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Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 8

Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 8

DAY EIGHT: IN WHICH THE LAST REMAINING INDIANS OF THE ACT PARTY TRIBE ARE DISCOVERED – AND OUR CORRESPONDENT STEALS A DINGHY

 

Election 2014! No; that’s not right; it’s got too many numbers in it for the present circumstances, a wet and windy Friday night with huge black waves clawing at the seawall on Tamaki Drive in Auckland, the dramatic setting of an Act Party public meeting which party leader Jamie Whyte advised would commence at 7pm in the pleasant rooms of the Tamaki Yacht Club.

A number of factors were immediately evident at the Tamaki Yacht Club at 7pm. One, it had off-street parking. Two, it had all-tide launching. Three, it did not contain therein any traces of an Act Party public meeting.

No signs. No posters. No nothing, so who were the merry group of people milling about at the bar, with nametags pinned to their breast, having a real good time? Excuse me, sir, is this the Act Party? “No,” said sir, “this is the Allison party.”

The Allison party! Shame they weren’t running for parliament! So what gives? What was with Whyte’s advice? Was Whyte whimsical? Had he played a prank, a jape, a hoax? A call was put through to Act Party headquarters at suite 2.5, level 2, 27 Gillies Ave, Newmarket, 09-523-0470.

The receiver was snatched up at the first ring. A nice man said, “No, he’s given you the wrong place. The meeting’s further along Tamaki Drive at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club.”

That’s a different kettle of fish. An entirely different prospect. As in somewhere else. “Yes,” agreed the nice man. “Go there and you’ll be on the mutton.”

On the mutton! It was a powerful incentive. Very well, then, and how far away was the entirely different yacht club, by foot? Oh probably about 20 minutes. All good. Tamaki Drive is one of the great walks of Auckland, curving alongside the harbour, past the famous Kelly Tarlton aquarium, beneath the magnificent Savage Memorial, with crunchy beaches and Kermadec Island pohutukawas.

But there was another way. An obvious way. Take previous note of the Tamaki Yacht Club’s all-tide launching – ahoy there! Permission to untie the knots of a dinghy, and travel to the Act Party public meeting across the water!

There was no one to ask permission, no one to debate whether it would constitute an act of theft or merely something borrowed and placed elsewhere. To sea! It didn’t look far! The tide was high, and there was a bit of chop, and that wind wasn’t whistling Dixie – it meant business. Still, no fears for steady men! With the evening spread out against the sky like a patient receiving shock treatment, the decision was made. What time is it? Just after 7pm. Very well. Let us go and make our visit.

It was an interesting voyage. The currents were fast and the tide flew in. Row! Row, you devil! No stars were necessary to guide the way; there was the cool blue glow of the Sky Tower. Row! Yonder that way, the squat dark lump of Mt Victoria across the harbour at Devonport; yonder this way, the beautiful and expensive hillside homes of Orakei, where you could see the silhouettes of so many National Party voters pacing their living rooms, no doubt drinking coffee and smoking big cigars. Yonder right in front of the boat, the long arm of the Orakei jetty – be careful! Row! No, not that way! God almighty, what was that in the water? A fucking shark escaped from Tarlton’s fishtank? Row, faster! The fizzing street lights on Tamaki Drive illuminated the pretty long-haired epiphytes swinging in the wind from the pohutukawa branches.

And then sound. It was the mournful bell from the tower at the Orakei cemetery, or urupa. Here were the last remains of the Maori village at Orakei. Five years after Maori returned from fighting for King and country in World War II, their homes and marae were pulled down at the village, and burned to the ground; Auckland’s council deemed the settlement an eyesore. It left a quarter acre for the cemetery. The tower bell clanged, and its deathly boing reached over the black water.

And then another, more cheerful sound – a sound like coins rattled in a jar, the familiar Auckland sound of the wind clattering the masts of yachts in a marina. Land! Land ho! Here be the Royal Akarana Yacht Club! Thank God for that! Many fears for steady men as the current and the tide swarmed at the boat in some mad rage and shook it like a baby.

Haul it up. Tie it up. Leave a note: “Property of the Tamaki Yacht Club.” Head inside the doors of the club. The time was 7.35pm. Look, a sign for the Act Party! Excellent. A poster of Act leader Jamie Whyte, his shaved head gleaming like a coin! The right place, at last. Turn left. A large room, a stage adorned with Act posters. About 40 rows of chairs.

With no one in them. The room was empty. The lights were on but no one was therein.

How the heart yearned for the Allison party at this moment. Any party would do. Poor, final Act! It had come to this: the party which carried the irate, sputtering flame of right-wing economic theory, founded in 1993 as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers by Sir Roger Douglas, a visionary whose lunacy was often mistaken for genius, made strong by subsequent leaders Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide (in its pomp it boasted 10 members of parliament), made weak by their successors Don Brash and John Banks, now down in the polls, down on its luck, deserted, abandoned… had finally vaporised.

 

They were on couches in the bar. “It was a bit of a disappointing turn-out,” conceded Act’s likeable, shaggy-haired candidate for Tamaki, Mike Milne, “so we thought we’d come in here and make ourselves more comfortable.” The turn-out was precisely 11 people.

It was like stumbling across a lost civilisation. The brightly lit bar of the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, with its model yachts and its mahogany boards bearing the names of those who have sailed from Auckland to Suva, felt like a clearing in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, or somewhere up the dense and mysterious Amazon – one of them central African tribes, say, who practice geophagy, the eating of dirt.

But they were clean, and rather quiet. If you held a public meeting on a Friday night at a yacht club on Tamaki Drive and attracted 11 people, you’d probably be humble, too. Party leader Jamie Whyte said, “The brand is pretty damaged.” He said he had been busy trying to rebuild it. What progress, what strides? He said when he first went out to meet The People, about five people would come along “and they’d bitch and moan about Act”. So things were looking up: Friday night at a yacht club on Tamaki Drive was over twice that number. No one bitched. There was a bit of moaning.

The brave 11 talked of many things. Whyte said, “The New Zealand Reserve Bank is actually pretty good at handling inflation.” A man wearing an anorak said, “Five per cent of people send their children to private schools. You should be pushing to that constituency.” Three bowls of hot chips arrived.

They discussed the Conservative Party candidate Christine Rankin’s campaign in Epsom. “We did a poll, which showed she’d got nothing,” said Whyte. “Nothing. Zero! It was a poll of about 290 people. Or maybe it was 200.”

Act’s David Seymour will win Epsom, thanks mostly to an arrangement with National, but also due to his own commitment to the cause. By September 20, Whyte said, Seymour will have knocked on 15,000 doors. “Hello! How’s it going!”, etc – that dim, weak face at the door, 15,000 times.

Anorak Man asked Whyte how many public meetings he’d held on the campaign. Whyte guessed more than the Prime Minister. “Fifty in the last month. Maybe 40.” There was still a lot to do before Saturday, he said. “I only discovered today there’s a minor-party leaders’ debate on RNZ on Tuesday.” He paused. “Is it Tuesday?”

He said Act had sent a letter to every farmer. “Farmers are property owners,” he reasoned, “so ideologically they should be Act voters.” He talked about Act’s call for harsher punishments for cattle rustlers.

And then he made a speech. “It’s interesting what people pick up on,” he began. “Has everyone heard of my bicycle helmet policy?” A woman in a beret shook her head. Whyte said, “it’s a little policy, but it’s a great policy.”

He explained the policy at great length. The compulsory wearing of helmets, he said, was a paternalist policy supposed to make people better off, but in fact had made things worse. How? Well, research showed that people don’t like wearing helmets, and as a consequence less people ride bicycles; as a consequence of that, people are less healthy, and get fat, and die early. “The law actually costs 50 lives a year! We should get rid of that law!”

That policy, he said, had attracted more likes on Facebook than any other Act policy.

 

A couple in their 50s left. Now the tribe was nine. They included a large man with abundant grey hair who wore a leather jacket with the legend FLYING TIGERS on the back. There was also a small man in his 60s who didn’t say a single word. Beret Woman, who came with Anorak Man, said she wasn’t an Act member, and didn’t know how she would vote on September 20. She sat forward on her couch, and said to Whyte, “Give me five points why I should vote Act.”

A challenge! Was he equal to it? He leaned forward. The light caught the shiny coin of his head. Whyte, the Cambridge philosopher; Whyte, with his PhD on Truth. What was forming in that splendid mind? What beautiful illuminations therein? It was an exciting moment. And then the moment passed, because he began talking.

And talking, and talking… talking… talking… another sailor made it from Auckland to Suva and back again… talking… the boing of the urupa bell tolled for the souls of the dead until the end of time… talking. “If you want to be free, you have to be responsible… Act is an intellectual movement… A think-tank…”

He didn’t raise five points. He didn’t raise a single point. Beret Woman and Anorak Woman eventually got up to go. Would she act for Act? “I don’t know,” she said. Her face was as closed as the door that Anorak Man shut behind her.

 

Now the tribe was seven. They included Whyte’s best friend, Tim, who owns a computer company. He said he’d known him since he was 15. He got up and stood behind Whyte for a moment during the evening, and put his hands on his friend’s shoulders. Tim was dark, tall, handsome; there was also something vague about him, similar to Whyte’s vagueness. It was nice seeing them together. They were close, physical. They had a bond. They both had very good, trained minds – they both had an aspect to them that was elsewhere, dreamy, foggy. It was an appealing quality but strange to witness in the leader of a political party.

Whyte, abstract; Whyte, not the kind of character who fills a room. Another man in an anorak said, “You should get people to listen to you.” Whyte told Anorak Man II, “I’m not sure how to do that.”

Act needs to get 1.2 per cent of the party vote for Whyte to get into parliament. Polling at TV3 has measured their support at 0.6, and 0.3, but Whyte pointed to a Colmar Brunton poll which measured Act at 1.2. He knew it was going to be tight on the night. If he failed to be elected, would he quit as leader?

“Mmmm,” he said. And then: “I don’t know is the honest answer. I think it’s hard to anticipate your feelings. And I’d have to talk to the board about it.”

It was probably the shortest speech he made all night but it rather lacked in dynamics. The empty room next door, the nonsense he’s said these past few months about incest, about Maori privilege, about fucking bicycle helmets – what on earth was he playing at? Every newspaper or magazine profile of Whyte is gentle and affectionate. He doth not inspire dislike. But he doth not inspire anything much. He has gentle eyes, and a small man’s vulnerable manner; if not for the right-wing tick-tock clanging away in his brain, you might easily mistake him for a Green; where was the rhetoric, the rich promise of something, anything?

There! There it was! In a burst, it came charging into the room, and out of the mouth of Leather Jacket. He boomed: “What Jamie brings to the financial table is the cure for the country!” Huzzah! God almighty, that’s all Whyte ought to have said to Beret Woman – flat tax, end corporate welfare, all that good shit! It’s intoxicating. More!

Leather Jacket had more. “Jamie is a leader in the best traditions of Act.” Zing! Um – what tradition is that? “He’s cerebral.” No, wait, hang on a minute, mate. What about Whyte’s predecessor? “Oh, him,” said Leather Jacket, unable to form his lips and larynx around the dread name of John Banks. “Yes. Well. Greatest blunder of all time!”

“No more rolling,” vowed Whyte, of the coup that removed leader Rodney Hide in favour of the wretched Banks. And then: “No roll room left.”

No roll room left. And then no one left; the meeting, if that’s what it can still be called, adjourned. Leather Jacket was full of cheer and bonhomie. The man who hadn’t said a single word left without a goodbye.

Mike Milne, who sat all night with a vast Act rosette pinned to his chest like a bride or horse wearing a black and yellow bouquet, said he was going to spend the last week doorknocking the good people of Tamaki. He said he hadn’t had time to do that yet. He had devoted the past few weeks to delivering personal letters to possibly every household in the electorate. O mailman! “Well,” he said, “that’s if they’re read.”

Whyte and Tim, small and tall, left together, two old friends adrift on the black political sea. They turned, and lifted their hands. Waving, or drowning?

 

Previously: Cactus Kate breaks her silence – and six other expatriate New Zealanders share their thoughts on what the election looks like from far away.

 

Illustration by Joshua Drummond.

Politics