Geoffrey Miller: Act's dilemma - what's in a name?

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It came as a surprise to those who follow the fortunes of Act New Zealand to hear that Sir Roger Douglas has apparently made his peace with the party, and will will speak at Act's election year conference in Auckland on Friday and Saturday.

Sir Roger co-founded the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers with former National MP Derek Quigley in 1993, turning it into a political party in 1994. But after relinquishing the leadership to another former Cabinet minister from the fourth Labour Government, Richard Prebble, Sir Roger became disenchanted with the party's apparent drift.

It went away from promoting his prescription of low tax and personal insurance-based funding models set out in his 1993 book Unfinished Business towards more soundbite-friendly scandal-mongering.

He resigned as party president in 2001, severing all formal links three years later, after "perkmaster" Rodney Hide won the leadership in a US-style party primary, following Mr Prebble's retirement.

It is not yet clear whether Sir Roger will once again take on a formal position within Act, although he has suggested he would be happy with a symbolic placing lower down the party list. Instead it seems likely he will be content to occupy a figurehead role.

The chief benefit Sir Roger, 70, can offer Act is his name. During the party's start-up phase, he possessed an extraordinary capability to unify supporters of the neo-liberal economic reforms which he introduced, but did not complete during his time as Minister of Finance from 1984-88.

Dubbed the "Roger Douglas fan club" by one journalist, his reputation quickly drew together high-profile advocates of economic reform, including former Labour ministers like Mr Prebble and Trevor de Cleene, businessmen Craig Heatley and Alan Gibbs, and thousands of other enthusiastic rank-and-file members, many new to politics.

By the time Sir Roger gave up the leadership in early 1996, Act had recruited 7000 members and supporters, which has since dwindled to just 1500.

Of course, as memories of the fourth Labour Government fade, it is quite possible that Sir Roger's pulling power has itself diminished over the years. But if his return could convince even a fraction of his former fans to take his cue and return to Act, the party would be off to a good start.

Moreover, Sir Roger's reunification with Act should encourage some of the party's more wealthy benefactors to provide a much-needed cash injection for the election campaign. In 2005, donors deserted Act for the then near ideologically identical National Party, led by Don Brash - a much safer bet considering the uncertainty of whether a single Act MP would even be returned to Parliament.

Donations plunged from $1.6 million in 2002 to $960,000 three years later. A correlation between money and electoral success does not necessarily exist: Act received an even lower level of donations ($650,000) in 1999, yet managed to increase its number of MPs from eight to nine.

However, the party has already announced that list MP Heather Roy will contest the Wellington Central electorate seat, in addition to attempting to have Mr Hide re-elected in Epsom. As long as Act polls below the 5 per cent MMP threshold, the party will want to secure at least one constituency lifeline to ensure its survival.

However, bringing Sir Roger back to the fold carries a host of potential pitfalls. Foremost is the very real possibility that he will repel far more voters than he is able to attract. His name is responsible in no small part for Act's perennial "image problem". Here, the experience of the party during Sir Roger's leadership in the mid-1990s is instructive. Inextricably linked with the moniker "Rogernomics", even Sir Roger himself admitted that for many people he was the "devil reincarnated". Moreover, despite establishing what seemed like a dedicated army of followers, support for Act in opinion polls dwindled from 3.3 per cent to just 1.2 per cent during 1995 - the level the party polls today.#The strength of Sir Roger's unpopularity among voters is illustrated by the fact that in discussion groups I conducted on Act last year, older participants especially cited him as a major reason for disliking the party associated with his name.

Furthermore, by bringing Sir Roger back inside the Act tent, Mr Hide runs the risk of "cancelling out" his efforts since 2005 to give the party a more human public face. His appearance on Dancing with the Stars and subsequent fitness regime, together with Roy joining the Territorials in 2006, constituted an attempt to rid the party of its image as a group of "rich white men". Coupled with Mr Prebble's retirement and Sir Roger's withdrawal, the decimation of support for Act at the 2005 election and the associated clean-out of most of its MPs severed the remaining formal links with the 1980s.

The re-association of Sir Roger with Act now means that as far as image building is concerned, Mr Hide might as well not have bothered trying to give his party a makeover since the last election.

The final risk for Act is that Sir Roger is his own man. It had been intended that his reconciliation would be announced at the party conference later this month; he was, after all, supposed to be the "mystery speaker". Yet instead of waiting, he suddenly confirmed his conference appearance last week, as well as musing about whether or not he would be on the party list, catching Mr Hide unawares.

While the extra publicity for the upcoming conference may well prove to help, rather than hinder Act, the risk is that a dispute over a more substantive policy issue, such as tax rates, may break out between the now reunited Sir Roger and Mr Hide, later in the year.

Sir Roger has broken with the party before. He is quite capable of doing it again.

* Geoffrey Miller has written on events concerning Act New Zealand. He wrote a 15,000-word dissertation on the party for his first class honours degree last year at Otago University. He joined the party for research purposes early last year.

- NZ Herald

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