In 1993 when Alan Gibbs ran BBC World Service in Auckland, reports filtered back to the BBC in London that a bunch of renegades in the colonies were hijacking the World Service to run right-wing radio - which we were, of course. So the Beeb sent out a delegation of two to listen and observe for five days. In that week Lindsay Perigo interviewed only lefties - Ken Douglas, Jim Anderton, Peter Harris, Michael Cullen (and Perigo would include the National Party as lefties). It worked. The inspectors flew back to London happy that their radio was safe in balanced hands.
But on the Friday we received a fax from a plaintive listener, asking, "Can we please have our radio station back now?"
I thought of this when I read Paul Holmes' interview with Act leader Rodney Hide in the Herald on Sunday last week. Two whole pages in the biggest-selling Auckland Sunday paper, written by a celebrated journalist whom many people read regardless of whether they care about the subject, and the Act Party gets barely a mention. No policy, no political action, just personal stuff about Rodney.
Anyone who's spent time in Parliament will have sympathy for Hide and his family over his marriage break-up. Parliament is a lonely, corrosive place where few relationships survive. Sometimes we ask too much of our MPs, especially when we then berate them for so-called perks of travel.
But now that Act has only two MPs, the party must struggle for relevance. Hide's okay, he's carved out a niche for himself in Epsom. By all accounts they love him there, and at the moment he's in no danger of losing the seat. Of course, that will depend on whether National decides to win it back.
But what price Epsom?
John Key has carved out a terrific opportunity for Act to come out punching. National can't do the radical stuff. It's up to Act to grab back that 5-plus per cent of voters who aren't scared of education vouchers, public use of private hospitals, radical personal tax cuts, pared back government, vigorous welfare reform.
But what's Hide doing? He's got a good member's bill - the Regulatory Responsibility Bill - but I drafted that in 2003 while at Cambridge University, basing it on a paper by the eminent economist Dr Bryce Wilkinson. After Parliamentary Counsel tidied it up it went into the ballot in my name. Now it's been drawn in Hide's name but it will never pass. Especially if National ever get their heads around it - they've been as keen as Labour to pass interfering legislation. The Resource Management Act and the Privacy Act are but two examples.
When Hide won the leadership, he promised the party he'd reform his perk-busting, scandal-fanning ways. But what replaced that? Someone who's rapt in his own dancing, flash suits, swimming and catwalk modelling?
He's a celebrity now, but that carries the danger of not being taken seriously. It's not that all celebrities are simpletons, but an MP whose private life is constantly in the media has a hard time getting policy messages reported (I should know).
Last week one of Hide's early mentors likened him to a whoopee cushion, a crude way of saying he's heavily influenced by the last person he spoke to. That in itself is no bad thing - only an idiot would refuse to listen and learn. But is there anything to replace Hide the bovver boy?
I think so, and that's why I supported him for leader. Back in 1993, way before the perk-busting days, I saw a Hide who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand, swaying their concrete-bound thinking with his gift for talking economics and human behaviour in a way even dummies could understand. I knew a Hide who inspired those around him to learn more about freedom, and the dangers of big government.
And not long before I left Parliament, I read the first chapter of Hide's book, Prosperity. I was hugely impressed by his simplicity of message and clarity of prose, but why hasn't this seen the light of day?
Hide's devotees will defend him by attacking me, but toadying to an MP to boost their ego is futile. He promised to rebuild the party after last election; instead, young urban liberals who liked Act for its edginess are flocking to support John Key.
But maybe I'm too harsh. Perhaps Act is happier with just two MPs; less pressure, not so much work. Hide's "I just want to be the best MP for Epsom", could be code for "I know Epsom's my only hope of staying in Parliament". But if that's the case, Act members are plaintively asking, "Can we please have our party back now?"By Deborah Coddington Email Deborah