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Tim Watkin: Why Epsom matters

opinion

By Q+A producer Tim Watkin

Published: 3:39PM Tuesday October 18, 2011 Source: ONE News

A drive around the Epsom electorate is a study in campaign strategy. Here, the machinations of the country's best political minds are painted in vivid colour.

The parties can't hide in Epsom because it matters so much. It's the difference between life and death for Act, will influence whether National can rely on a right-wing coalition partner or needs to aim for a clear majority, and even has a stake in any potential Labour leadership battle, should Phil Goff come up short.

As Q+A's Epsom candidates debate made clear, the seat is one to watch this year. National's Paul Goldsmith devoutly - some might say cynically, cleverly or bizarrely - refused to seek the electorate vote. Can you remember the last time a political candidate appeared on national television asking people not to vote for him? National's strategy is to gracefully allow Act, again, to win the most National-supporting seat in the country. The problem is that the party's own people are rebelling, saying they want to vote their true beliefs, not strategically vote for a party that's turned into a circus. The protest has been swelling all year, but National reasonably enough sees a coalition partner as more important than a few pissed off posh folk. And they're gambling that the loyalists of the Northern Slopes will bend to the party's will come election day.

John Banks was there on Q+A, repeatedly insisting Epsom voters don't want, "Tax, spend, borrow and hope". Now you'd think that even in Epsom "hope" would be worth something, but the way Banks garbled his syntax, you'd think Epsom voters were fans of despair.

David Parker made up the numbers - his standing in Epsom is exactly so that he can get on forums such as this, pushing the Labour party message and maybe even raising his own profile, should he feel like a crack at the leadership come the summer.

Oh yes, a line-up like that, however slightly barking, shows how important Epsom is.

And those billboards are the visual manifestation of that.

What you can see instantly is that the Greens, National, ACT and Labour are each taking very different approaches to the campaign. So let's go through some interpretations:

National's billboards don't feature Paul Goldsmith. If there's a picture of the National candidate up in Epsom, it's well hidden. All the signs feature John Key and some slogans. Goldsmith, you see, doesn't want to win. He's saying, 'don't vote for me, vote for John Key'. So the Nats are pushing the party. The focus is the PM and his popularity - which pretty much sums up National's entire campaign strategy.

Labour, faced with the most popular leader since Noah took charge of some animals, is pretending Phil Goff doesn't exist. No, they're the serious party - policy over personality, thank you very much. Most of Labour's signs use text with promises not to sell states assets and the like; not so much with the photos. And don't mention the leader.

Act? If you want to measure how badly Rodney Hide's perking and David Garrett's baby identity stealing hurt that party's brand, just look at John Banks' billboards. His name covers the signs, with the ACT logo in ant scrawl at the bottom. Given that Banks is standing not so much for Act as for a National party coalition partner, it's sort of appropriate. But it's clear they're focusing not on policy or personality, but on profile. 'Vote for the former Tory Auckland mayor that you've known for years', is the simple subtext.

The fourth P word is party. And that's where the Greens come in. Their brand is collective. Given the success of their billboards in 2008, they've again gone for striking images of children and landscapes, implying that a vote for the Greens is a vote for both nature and your kids. But the words speak of the new leadership, post-Jeanette Fitzsimons.

The Green Party billboards ask you to vote for a "richer New Zealand". Now, it's pretty clear that the party is using the word "rich" in the broadest sense. But it's also a word that speaks of troubled times and an ambition for prosperity. Put simply, it's not a word voters would usually associate with the Greens - which is exactly why they're using it. The Greens are trying to expand their vote in to the suburbs and across to the centre-right of the political spectrum. The subtext: 'We might love nature, but we're not just hippies. We want to make money too, just like you'.

So who's onto a winner? Well, each party brings a different measure to what success means. Come November 26, everyone behind those billboards could claim a victory of sorts. Or everyone could fall flat on their face. Who said electorates under MMP weren't any fun? Whoever it was, they weren't paying attention to Epsom.

Tim Watkin is a producer for Q+A - Sundays on TV ONE from 9am. To read more Tim Watkin opinion click here.

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