The Act Party deputy leader wants to unseat National’s Simon O’Connor in the ‘true blue’ seat of Tāmaki, in what’s quickly becoming a fascinating election year race. Stewart Sowman-Lund joins the campaign trail.
It’s a crisp Saturday morning in May and Brooke van Velden pulls up to the kerb in a Honda Civic emblazoned with her face. She’s decked out in a vibrant pink puffer jacket. Along with yellow, it’s the Act Party’s colour, but it’s become van Velden’s on the campaign trail. Her wardrobe, I imagine, is a bit like Homer Simpson’s in its homogeneity, except every item hanging up is a variation of a pink jacket. With a stack of flyers (also pink and featuring her face), van Velden is about to spend the morning door knocking hundreds of homes in the upmarket Auckland suburb of St Heliers.
The fact the 30-year-old Act deputy leader is door knocking isn’t especially unusual. But the fact she’s campaigning to become Tāmaki’s next MP is. This is the first time the party has tried to win the seat and doing so would put an end to a 63-year run in the electorate for National. If successful, and assuming Act retains its stronghold of Epsom, the party will enter the next parliament representing a great swathe of east Auckland.
But it’s not going to be easy. Tāmaki is seen as “true blue”, though van Velden tells me that’s not necessarily the case as no other centre-right candidate has actively tried to win it before. It’s also probably the only electorate in the country that can provide a glimpse into tensions on the right side of the political spectrum, setting the scene for election day.
Tāmaki’s incumbent, National MP Simon O’Connor, couldn’t be more different from van Velden, despite coming from the same side of politics. He’s a staunch social conservative, and from a particular wing of National that is increasingly at odds with its party’s newer MPs. This conflict within the different branches of National has been exposed on several occasions in recent years, such as during the debate over conversion therapy. Van Velden, in contrast, is a young, classically liberal woman and a relative newcomer to politics. As Act continues to move its way into political territory that National once controlled, it’ll be banking on van Velden being both similar and different enough to O’Connor to clinch the traditionally conservative seat.
O’Connor clearly thinks it’s his race to lose. He told a Stuff journalist that it wouldn’t matter whether he was the candidate or not – Tāmaki was blue through and through. “They vote for the National candidate. So when I’m gone, they’ll throw their support behind my successor,” he said.
It’s the first day I’ve been out on the trail with van Velden, but we’ve been in touch over the weeks prior about how the campaign has been going. The night before, she excitedly texted to say a crowd of 200-plus had turned up for a Friday night town hall event. “A shame you couldn’t make it. Standing room only and a hugely warm reception. Literally out the door. For a Friday meeting too.” She also sent pictures showing dozens gathered around her for “street corner meetings”, an event style that her boss David Seymour has used extensively during his time as Epsom MP. It’s genuinely impressive, given these crowds are bigger than many pulled in for more visible National and Labour candidates. And these are events that van Velden is fronting alone. Gone, it would seem, are the days when Act was reliant on its high-flying leader to pull in a crowd.
All this is to say: van Velden is fully committed to the cause of winning Tāmaki. It’s a long shot, but it feels as though the odds are increasingly becoming shorter. The question is whether town hall momentum actually translates to votes, or whether those who attend evening political rallies are just the disgruntled minority that could be swung away from National.
Anti-O’Connor – or pro-Act?
Van Velden’s only been an MP since 2020, but had been a crucial part of Act’s behind-the-scenes team since 2016 (prior to that, she worked for Matthew Hooton’s PR and lobbying firm Exceltium). She’s credited with helping get cross-party support for Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill even before she’d been elected, having been “tapped on the shoulder” by Seymour to help the team in Wellington. In 2017, she ran at number three on the list and in the Wellington Central electorate, but was elevated to deputy leader ahead of the 2020 election when Act’s support skyrocketed.
A former Green Party supporter – “for my sins” – van Velden says she fell in line with Act during her years studying economics at Auckland University, which she attended after completing her schooling at St Cuthbert’s College. “The more I started to understand how the economy worked and about public policy, the more I realised that anyone can get up on stage and talk about being kind and wanting the world to be a better place, but unless it’s baked in with good public policy, some of the time it can actually make things worse,” she told a recent public meeting. She also objected to the Greens’ beliefs in environmental policy going “hand in hand with all that identity politics stuff, all that wokeness and cancel culture”. In Act, she says, she found people who wanted open dialogue and debate.
As we wander around the streets of St Heliers, accompanied by a volunteer, I ask van Velden what she’s hearing from her potential future constituents. Rising crime, she says, is the issue most often raised with her. “I know women who have bought dogs because they don’t feel safe going to the shops alone.” Most of the people who answer the door for van Velden on the day we’re knocking say as much, though some admit to not being personally impacted by crime. They’re still fearful; newly installed iron gates and security cameras decorate a number of impressive-looking properties.
Many also simply suggest it’s time for change in Tāmaki. They’d like to see a fresh face. One local, who claims he’s a distant relative of O’Connor, says he’s on the fence about voting for the National MP again, implying he’s not very active in the electorate. “If I did vote for National for the Tāmaki seat, I wouldn’t be voting for him,” they say. “If I vote for someone I wouldn’t mind hearing from them.” Another says they mainly encounter the National MP on social media, rather than out in the community. “I know he’s upset a few people with this religious leanings.” Last year, O’Connor made headlines for a Facebook celebration of the overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States, the law that legalised abortions. He later apologised.
The volunteer who has joined van Velden for door knocking says “a lot” of the response from locals has been more “anti-Simon O’Connor” than distinctly pro-Act. “He’s been an MP for 12 years and he only seems to crop up [in the news] when he’s done something…” she trails off.
Not everyone is thrilled to meet the Act candidate. One woman, who is in the middle of doing her washing when van Velden arrives, just shakes her head and politely says she’s not interested. Another cries out an unprintable expletive as we approach the front door, though it’s possible they would have been unhappy with any Saturday morning visitor. “That’s why I never door knock alone,” says van Velden wryly. At one home displaying a “no junk mail” sign, she slips a flyer into the letterbox and notes that, legally, election material doesn’t count as junk mail.
A couple of weeks later I’m in a small public hall in Ōrākei to listen to Simon O’Connor. About 40 people have turned out to hear from him and some up-and-coming National hopefuls. Act’s dream of winning Tāmaki barely comes up during the candidates’ pre-prepared remarks, but, in the following question and answer session, it’s not long before someone asks O’Connor to comment on the campaign to unseat him. He dismisses it as, in effect, attention-seeking.
“They’ll make a little bit of mischief to try and tell you again that splitting your vote between National and Act will make a difference – it won’t,” says O’Connor. “Act’s just, to be honest, causing harm to the centre-right vote out of vainglorious desire. Any Act voters here who want to report that back to David, you’re very welcome. All it’s going to do is mix up the vote between National and Act. It’s a cheap attempt and they’re welcome to give it a crack… Your worst case scenario is because of that, Labour comes back through the middle.”
I ask van Velden about this when we catch up for a Friday afternoon drink about a week later. She’s ordered an Earl Grey tea and we find a seat in the corner of the city centre’s Auckland Art Gallery Cafe. “Does he know who the Labour candidate is?” van Velden asks (for what it’s worth, O’Connor never said the name Fesaitu Solomone). “We have never stood a candidate in Tāmaki to win. In all previous campaigns in Tāmaki, our Act Party candidate has actively told people not to vote for them and to vote for the National candidate. That will not be happening in this case, we are campaigning to change the seat and get better representation.”
And it’s certainly not mischief making either, says van Velden. “I wouldn’t be standing in Tāmaki if I didn’t think the people wanted it. The momentum’s really building, that wouldn’t be possible if it was mischief making. It doesn’t harm the centre right at all, so he’s not correct.”
Act, too, appears confident about the appeal of van Velden. She was the only person in her party to put her hand up when electorate nominations opened and, she says, it followed numerous requests from Tāmaki locals for her to stand. (Van Velden actually lives just outside Tāmaki’s boundaries in the suburb of Greenlane, but says electoral lines weren’t on her mind when she was on the hunt for a house).
In recent months, the party has conducted its own focus group research in the electorate. While it wouldn’t release the findings to The Spinoff, the party’s said to be buoyed by them. “Act’s own opinion research suggested that, having been represented by the same party for over 60 years, Tāmaki locals are receptive to a younger, more dynamic and inclusive, locally-focused MP,” a spokesperson said.
Van Velden says it showed people were excited by the prospect of new representation. “A hundred percent of feedback has been ‘if this was an option, then we would give her our vote.’” In one focus group, a person listed nearly every single characteristic of van Velden before they knew who was standing, van Velden says. “Then when we gave him the option… he was over the moon.” There’s been some suggestion that internal polling in the electorate has the two candidates neck-and-neck, though van Velden wouldn’t comment.
More broadly, van Velden’s confident the growing support for Act (the latest polls have the party around the 12% mark, up from about 10% in 2020) is not just caused by disillusioned National voters who could swing back to the bigger party under a new leader. “I think it’s quite possible we could continue that trajectory and on our current polling we might get 12 or 15 MPs, but come election we might get 20. People have told us they feel listened to, they feel represented and they feel like we have solutions that solve their problems. It’s that simple.”
Standing room only
The night after O’Connor’s public meeting, van Velden has one of her own. It’s just a few kilometres away in the suburb of Stonefields. It’s standing room only when I arrive, at least 200 people packed into a local pub. It’s less white-haired than a recent Christopher Luxon rally I attended in Birkenhead, though the crowd still skews older. Van Velden has her talking points perfected, almost too perfected, as she rattles through her rise into politics and the Act Party’s priorities for the election. Like Seymour in his earlier years, van Velden occasionally struggles to come across as authentic during her pre-prepared remarks. To be fair, it can be difficult to make a rehearsed speech sound like an off-the-cuff address – and you don’t want to accidentally launch a new policy or call the country “wet and whiny”.
The group standing next to me were whispering throughout van Velden’s speech. “She must be indigenous… she’s tangata whenua,” they laugh after van Velden says her family moved to New Zealand before the Treaty of Waitangi. And, after van Velden refers to the health agency by its name of Te Whatu Ora, one woman mutters: “fucking Maoris”.
Act’s been criticised in recent weeks for “dog whistling” on issues of race. During a tense debate in parliament on the health agency’s “equity adjustor score” earlier in the month, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson accused the party of whipping up “racist opinions amongst the New Zealand public”. I ask van Velden what she makes of the comments I overheard at her rally and she doesn’t condemn them. She chooses to respond to the first remark, reiterating that her family did come to New Zealand before 1840, but acknowledging she wouldn’t call herself tangata whenua.
But is Act dog whistling on race, I press? No, she says. “What I’m hearing on the ground and what you might be picking up is people feel frustrated. People don’t feel they have the right to express their opinions and they are shut down. What we are also hearing is a frustration from people that government policy makes them feel like they no longer have a place in society,” van Velden says. “When you take the issue of government department names changing to Māori” – an issue that gained National its fair share of air time earlier in the month – “it is genuinely confusing for people… I think we do need to acknowledge that the Māori language has been taken up by the government much faster than it’s been taken up by the community and that does cause frustration.” There’s a feeling of resentment growing in the community that Act has tapped into, van Velden says, but the party isn’t dog whistling. “We do want to acknowledge that the Māori language is a beautiful language – but you still have got to be able to have proper communication to get by as a society.”
‘The party is larger than just David’
It’s likely been a while since Act had to think about its succession plan. From the years 2011 to 2020, any such plan first involved actually making it back to parliament. Now, with 10 seats and Seymour making it clear to me during an interview before the last election that he doesn’t want to hang around for ever, is van Velden being groomed for leadership? Certainly, she says, not any time soon – but maybe one day. “I think the reason why I am on the billboards… is to show to people that the party is larger than just David,” she says. “I would be very privileged if people put me in that position. Certainly I’m committed to the Act Party at this point in my life and I’ve committed six years to Act, but if it’s what the party wants long term…”
Van Velden’s mind may be more focused on any future government arrangement, though Act has made it clear it’ll be happy on the cross benches if National doesn’t commit to a swathe of bottom lines. She remains diplomatic when I ask if she likes Christopher Luxon. “I don’t have a lot of personal interactions with him but I think we’ll work well together as a coalition,” she says. “For me it doesn’t matter so much whether I like people personally, I have a job to do and that’s to represent people and it’s to pass good public policy.”
Could that job involve a ministerial position, I ask, as van Velden is currently her party’s spokesperson for health, housing, foreign affairs and trade. She says it’s a cheeky question, but admits these areas are her passions. She’s particularly proud of her advocacy work around medicines access and human rights abuses, citing her support for the Uyghur Muslims in China. “I think it is our duty to speak for people who don’t have a voice and I’ve tried to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves for medicines as well as those who are fearful of human rights issues in another country,” she says. Maybe associate health minister then, I suggest, to no response.
For the next three-and-a-bit months, though, van Velden’s squarely focused on the campaign in Tāmaki. She’s loving it (despite working 15-hour days) and gives a routine-sounding response about the “energising” thrill of just “meeting people”. But, she adds, moving off script for a moment, it can be hard and it can be exhausting. Politics is only everything until it stops being that. “My family gave me very good advice when I first got elected; if you find yourself getting up day after day after day and your heart’s not in it, then you should stop because there is more to life than just politics.
“But I get up every day and I feel like I want to work for people and I actively want to help solve people’s problems. I’ll be a politician for as long as I think I’m actually helpful.”