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Peter Wilson: ACT Faces The Problems Of A Small Party In Government

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Rodney Hide
Rodney Hide

After just over a year in partnership with National, ACT is feeling the effect of living in the shadow of a major party.

It is a feeling that identity is being lost, that while successes have been achieved through being in government they don't reflect on the small party that initiated them and drove them through.

In the public eye it is the Government that is doing these things, and the Government is Prime Minister John Key, his cabinet and the National Party.

At ACT's annual conference on Saturday, party leader Rodney Hide reeled off achievements gained through his party's support agreement with National.

A Regulatory Responsibility Bill, a Productivity Commission, a 2025 Taskforce to show the way to lift incomes, reform of the Resource Management Act, a review of climate change policy, an inter-party working group on schools choice, local government reform and the three strikes sentencing policy.

All very worthy and popular initiatives, from ACT's perspective, but how many voters discern their origin?

Not many, apparently, because ACT is hovering around the 2 percent mark in the opinion polls compared with its election night 3.6 percent.

Hide considers working with National in government to be very important, and he points out that if he hadn't signed the support agreement, none of ACT's policies would have been likely to see the light of day.

But there are those in the rank and file who don't see it that way.

Hide says he has been asked why ACT is still supporting National when its policies aren't much different to those of the previous Labour government.

There are some who think the agreement should be broken, that ACT should again be a stand alone party setting its own direction and selling its own policies.

It isn't clear whether they have thought through the consequences of that -- five MPs sitting in Parliament and no one listening to them.

Being a minor party in opposition is a lonely place, and Hide knows that because he spent nine years experiencing it while Labour held office.

The problem for small parties that go into partnerships with Labour or National is differentiation -- how to keep the party's profile up there in lights while working, mostly behind the scenes, to influence the actions of the Government.

None have really succeeded in doing that, with the exception of New Zealand First. No one forgot they existed because Winston Peters had a unique way of making sure they didn't.

He created so much havoc it was impossible not to notice him and his party, to the extent that the first National/NZ First coalition government collapsed under the strain.

ACT hasn't done that. Hide says he promised before the election to deliver a stable centre-right government, and he kept that promise.

But the reward has been diminishing poll ratings and, some in the party feel, an unwanted association with a National Party that is moving into the centre ground of politics.

Sir Roger Douglas, who founded ACT and has been a list MP since the last election, delivered some forthright opinions about that on Saturday.

"If National are essentially willing to move to the centre to win votes, then we are defining ourselves in reference to a moving target," he told the conference.

"Defining ourselves in that way will see us sacrificing our principles to follow National blindly as it convulses around the political spectrum trying to hoover up votes."

And that, he believes, will lead to an inevitable outcome. "Our support can and will be taken for granted, leaving us in the position of supporting a party and policies that our principles tell us not to."

He went as far as to suggest ACT would be "out of business" unless the party dedicates itself to convincing voters its ideas have merit.

And one of ACT's former MPs, Muriel Newman, told the conference National was implementing policies which favoured Maori and ACT was in danger of being tarred with the same unpopular brush. Maybe she was talking about the future, because she didn't mention that National is so popular right now that if its poll ratings translated into an election result it would have an outright majority and wouldn't need any support partners.

Hide isn't taking issue with Sir Roger, although his comments could be taken as criticism of his leadership, and Sir Roger denies intending any such criticism.

But the problem is there, and it isn't likely to go away.

National is moving to the centre. It isn't going to adopt the sort of economic policies ACT promotes. It agreed, for example, to set up the 2025 Taskforce to find ways New Zealand could catch up with Australia's economic growth, an ACT initiative. But when the taskforce released its report, the Government said its recommendations were too radical to implement.

ACT may well continue to achieve minor successes -- Hide would say they are major successes -- but they will blur into the actions of the Government.

Sir Roger says ACT needs to take a hard look at itself. "We need to engage in an internal debate to figure out what we are doing wrong, and how we can do better."

Hide doesn't seem to think ACT is doing anything wrong, and there is obviously a sharp a sharp difference of opinion over that.

The party leader is playing this down, perhaps because he knows an "internal debate" of the sort that is being suggested could leave blood on the floor and the ACT Party in disarray.

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