Friday, September 17, 2010

ACT enters the terminal phase of self-destruction

Will ACT survive the next election? I don’t think anyone will be betting the house on it right now. The party seems determined to disembowel itself in full public view.

My own reaction to this is mixed. On one hand I’m disappointed, because I supported most ACT policies and admired many of its MPs, at least up until the point when the party suddenly jumped the rails by aligning itself with the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

I have nothing in particular against Garth McVicar’s outfit, but the “three strikes and you’re out” shtick muddied the ACT brand. It diverted the party from its core foundation principles, which today’s New Zealand Herald correctly summed up as individual freedom, personal responsibility and small government, in favour of a focus on crime and punishment. The bizarre result was that Rodney Hide ended up courting Winston Peters’ natural constituency – the angry, frightened and bewildered. Hide’s attempt to promote himself via an inane television show further devalued ACT’s brand, giving the party’s critics (never in short supply) more ammunition with which to ridicule him, and alienating core ACT supporters who found the Dancing With the Stars episode trivial and demeaning.

It didn’t help that the 2005 election saw ACT’s representation in Parliament reduced from nine seats to two, taking out most of the party’s intellectual heavy-hitters and ideological standard-bearers – people like Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman. ACT has never fully regained the status it enjoyed between 1996 and 2005 as a coherent and sturdy alternative to National’s soft-centred, let’s-not-frighten-anyone pragmatism. And of course Hide did himself no favours by exposing his double standards on the question of MPs’ travel perks – the very issue on which he made his name.

David Garrett, who entered Parliament in 2008 and has plunged ACT into the crisis which now threatens its survival, seems a very different personality from the old-school ACT MPs, and looked a potential liability from day one. He’s intellectually sharp and has made some impressive speeches in the House, notably on the foreshore and seabed, but there’s a loose-cannon quality about him – something slightly feral – that makes his false passport escapade much less of a surprise than it would be if any other MP had done it (or at least anyone from the current crop of MPs, arguably the most goody-two-shoes mob in memory; sometimes one longs for a John Kirk or Alamein Kopu).

As I write, Hide has returned from his foreshortened holiday in Hong Kong and is reportedly meeting Garrett this afternoon. There is speculation that Garrett will be made to resign from the party – but will that put the issue to bed? Hardly. Hide himself has some hard questions to answer because he knew of the false passport affair but was apparently happy for Garrett to keep quiet about it. It won’t look good if he makes Garrett walk the plank for something in which he (Hide) was complicit. Garth McVicar was probably right when he said Garrett should have fessed up when he made his maiden speech in Parliament. It would have caused a temporary sensation, but without the potentially fatal effects a beleaguered ACT is now having to deal with. Covering something up in the vain hope that no one would ever breathe a word of it to the media (in a political hothouse like Wellington???) was extraordinarily ill-judged.

As the Dom Post editorial points out today, ACT’s problem is also National’s problem. There has been media speculation that National will abandon Hide and put up a strong candidate against him in Epsom. But if Hide loses his seat, National would have no ally to its right and would therefore be wholly dependent on the Maori Party for support – an unappealing prospect for National, and for the rest of us too.

I wonder if what we are now seeing merely demonstrates that it’s ACT’s turn to suffer the curse of being a minority party in government. As long as a party remains outside government, as the Greens have done, it can safely occupy the moral high ground. Its high-minded principles are unlikely to be compromised by the dirty reality of having to govern. But the moment a party is drawn into a coalition, it’s exposed to that reality. Deals are done and principles get stretched.

It’s also unhealthy for political egos. Ambitions are unleashed. Tensions arise between idealists and pragmatists. We saw these strains when Heather Roy was given the heave-ho as ACT’s deputy leader. Given that the information about Garrett's Day of the Jackal stunt was reportedly leaked from within ACT, possibly by a disaffected Roy loyalist, the current crisis in ACT may be directly related to Roy’s demotion.

Being in government also means a minority party is subjected to much more intense media scrutiny. Who cares what a no-name backbencher might have done in 1984? But when he’s one of five MPs propping up the government, his past becomes a matter of public interest.

All of these pressures must be magnified when the party caucus consists of only five people – and not only that, but five strong-willed people with firm ideological views and bigger-than-usual egos. In a larger caucus, such as National or Labour, I imagine tensions are more easily diffused. But the tectonic forces at work when ACT’s MPs get together in a small room must be of Canterbury proportions.

Will ACT go the way of the Alliance, Mauri Pacific and New Zealand First? It certainly seems to be nearing the terminal phase of self-destruction. As I said at the start of this post, I would be disappointed if that happened. ACT has performed an important function on the right of the political spectrum, just as the Greens have on the left, and has achieved more in government than its critics imagined possible. But it has lost its way and must accept responsibility for the mess it now finds itself in.

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