Leading lights of the right: New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei, National leader Simon Bridges, ACT leader David Seymour
Leading lights of the right: New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei, National leader Simon Bridges, ACT leader David Seymour

PoliticsFebruary 5, 2020

The fight for voters on National’s right

Leading lights of the right: New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei, National leader Simon Bridges, ACT leader David Seymour
Leading lights of the right: New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei, National leader Simon Bridges, ACT leader David Seymour

In an MMP election that could come down to a few percentage points of wasted vote, two parties on National’s right flank are going toe to toe. Alex Braae reports. 

In throwing one right wing party a lifeline, National might have just sounded the death knell for another.

When Simon Bridges announced that he would not work with NZ First after the election, he also indicated that he’d be happy to see National voters in Epsom continue to back local MP and ACT leader David Seymour. Because of the coat-tailing provisions in MMP, that dramatically increases the possibility of ACT both returning to parliament, and bringing in more MPs than just Seymour for the ride.

But it is also a significant move in the wider struggle for space to the right of National, as it sends a clear message to those voters that other parties won’t be offered a similar deal. In particular, that leaves the New Conservative party out in the cold.

It might seem like an irrelevance, given that both ACT and New Conservative have typically been polling between 0-2% over this term (with ACT’s numbers rising slightly higher in recent months.) However, the nature of MMP typically makes elections much closer, and a few percentage points on the margins could be the difference between which major party gets to govern.

Just as the Greens falling under the 5% threshold would be a disaster for Labour, a similar share of the right-wing vote being wasted would probably doom National’s chances. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many voters are in this group, but in 2014 the Conservative Party (predecessors of New Conservative) got 4%, and other voters with views on that spectrum have variously backed ACT, National, NZ First and various Christian-based parties. Vision NZ will also be running in 2020, but are yet to register in the polls.

New Conservative party leader Leighton Baker on The Project (Screenshot: Mediaworks)

In a statement, National leader Simon Bridges kept his distance without ruling New Conservative out definitively. “It will be an uphill battle for them to get into Parliament, but we will work with anyone who wants to be constructive in the next Parliament,” he said. There was no further comment about whether there were concerns within National, over some New Conservative ideas being perceived as too extreme to be associated with.

It’s always a difficult question for major parties, in working out how closely they can be tied to parties on their flanks. Labour was memorably dragged down in 2014 by the perception – heavily promoted by National – that if they formed a government it would be beholden to polarising figures like Hone Harawira and Kim Dotcom. In the end, Internet-Mana failed to win seats, making it a moot point.

While the underlying philosophies of the ACT Party and New Conservative might be very different, many of their current policy positions are similar. In 2019, for example, both placed a heavy emphasis on opposition to the government’s changes to firearms laws, opposition to the Zero Carbon bill, and various free speech causes.

ACT leader David Seymour didn’t pull any punches with regards to voters who might be wavering between the two. “Oh look, I respect the right of voters to waste their vote on a party that won’t be in parliament, and end up getting the exact opposite government to what they wanted. They’ve got every right to do that.”

ACT leader David Seymour with the new party slogan and colours (RNZ – Jessie Chiang)

He said that the value of having a clear pathway to parliament was often underestimated, and noted that according to current polling ACT are in a position to bring in “between two to three MPs”, with the potential to go higher. By contrast, New Conservative are looking at a massive slog to get up to the five percent threshold. Over the last decade, only NZ First have managed to crack 5% from outside parliament.

“All these people run around saying we’re going to break five percent, we’re going to be there. You look at all the big names, with big money, and a proven ability to get attention, like Gareth Morgan, Kim Dotcom, Colin Craig. None of them got close,” said Seymour.

That’s not the way that New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei sees it. He laughed at Seymour’s characterisation of wasted votes, and noted it was consistent with how ACT had approached the relationship between the two parties.

“We have noticed a growth of their people – including their senior advisor [Andrew Ketels] actually trolling our threads. Which has been great, I love it.” Ikilei suggested it was a sign ACT were worried about competition, saying “if you’re not a threat, there’s no reason to oppose or troll another group.”

From his point of view, there is much less overlap between the support base of the two parties than might be assumed. Among the issues that he cited as points of difference, Ikilei said the fundamental point was “how we view life.” He says Seymour’s sponsorship of the assisted dying legislation will be a deal-breaker for many conservatives.

New Conservative deputy leader Elliot Ikilei acknowledging protesters at a fractious University of Auckland debate in 2018 (Image: via Facebook)

“Effectively when it comes to libertarianism, it’s ‘I do I and You do You’. A conservative removes their personal desires and thoughts and opinions out of the decision making process. So what’s going to hurt or harm, on balance, our people. And then the decision making flows from there,” he said.

As for the relationship with National, Ikilei said there had been no discussions between the two parties, and suggested that wasn’t necessarily a bad position for New Conservative to be in. “That’s probably a bit of a mutual thing,” he said, “and we’re cautious about any kind of deals, perhaps because we’re not really politicians.” He clarified that National would absolutely be the preferred major party for New Conservative.

One opportunity that might have presented itself for New Conservative has come from NZ First being ruled out by National. A reasonable share of NZ First voters at the last election would have preferred to see a National government, and according to Ikilei, many of them have since defected to New Conservative. It’s possible more will now be looking for a place to go.

If there is going to be any hope for New Conservative to break through, it will almost certainly only come through activist energy on the campaign trail, and picking up endorsements from other right-wing figures. A recent one came from Dieuwe de Boer, a hardline conservative political activist who was recently raided by police over a suspected illegal firearm (none were found.)

It went up on Right Minds NZ, which describes itself as “a broad-church right-wing movement for New Zealand conservatives, libertarians, traditionalists, capitalists, and nationalists.”

In a long endorsement post, de Boer said he was initially dismissive of New Conservative, but has since been won over. “New Conservative is building up a grassroots movement and much of their rhetoric is honed in on fighting the culture war. For me, that’s key.”

For him, the actual electoral prospects of New Conservative was less important than what they stand for. De Boer said he had “encountered many who don’t believe they’ll get there—perhaps I don’t really either—but that does not matter to me. There’s no one else for a conservative to vote for.”

In the final Colmar-Brunton poll of 2019, New Conservative were sitting at 0.8%. That’s a long way away from reaching the threshold, and it highlights what will likely be the biggest ongoing problem for the party. Even a share like that could be decisive in a more established party gaining another seat, and voters will know that.

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