, is likely to appeal to the “law and order” vote as well as firearms owners.

Seymour estimates gun owners will give ACT at least another 1 percent in the party vote.

Seven of ACT’s 52 candidates are licensed firearm owners.

McKee also outlined two new welfare policies.

The first, an employment insurance fund that would see anybody losing their job paid 55 percent of their salary to a maximum of $60,000.

The second, “electronic income management” for some beneficiaries.

Instead of getting welfare payments in cash, these beneficiaries would get an electronic card that can’t be used to buy alcohol, tobacco or casino chips.

With three key policies announced by his “frontbench” Seymour devoted most of his speech to attacking the Government’s handling of Covid-19.

“We are given a daily dose of fear with tacit demands for gratitude. We are told that our options are either: Remain in almost total physical isolation from the world for an undefined future, running deficits, and borrowing money, or open up the border too soon, let Covid-19 back in, go back into lockdown, and possibly die.

“Some choices! In New Zealand, under this Government, you will either be dead, broke, or maybe just dead broke.”

Seymour called for an open debate on our options as a country including allowing Taiwanese tourists and Pacific Island horticultural workers back into New Zealand.

To some degree, Seymour was overshadowed by the new recruits but that is unlikely to have bothered him. At last, he has a team to campaign with.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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