John Armstrong: Act divided over gang-patch bill

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Let's hope Rodney Hide stuck a few mothballs in the pockets of his now legendary canary-yellow jacket before stuffing it back in the wardrobe following last November's election.

Because he sure ain't going to be wearing it again in a hurry unless he wants to invite accusations of double standards.

The jacket instantly transformed Hide into a walking, talking Act billboard, thereby potentially breaching the now defunct Electoral Finance Act, while at the same time satirising that law's nonsensical constraints on free speech.

All such talk of free expression seemed to have been conveniently put to one side last week, however, as Act executed a 180 degree about turn and voted for a private member's bill banning gang members from wearing their patches in public areas within the boundaries of Wanganui city - a bill Hide had previously described as "rubbish".

The concession was made in the hope of securing a far bigger gain - passage of Act's "three strikes and you're out" bill. However, this pragmatic decision to back the gang patches bill promoted by the National MP Chester Borrows has been greeted with dismay by some party members.

Angry responses have been posted on blog sites from activists saying they did not stuff envelopes or knock on doors during the election campaign to see the party backing laws curbing individual rights - be they those of ordinary citizens, gang members or whomever.

There has been talk of raising the matter at the party's annual conference which began yesterday afternoon. However, much of yesterday's business was in closed session. Today's agenda is open to the media, but has been tightly scripted, allowing little input from the conference floor.

However, one barometer of the party's feelings on the matter may be the conference reaction to today's speech by David Garrett, the Auckland lawyer helicoptered into a high list position - and thus into Parliament - after Act struck a pre-election deal with the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Garrett, a one time legal adviser for the trust, has filled part of the huge gap left by Stephen Franks' departure. The latter was no wimp on law and order. Garrett is even less subtle.

His statement that "we have got too hung up on people's rights" following Attorney-General Chris Finlayson's ruling that Act's "three strikes" legislation breaches the Bill of Rights has incensed the party's libertarian wing.

However, any outbreak of dissent at the conference is unlikely to dull what should be an ebullient mood. The party has come back from near parliamentary death to hold a position of real influence as support partner for the National minority Government.

Moreover, there has long been a tension between Act's liberal instincts and the back country conservatism redolent in its push for tougher sentencing and less tolerance of crime.

The three-strikes policy is one of Act's most popular selling points. Having finally got legislation in front of a select committee, thanks to the party's confidence and supply agreement with National, there is a chance it might make it into law, although only a slim one.

Act is hoping that its voting for Borrows' bill will make National - and particularly the more liberal-inclined Justice Minister Simon Power - look more kindly at the part of the new Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill which is Act policy.

In its current state, the bill is an amalgam of both parties' positions. They are reasonably compatible when it comes to sentencing someone convicted of a first or second violent offence. Where Act and National differ markedly is in the case of someone committing a third such offence.

Under Act's provisions, a violent offender would go to jail for 25 years minimum without parole full stop. National's position is less severe in allowing judges to exercise discretion.

National is punting on public submissions from the legal and academic worlds shooting Act out of the water. Act is clearly looking for some compromise where it softens on the third strike while National toughens up its position accordingly.

In that sense, the jostling over sentencing policy is a microcosm of the wider relationship between Act and its big brother on the centre-right.

Securing a law and order trophy would be extremely valuable in underlining Act's message that it is needed to stiffen National's backbone.

However, tough times seem to be stiffening that backbone anyway as the slump in tax revenue forces National to make some hard decisions about where public money is spent.

While John Key continues to reach across the centre of the political spectrum, National is making the odd foray to the right, the shake-up of accident compensation being the most notable example.

The consequent blurring of points of difference would be worry enough to Act if it was still in Opposition. Doubly so now it is part of the governing arrangement.

Hide somewhat morbidly refers to Act having entered the "death zone" - the space inhabited by minor parties providing confidence and supply to one of the major parties. The survival rate of minor parties in that role is effectively zero.

The Alliance and NZ First have gone from Parliament; United Future and the Progressives would have too had their leaders not had the insurance of constituency seats. Hide also has such insurance.

With Act winning less than 4 per cent of the party vote in November, however, he is acutely aware that he could end up like Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton as a one-MP parliamentary party.

The lesson Act has taken from the failures of other parties to sustain themselves while propping up a government is that some kind of strategy needs to be in place throughout the three-year term to ensure the party maintains its point of difference from the larger partner rather than leaving things until election year.

In Act's case, that requires more than a soft-cop, hard-cop routine which sees Hide avoiding attacks on Key and immersing himself in his ministerial portfolios, leaving Sir Roger Douglas free to criticise National when he feels that is warranted - which so far is not infrequently.

The first steps towards developing such a strategy will emerge today when Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a specialist in political marketing, speaks to the conference. She will likely put even more stress on Act having to demonstrate to centre-right voters that they get added-value by voting Act and its presence makes National a better government.

A high-profile measure of that added-value will be the wording in the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill when it emerges from Parliament's select committee.

If the bill shows National has heeded the wishes of its support partner to some degree, then trampling over the rights of gang members in Wanganui will be seen by most, though not all, of those in Act to have been fully justified.

- NZ Herald

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