John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: With zero support revive or die are Act's alternatives

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

Act kicked off its annual conference on Saturday having just been kicked in the teeth. Delegates woke up to the news that the previous night's Roy Morgan poll had the party registering zero backing. Zilch, nil, nothing at all. Gallows humour might look at the bright side. At least Act's support can only rise from there.

The poll may have reinforced the mood percolating through the conference - something akin to the Dunkirk spirit.

The British Army might have been routed by the Germans in northern France in 1940, but the successful evacuation of troops by a flotilla of small vessels meant Britain could fight another day.

Likewise, Act had survived last year's election as a parliamentary party. It too had lived to fight another day.

However, it needed only a glance or two at the 80 or so party members present to realise the casualty list stretched far beyond the loss of four of Act's five seats in Parliament.

The absence of familiar faces from past conferences was starkly obvious. The leadership falling into the hands of a former National Party minister was the final straw for many long-suffering members after the calamitous infighting of the previous three years.

Those who remain desperately want to believe that John Banks will keep the Act flame alive - one reason why he received a standing ovation despite his keynote speech meandering along for close to 45 minutes on the back of anecdotes which included his try-scoring exploits as a rugby league player at Carlaw Park.

So far Banks has kept his script strictly in accordance with the Act faith. He has also worked at building some distance between himself and his former party, stressing that under his leadership Act will be putting "reinforcing steel" into National to stop the Government ducking the hard decisions Act believes have to be made, such as raising the age of super entitlement from 65 to 67.

That matched conference talk about Act needing to be brave and prepared to be unpopular - a view echoed by Justine Troy, who as the co-founder of 42 Below vodka which she and her partner turned into a global brand was invited to give a motivational address.

"Act, you are ugly," she said as her parting shot before adding, "to look at, I mean". Act was using a sorry, dated branding formula when its branding really needed to be slicker than Apple's.

Banks has promised to "rebuild, refocus, retool and relaunch" the party. But what he really has to do is make Act relevant again. Thus Banks was warning centre-right voters that if they want a National Government after 2014, they must return Act MPs to Parliament "in number".

That is fine as long as Act's repositioning builds the centre-right vote. It seems more likely that National's discernible shift to the right since last year's election will see it cannibalising Act's vote - or what little is left of it.

The Roy Morgan poll which had National climbing and Act falling may be a sign that is already happening.

What Act will be hoping is that it will gain relevance through the concessions it negotiated in its confidence and supply agreement with National, perhaps the most notable being the introduction of charter schools. The policy is hugely controversial. The timetable for getting the first schools up and running - the first term of 2014 - is hideously tight.

Yet it is here that Act has struck lucky. Former party president Catherine Isaac chairs the working group charged with implementing the policy. Her presentation to the conference demonstrated she possesses the determination and political foresight needed to drive it through. It was a rare ray of sunshine penetrating the Act gloom.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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