John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Act finally does something right

The Act Party needs to get back to basics, says John Armstrong. Photo / Natalie Slade
The Act Party needs to get back to basics, says John Armstrong. Photo / Natalie Slade

It has been a long time since anyone could say so with any confidence, but Act has finally done something right.

In electing Jamie Whyte as the party's new leader, Act's governing board has made the right choice, even if realistically Whyte was the only choice it could have made.

That choice is not without risk. The former lecturer in philosophy, columnist and management consultant is a political neophyte - and does not mind admitting it.

The biggest risk is that Whyte ends up being upstaged by David Seymour, a far more polished political operator whom the board has selected as Act's candidate in Epsom ahead of Whyte, who belatedly sought both roles.

The double act (so to speak) will be a test of Seymour's self-declared "collegial" approach to politics. But until Seymour becomes an MP courtesy of another likely electoral deal engineered by National, Whyte is the public face of Act. He has several things going for him.

Given that his recent predecessors have performed so poorly in the job, he can hardly do any worse despite his lack of political experience.

Unlike them, he is not being burdened with unfair expectations that he is some kind of Superman who can instantly revive a party which came close to throttling itself.

Whyte was not active in Act during those ructions. He represents a clean break from its past - impossible for John Boscawen, the other candidate.

No doubt Boscawen would have been a safe pair of hands. But Act needs something or someone more inspiring to become relevant again.

Act needs to get back to basics, revisit its founding principles. It needs to put more space between itself and National. It needs to stop trying to be everything to everyone on the centre-right - behaviour that has created confusion about what Act stands for. It needs a fresh face to reinvigorate what remains of the membership and rebrand the party's public image for a wider audience. It needs someone with impeccable and uncompromising liberal credentials.

Whyte is that someone. He has one other thing going for him. National's election-year march to the political centre is ever accelerating, leaving ground ripe for Act to occupy.

But much depends on whether he can get Act into the media spotlight and keep it there. On that score, he will not lack for advice, given the allegiance to the party of some of the country's top political brains.

But Whyte is desperately short of time. He has nine months at most to rekindle enthusiasm in a party that rated zero in last night's 3 News poll.

- 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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