Is this the end of the road for Act?

By Jonathan Milne

Where the road ends near the bottom of Farewell Spit, nobody can hear you scream.

If you're an Act MP, that can be a familiar feeling.

Gerry Eckhoff is parked up in Act's campaign bus by a windy, rainy Golden Bay beach, and his mood is similarly gloomy.

At a Grey Power meeting in Invercargill, an old codger came up to him and poked him in the chest with his walking stick.

"Damn fine speech, young fella. I agree with most of what you said but I'll never vote for you bastards."

Eckhoff admits there are a lot of people like that - and no one in Act knows why. "I don't think there's any simple answer. It's something the party has never addressed."

Act's classical liberal philosophies - low tax, small government, personal responsibility - were seen as extreme when Richard Prebble led a small band of MPs into Parliament in 1996. Nine years on, many of its policies have been picked up by National, NZ First and even Labour, but Act itself no longer seems relevant to voters.

The latest polls (see link below) show the party on 1 or 2 per cent nationwide, and leader Rodney Hide trailing a distant third in the key Epsom electorate.

"Maybe we need a psychologist as a party leader," muses Ian McGimpsey, 49, a former air force pilot and self-confessed "nomad" who drives the big yellow Act bus.

McGimpsey is convinced the party will get support from unexpected quarters. "It's more frustration than concern. I'm confident that we'll get there, but it'll be the hardest battle we've ever had."

Act is used to being in battle mode. It is more than a decade since sacked Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas took Hide for lunch, to thank him for his help in completing the book Unfinished Business. The 1993 book laid out Douglas' dream of abolishing income tax and replacing it with compulsory salary deductions for superannuation, welfare and health insurance.

Over pizza, Douglas leaned across the table to a nonplussed Hide: "We've written the book. How are we going to implement it?"

Later that year, the two sat down in Douglas' lounge in Redoubt Rd, Wiri, with libertarian broadcaster Lindsay Perigo and campaigning journalist Deborah Coddington.

The result, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers, eventually attracted former politicians from both sides of the House: Richard "Mad Dog" Prebble, Trevor de Cleene, Ken Shirley and John Terris from Labour; Derek Quigley and Ruth "Ruthanasia" Richardson from National. Businessmen joined: Alan Gibbs, Craig Heatley, Doug Myers.

To an alarmed middle New Zealand, the new group was a ravening pitbull with gold-capped fangs.

And with the advent of MMP, the pitbull found a hole in the wire fence protecting Parliament.

The group had policies that even some supporters found hard to stomach.

"We're going to get 50 per cent of the vote and there will be no taxes," Douglas once excitedly promised.

One Wellington commercial lawyer joined out of loyalty to Douglas, with whom he had worked at the World Bank: "I was part of a guinea-pig audience to which they announced the zero per cent tax policy. I went up afterwards and said, 'Roger, even I don't believe in that. I believe I should pay some tax'."

Nonetheless, in 1996 Prebble won the Wellington Central electorate and marched into Parliament with the Act Party - the only new party that got there without the help of existing parliamentary seats and resources. Three years later the sceptical lawyer - Stephen Franks - also became an Act MP.

The party's philosophies were seen as hardline but the image was softened by the perk-busting antics of the grinning, roly-poly Hide.

It returned with more MPs in 1999 and 2002, but its attacks on the Government were to no avail alongside a struggling National Party.

Then, in February 2004, its hopes and fears were both realised in one moment: new National leader Don Brash delivered a speech to Orewa Rotary Club that borrowed more from Act tracts than from the National manifesto; a speech that demanded "one law for all" and an end to alleged preferential treatment for Maori. Brash followed it up with promises to lock up criminals longer, cut the benefits of solo mums who kept having children, allow parents to choose their children's schools, and cut taxes.

Labour was forced to react: it, too, promised to impose deadlines on treaty claims, the same policy that had once seen Act's Derek Quigley dubbed a racist.

But as Act policy entered the mainstream, polls showed the voters switching off.

Aaron Bhatnagar, Hide's deputy campaign manager last election, was one of those wooed across to National when Brash entered Parliament. "Hurricane Brash has taken a lot of Act's support because he's seen as being economically dry and in a better position to get results. That's one of the reasons Act has lost its oxygen."

Bhatnagar says Act shouldn't expect any favours. "They should earn their own right to be in Parliament. After all, they are about personal responsibility."

The party was hard hit when MP Donna Awatere-Huata was charged with defrauding the taxpayer. And Prebble's leadership had been under pressure since the election, after which he had been admitted to hospital with double pneumonia.

Prebble forestalled a leadership coup and resigned after his wife and MPs learned he was having an affair. Hide took over, but his focus on exposing Government scandals has failed to improve the party's fortunes, and Douglas reportedly led discussions about replacing him with Ken Shirley before the election.

Coddington, retiring as an Act MP after her recent marriage and a yen for a gentler life, defends Hide: "People say Rodney Hide and Act are scrappers and fighters and shit-kickers and scandal-mongers, but people need Act in there to do that."

Says Eckhoff: "People might not like his style or the way he's attacked John Tamihere or the David Benson-Pope thing [but] when you're chopping away at hard wood - and Labour is damn hard wood - then it takes a long time. ... For the first time in six years they are not just vulnerable, they look set to topple."

The same, of course, could be said of Act, which failed to woo former Auckland Mayor John Banks and gave low list placings to MPs Eckhoff and Shirley.

Eckhoff is candid about his disappointment: "I frankly find it a little bit difficult to figure, but whoever said life was meant to be fair?"

Disgruntled former Act staffer Greg Edwards calls Hide a "meek pussycat" on his blog this week (link below). "This is a fully fledged crisis, and unless we take drastic steps immediately we will be eliminated from Parliament ... every soldier we can get on the ground is required to report to Epsom HQ."

Ensuring Hide wins Epsom from National's Richard Worth is a fallback option that would keep a core group of Act MPs in Parliament if the party fails to make 5 per cent. But a Herald on Sunday poll today shows the leader's chances are not just slim - they are positively anorexic.

Hide denies he's left his run too late: "I've been working in Epsom for six years, but my number one goal is to get Act over the 5 per cent threshold. That's my responsibility as leader - I don't want to retreat to Epsom like a bunker."

Strategists say if Act is still struggling at 2 per cent a week out from the election, its support will collapse. But if it is polling around 4 per cent, National supporters might again vote strategically to return it to Parliament and provide a coalition partner.

Would Don Brash give a nod and a wink to the voters of Epsom to vote for Hide?

"I think if Act's at 3 or 4 per cent, Epsom voters will work it out," Hide responds.

Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who as a former Values candidate knows what it's like to influence policy without necessarily being in power, says Act has been overwhelmed by National, rather than significantly influencing it.

"I would not miss the sort of stuff Rodney Hide does in the House, because a lot of it's not constructive, but I do think it is good to have diversity in Parliament."

Says Franks: "I think people expect us to attack shibboleths, to ask the awkward questions. Often they're questions that people from the mainstream perspectives don't ask, because it's just not done."

The National Party has now set up a liberal grouping, which seeks to keep the heat on National MPs to ensure a low tax/small government agenda remains prominent.

But Eckhoff says Act's influence on policy would disappear if the party was not there as a watchdog. "God help us if Act and Don Brash don't win and that bit of spine leaves the National Party. We're in difficult times, troubled times, worried times for both National and Act."

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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