In a surprising move, it seems ACT and the New Conservatives are contesting the same voter-pool on the right of New Zealand politics.
With National languishing in the polls, the vote to its right is obviously fragmenting, and it looks as though it is being divvied up between ACT, the New Conservatives, the NZ Advance Party and refugees from the train wreck that is NZ First.
At an ACT meeting in Nelson on Tuesday, the rivalry between the party and the New Conservatives was on full display.
What was surprising was that ACT is conventionally thought of as a libertarian party with a heavy emphasis on economic policy.
Yet at a one-and-half-hour meeting in front of about 30 supporters involving three of ACT’s top list candidates, the economy was barely mentioned.
Nicole McKee, Chris Baillie and Simon Court are ranked three, four and five on ACT’s list and on current polling would easily get into Parliament.
They are a diverse trio. And they took the time to set out their life stories.
McKee is a former legal secretary, occasional welfare beneficiary, competitive shooter and arms safety instructor who has become something of a pin-up for the shooters’ rights movement.
She lives in Wellington and has taken up hunting in the Remutuka hills near the city and likes to skin and butcher her animals at her Hataitai home and then hang them on the fence.
“One of the things that I have realised that I’ve taken for granted is that ability to jump in the truck and go over the hill and get an animal and bring it back and hang it,” she said.
“I just thought that that was a normal activity that we could do.
“And I’m realising now we’re starting to be restricted in that.”
Chris Baillie is a school teacher of special needs students, a former policeman and part-owner of a pub. He is a strong advocate of free speech which is a big issue not only in ACT but also the New Conservatives and Advance NZ.
“On my wall, in my classroom is ‘just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right’; and that’s on my wall in my classroom,” he said in his introductory comments.
“And it’s something I teach my kids at school, and I think it’s really important to try to defend, the value you place on free speech.
“I’m really concerned along with the ACT party about how our free speech is just being taken away from us under the guise of hate speech.
“It is going to punish us for having an opinion and the thought of not being able to get my Welsh or Scottish fans a hard time is how silly it’s going to be.”
Simon Court started out as a BA student, backpacked through Europe and decided to become an environmental engineer and was then inspired to become a politician when he worked for local Government.
“Politicians who should be standing up and talking about the things that are important such as economic resilience, jobs and environmental sustainability are not saying that,” he said.
“And that has given me a great motivation.”
If there is one issue that unites all the right-wing parties, it is free speech and their opposition to toughened up hate speech legislation.
New Zealand’s Human Rights Act currently makes it a crime to “incite racial disharmony” on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” and is punishable by three months in prison or a fine of $7000.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, Justice Minister Andrew Little said he was going to review that legislation.
A wide-ranging paper produced last year by the Human Rights Commission canvassed applying anti-hate speech legislation to online speech and including religion as grounds for defining hate speech.
The right-wing parties often refer to the ban placed on Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from speaking on Council-owned premises last year as an example of what they oppose.
Southern and Molyneux hold far-right views on topics ranging from feminism and immigration to Islam and Southern was banned from entering the UK for her part “in the distribution of racist material in Luton”.
ACT would repeal existing hate speech laws and abolish the Human Rights Commission.
“The ACT party all about freedom of speech because you should be able to speak your mind to be able to have a debate; to be able to have a discussion and to walk away and say, I still don’t agree with you, but I’m pleased that we could actually have that discussion,” said McKee.
“Once you start legislating what you can and cannot speak about what you can and cannot see coming in from the internet then that personal responsibility has been taken away from you. “
This is a very similar argument to that promoted by the New Conservatives.
Their leader, Leighton Baker, told a rally in Auckland a fortnight ago that the biggest threat to democracy was the threat to free speech.
“Once you lose the ability to speak your mind on an issue, you lose the ability to discuss and debate all sides of the issue,” he said.
“And that means you are forced to go down one line, the only line you’re hearing.”
It is clear that ACT and the New Conservatives are competing for the same votes.
“The thing with New Conservatives is that they’re actually lying to people,” said McKee.
She said that they were making promises such as repealing all firearms legislation which they would not be able to implement unless they had 61 votes in Parliament.
“They have also said they are going to ban 1080 straightaway without a replacement in place, without a plan,” she said.
But a New Conservative supporter in the audience challenged the ACT trio saying that while he could agree with most of their policies, he could not see any Christian principles in those policies.
“I think all of us want to get Labour out of the way, so you’ve got the New Conservatives we’ve got ACT,” he said.
“I like almost everything about ACT, but I’ve got a real battle on over its obviously anti-Christian stance and the stuff that was against core Christian values, where the New Conservatives generally side with core Christian values.”
Again, it was McKee, who responded.
“Hence they are the New Conservatives, and we are ACT,” she said.
“So when it comes to those two particular issues, and I’m including End of Life Choice, we come back to that freedom of choice and the principles behind it.”
The questioner responded saying he understood that.
“But I think the ACT policy will alienate quite a large section of voters.”
McKee: “I’m sure it will, but I will say to you that a vote for the New Conservatives will be a vote for Labour because they are polling so low that they will not get in and that wasted vote will make it easier for Labour.”
The candidates’ meeting was unaccompanied by the live streaming and media that attend a meeting by ACT’s leader, David Seymour.
That media presence may explain Seymour’s caution over another favourite right-wing topic; China.
Even so, it was pretty apparent who he was talking about in Palmerston North a fortnight ago when he said: “I think there are some countries around the world that maybe we don’t want to do as much business as we have been doing because they don’t share all of our values the way we thought we hoped they would when we signed a free trade agreement with them.”
But in Nelson Simon Court was much more explicit.
“I’m very passionate about our friends in China because they want to come here and enjoy our freedoms, but that government is not a government that we want to do any more business with than we need to,” he said.
There are a great deal more issues on which ACT and the New Conservatives more or less agree which may explain why ACT feels obliged to keep attacking them.
In many senses, they are the Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola of this election campaign.