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The Nation; Hide, Graig & Stephen Franks

'The Nation'
Rodney Hide & Panel
Colin Graig & Stephen Franks
Interviewed by DUNCAN GARNER

Duncan Joining me now is Rodney Hide in Wellington, good morning Rodney. I just want to clear this up pretty quickly. If there was to be a bi-election in Epsom as soon as result of anything that may happen to John Banks, what would be your position, would you look for a return to politics?

Rodney Hide – Former ACT Leader
No.

Duncan Why not?

Rodney Oh look I love every minute I was in parliament and it was a huge privilege to be the MP for Epsom, but look I think it's important that we do have a turnover of you know politicians and you know get the next generation in, and so that’s my view and look I didn’t want to leave parliament obviously, I was dumped. But you know that’s how politics works.

Duncan You talk about the next generation there and you know that’s what obviously this programme is about this morning. What is the future of that right wing party, I mean is ACT, do you think in 2014 as a result of the antics you’ve seen around John Banks over the last 10 days, two weeks?

Rodney I don’t believe so, I mean it's always tough for the ACT Party, god don’t I know it, and when you're supporting the government particularly with just one MP you do come under a lot of heat, and you know I think it's in for a difficult time, but I wouldn’t write it off, ACT's been written off many times before and it's still there.

Duncan But how can you have and I look at what John Armstrong political writer for the New Zealand Herald says this morning, and he's effectively telling John Key to turn off the life support system for ACT. Do you think that’s a bit extreme do you?

Rodney No, I think it's what you know John Armstrong has done you know since ACT started.

Duncan What, write them off?

Rodney Yes.

Duncan What is the future though for a long term sustainable right wing partner? Are you sitting here this morning saying that it is ACT, that ACT haven’t been damaged in any way, that there is some kind of revival?

Rodney Look you know I might look you know stupid, but I'm not that – look ACT's in trouble and it's been in trouble for some time, but what you asked me was, as it finished and I said no. I said you know it's up to the voters and it's a long way to the next election and you know so I'm not ruling out the possibility that it can succeed as it has in the past. I'm not saying it's a done deal, I'm not saying it's certain, but at the end of the day it's not what you know John Armstrong writes today in the newspaper that’s going to determine the result, it's gonna be the performance of this government and the political parties through to the next election and what the voters make of it, because ultimately it's the voters of Epsom and the voters through the country that decide these things, not commentators.

Duncan I would argue with you that it's probably not up to the voters around ACT's survival, it may well be up to John Key's position around the ACT Party. I mean in many ways – didn’t he – I mean it was the cuppa tea that made John Banks gets over the line. Now if John Key as to say look we're going to stand someone decent and win this Epsom seat, ACT is dead, simple.

Rodney Of course, I mean I think that is the case. I think that was the case at the last election that required the Prime Minister's intervention. And again that’s an issue up in the mix, but I mean it's not a done deal. I mean at the moment the Prime Minister – look let's just all take a deep breath here and say okay poor old Johnnie Banks he's been under huge fire, and gosh I feel sorry for the guy actually, and it's move on from what he might have done wrong or not done wrong, to actually how he's handled it, which hasn’t been you know great. He hasn’t covered himself in glory. But you go back to the fundamental problem. We actually need to all take a deep breath, have the Police investigation if indeed there's going to be one, and find out whether he did break the law or not. That’s the issue.

Duncan Just moving this forward. Why couldn’t Colin Craig's Conservatives if you like be that long term right wing partner for National. Let's say put ACT to bed, dead, and look at someone like Colin Craig's Conservatives. Why couldn’t they be seen as a long term …

Rodney Of course they could be.

Duncan But do you think they fit the policy mix with National?

Rodney Of course they could be.

Duncan But do you think they fit the policy mix with National?

Rodney Of course they could be, and I mean but again my point is that’s up to the voters and I'm not prepared to sit here and say you know in 2014 the voters are gonna choose this political party over this political party, or this candidate over that candidate. Ultimately we will see, and gosh I know in politics that a lot can happen in a couple of days, and so I wouldn’t rule out Colin Craig at all.

Duncan So if you're looking at a right wing party, someone like Colin Craig, they don’t agree with state asset sales, they don’t agree with the sale of Crafer Farms foreign investment if you like. What should the priorities be of a future right wing party, because if you're looking at mix of the conservatives and National, you'd have to think that they're not compatible if I put it like that.

Rodney Well look I think the risk with Colin Craig and the Conservatives is actually they'd get some votes but enough to get them over the 5%, and therefore the votes like they were at the last election are totally wasted, and it comes at a huge cost to the centre right, because they need every vote that they can get. The challenge is always to win an electorate seat, that’s tough, very tough to win a seat and to hold it. The Greens couldn’t do it, Winston Peters couldn’t do it, and so that’s the tough thing for that support party. You look at the fundamental nature of MMP, there is going to be a makeup of a government, probably with different parties. I'm not prepared to say it's going to be this way or that way. Again it'll be up to the performance of those parties and their candidates and the voters. But here's the thing, you need basically 50% of the vote in order to govern. Now you can have 50% of the vote as one party. Or you could have 50% of the vote with three parties, like New Zealand First, Labour, and the Greens, and you could make it up, but the challenge for the centre right if you like is to actually get that 50% so that they can govern, and that’s the challenge for them.

Duncan Can you marry do you think if you're looking at the Conservatives, that sort of social conservative, or very social conservative mix with the conservative economics?

Rodney Well that would be the challenge.

Duncan It's a big challenge isn't it?

Rodney Oh it's a big challenge. I mean funny enough if you look at it – I was thinking about that coming here this morning. If you look at it there's an ideal coalition partner for National and it's a successful party that has got seats, and in terms of public policy they agree on most things. There's only about a tissue of paper that you could put between their differences, and you know that party is the parliamentary Labour Party. So the National Party has a huge amount in common policy wise with Labour. The only thing they disagree about is who should be Prime Minister.

Duncan Yeah they're set up to oppose each other of course.

Rodney And maybe they should sort of take turns.

Duncan If it is something like Colin Craig in the future you made that very good point about you need to win an electorate seat if they're going to come in and not take away some of those centre right votes. What do you think are the chances of someone like Craig going to Key, or Key going to Craig, and saying we will stand aside here in Rodney for instance, and you win the seat? Because if you look at that vote at the last election for the Conservatives more than 2% wasted vote you make a very good point. Do you think there could be a chance of a deal on the cards?

Rodney Yes, but I'd hate to see it, because I think it's too cynical, and I was always of a view that I should succeed in Epsom on my own merits and in my own case obviously we'd done a deal ahead of the 2008 election that we would support John Key, and that no doubt helped me in Epsom. But the idea that you pull a candidate or that you manipulate the system I think is too cynical, and I also think it risks a backlash. But I actually find it fundamentally undemocratic because I think you get so few choices in a democracy as a voter to make a call that the idea that back in Wellington the political parties would work together to conspire to somehow reduce your choice, I think that’s an anathema.

Duncan So you're saying an end to deals?

Rodney Yeah I don’t agree with deals in seats, I never have.

Duncan Alright, Rodney Hide from Wellington, thanks for your interesting thoughts on the future of the right. This debate no doubt will go on for the next two and a half years to the next election. Rodney, thanking you.

Duncan Now we turn to our panel – former ACT MP and lawyer Stephen Franks, thanks for coming into the studio, and Conservative Party Leader Colin Craig. Really good to see you as well. Stephen if I can start with you. Does ACT if you like still carry the hopes and dreams of the right? I mean is it dead yet?

Stephen Franks – Former ACT MP
In politics nothing's dead until it's dead, and I think there's too many facts to say before someone like me, a lawyer, is going to declare death, but the real question you asked is where will those ideas crystallise? Where will people who say we want to see a rigorous insistence on personal responsibility, where do they go? Is it to the Conservative Party? I suspect not if they also believe in freedom, and that is a question that has been exercising people for a long timer. ACT clearly had that mandate for quite some time, whether it regains it will probably depend on who joins John Banks. He on his own, people can become – they can have a personal seat and do pretty well. But whether he can rebuild as the focus all the energy, all those ideas, all that bravery, the courage to tell it like it is, that’s the question we want to know.

Duncan That was the challenge to you really Colin wasn't it that you're potentially so socially conservative that you can't fully fly that banner for the right?

Colin Craig – Conservative Leader
Yeah look I think we are the party of personal responsibility and personal freedom together, and so we expect to build on that base, and obviously this last election we took a lot of support away from ACT, we got a lot of their volunteers and some of them were very good value. But I think looking forward it's a long way to the next election, we're only six months old as a party so it is good to have challenges and it's good to know what we've got to try and do. We want to be in a position next time where we can get there on our own merits, and that means getting 4 or 5%.

Duncan Well is does, it means 5% probably, but economically you don’t line up with those on the right do you, because you don’t believe in those taxcuts that John Key did. You don’t believe in asset sales.

Colin Be a matter of timing only…

Duncan We'll get to that, but you don’t believe in the foreign investment around Crafer Farms, do you?

Colin No I don’t, I think the Crafer Farms is a bad deal for New Zealand.

Duncan And this would be a problem supporting a right wing party like the National Party? Which is the challenge Stephen's looking at.

Stephen Well it might not be, I mean the Crafer Farms deal is really a question of how do you apply the law, and there are many of these where if you say it's timing. I'd give you guys the benefit of the doubt, but you start from a disadvantage that's different from ACT's that people – you’ve got the Christian brand whether you want it or not, that makes quite a lot of people uneasy, but more than that it brings all the suspicions of the media in. You know they’ll project on to you all sorts of agendas that they’ll see.

Colin Interesting, yeah unknown agendas that I didn’t know what we're going on. But let's take those taxcuts for example. We said it's the wrong time, we're financially in huge trouble as a country and yet we're reducing our income by giving the rich a taxcut. Now obviously I have a high income. I'm one of the people that benefited from the taxcut, but I'm sitting there with my colleagues and people that I know going not the right time.

Duncan So I think that’s been well established, but if you look at Crafer and I want to look at foreign investments, because ACT of course is a party that believes in open international foreign trade and investment. Around your position though yes or no if you like explain around Chinese investment in New Zealand. Are you saying now?

Colin Yeah I look at something like the Chinese free trade deal and we're very interested in competing and having competitive markets on a level playing field, but if we're gonna make deals with countries that essentially pay their workers virtually nothing, with no environmental controls, and expect our people in industry, our business people to compete, then no I can't say yes.

Duncan Hang on you're saying no free trade deals, because we're in South East Asian, it's not just China, there's India, Vietnam?

Colin Where it's not a level playing field I have real concerns.

Stephen I don’t think that that’s actually going to be a touchstone issue by the time of the election actually. Most people can look at China and say state capitalism, do we really want to compete where we have no idea whether they adhere to competition law…

Duncan But if we're looking at the Conservatives potentially as a long term and sustainable and popular right wing party, it doesn’t agree with free trade deals, with low wage Asian countries.
Colin No, with some free trade deals we would have real concern, yeah. But that’s not a deal breaker, it doesn’t mean we can't work with National for example.

Duncan What would be a deal breaker around policy for a Conservative Party, what is so important to you?

Colin I think issues for us very much fiscal and budget issues. We can't support continued increase in government expending. Now National made a clear promise they would cut the spending, but did not. Now for us we've got to bring the budget back under control.

Duncan So you're saying they're not doing enough?

Colin No, they're not. I don’t think they’ve made the brave or the hard decisions they should have made.

Duncan Well you’ve had two zero budgets, with the second one of course coming up in two weeks' time. What would you have done differently. Are you saying you would have gone much further than that. Conservative Party in a future government would be pushing for much tougher cuts?

Colin Yeah, in our current situation absolutely.

Duncan What would you get rid of?

Colin I would look at any spending that’s not delivering results and say well no results no money.

Duncan But can you give me examples of what you would get rid of?

Colin One example would be say the Family Court where we spend heading towards 200 million. Now the model that’s used overseas that works very well is not one where we arm you know disputing partners with lawyers and put them in a court. It's a mediation model, it has a much higher success rate, and it costs less money to run. So that’s just one example where we'd say gotta be far more innovative around our spending.

Duncan Well what about superannuation, 10.3 billion dollars every year and rising? Treasury keeps telling us.

Colin We have to look at the age, I mean it's a false representation at the moment to say oh we're not gonna discuss it. We have to discuss it, it's a major budget item. Other countries we benchmark ourselves against, they’ve looked at it, they’ve said the age has to be higher. We've got to talk about it surely.

Stephen On the policy issues which - people focus a lot on parties and their policies but politicians are much better judged in fact on what I think are the gossip issues, you know the character issues, the long term position. Who would have ever thought of Helen Clark from the left wing of the Labour Party signing a Free Trade Agreement with China which you know as Colin has said is suspected of awful things.

Duncan But then the ACT Party was set up in the beginning because of unfinished policy issues.

Stephen It was, it is but I'd say that the particular policy issues are used by voters and by supporters as indicators of where you are, but parties will stand or fall in the long run, on whether they can see an integrity in what they're doing, and the problem for them at the centre parties for the National Party at the moment, is that in our party system you can't have open debate, the MMP system was set up by a group of commissioners who thought that parties were where policy argument was hammered out. Well that doesn’t happen now because it's interpreted as dissension, and immediately the journalists go to the leader and say you know what are you gonna do about this? So we now have to have a party that embodies each level of each angle of debate, otherwise we won’t have the debate. And I think that Colin, conservatism ought to be there, just as the Greens ought to be there, but there does need to be the dry economics, the people who believe in freedom.

Duncan That’s what you're saying. See what you're saying there is that they're halfway there as a partner for the right but not on economics.

Stephen They’ll take the Winston Peters' vote when Winston finally decides it's enough.

Colin Oh quite happy to have any vote from where it comes from because we obviously believe in a better future for the country. We think there's a gap or we wouldn’t be here, and that gap is in the centre right.

Duncan It looks to me that you took some ACT, you talked about taking ACT supporters and grassroots members, but on economics they'd look at your policy as I have this week, and sort of said hang on that’s not us.

Colin Well see if you look at the sale of state assets, take Solid Energy for example, over the last five years 22% return on equity. The equity costs us 4%. Now your viewers, and certainly ACT people who tend to be financially savvy are looking at it going that’s an 18% return on every dollar we have in that, why are we selling it again.

Stephen Well I think again that’s not likely to be touchstone.

Duncan What asset sales not touchstone?

Stephen Well they're symbols, the fact that we're having to sell and having to borrow 300 million a week is because we're refusing to make the situations to live within our means, and so I'd say that people who want – and ACT will be wanting to hear from your party or anyone who wants their loyalty…

Duncan You’ve said that asset sales, Crafer Farms not touched, I think you’ve said both of those things?

Stephen They're the symbols of our decline. They're the symbols of our refusal to make hard decisions of spending 40 years spending more than we've earned, which as a country we've done, nearly 50 years, spending more than we've earned. So that ACT p would say I can understand nationalism, I can understand the resentment at the idea we might become peasants in our own country, and therefore I'll say don’t sell, but ACT would say, and the people who'll be looking for a home if John Banks does disappear, is what are we gonna do to make sure we're not borrowing?

Duncan Colin Craig do you think that you could be a long term partner for a National Party?

Colin Oh I think we could be obviously. We're a small party, we're only six months in, so we're very young, but we're growing, we're still growing.

Duncan But you'd put aside some of your disagreements around those central economic…?

Colin Inevitably in politics you can't get everything you want. That’s just how politics is.

Duncan If there was hypothetically a bi-election in Epsom would you stand there?

Colin I think that’s very likely.

Duncan You would stand in Epsom?

Colin Yes, I think that’s very likely. Such a decision would have to be confirmed by the board or the party, but I think it's very likely.

Duncan Do you think it's likely that Banks is in trouble there and there could be a bi-election?

Colin Well that’s a little bit harder to predict. I don’t know but if it happens we'll be there.

Duncan Do you think you could work with the Christians? Could an ACT body work with a Christian soul?

Stephen Colin for a six month old national politician recognising that democracies demand that their leaders make compromises he's not making it very hard.

Duncan The social conservatives could marry with the economics?

Stephen Yeah well talking to him it's not as conservative as you fear. What I said to him at the start was, you will be painted as scary and conservative, the question is whether you get enough air time to say what your policy actually is, rather than what people think it is.

Duncan But you believe you could marry that?

Colin I'm confident we can make it work.

Stephen But there is still whether that’s where put the energy in. And the long run parties will live or die on the energy of those who gather around, who want it embodied in someone who'll speak for them, and that’s the question we're asking at the moment.

Duncan Alright Stephen Franks, excellent ending to our debate, and Colin Craig good to see you, good to meet you, and to come into the studio.

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