Editorial: Act unlikely to recover from latest deadly blow

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John Banks said he would not be standing for Epsom next year. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Banks said he would not be standing for Epsom next year. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There will always be a constituency for the Act Party's founding principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, small government and lower taxes. At its high-water mark in 2002, these were attractive enough to garner nine seats in Parliament and 7.14 per cent of the vote. But support of any level for any party will diminish quickly if it and its representatives are seen to be dysfunctional or disingenuous. As much has happened with Act, which last week was dealt a further serious and potentially fatal blow when its only MP, John Banks, said he would not be standing for Epsom next year and would step down as leader at the party's annual conference in March.

His announcement was a formality given a court decision that he should stand trial on electoral fraud charges. That aside, the writing had been on the wall from the moment he joined the party. As a former Cabinet minister in two National Party administrations, he always had a limited affinity with Act's ideologies, not least in the area of government intervention.

After his ill-starred involvement - the addendum to sundry mishaps involving MPs such as David Garrett, Donna Awatere Huata and former leader Rodney Hide - the party must decide whether it has any future at all.

The first utterances from its ranks have not been auspicious. Don Brash, Mr Banks' predecessor as leader, said a return by Mr Hide represented the best chance of saving the party. "From my perspective, there are few politicians or former politicians who can express the views of the centre-right on economic issues more clearly than Rodney can," he said. This overlooked the fact that Mr Hide was one of the architects of a more populist approach that downgraded the party's promotion of neo-liberal economics. This culminated in Mr Hide becoming Parliament's self-proclaimed perk-buster until he, himself, was found to have been going out of his way to obtain perks.

But if not the return of Mr Hide in Epsom, who else? To strike any chord, Act needs to find a candidate true to the party's ideals and boasting a record of support for voters of the electorate.

Party member Jamie Whyte, who has recently returned from Britain where he was a management consultant, has put his hand up. A former Act president, Chris Simmons, has not ruled out standing. Both men may be suitable philosophically but do not have the recognition factor that was Mr Banks' chief selling point. Auckland councillor Cameron Brewer, who does boast that credential, has ruled out seeking the nomination.

The struggle to find a suitable candidate all but confirms that Act is now effectively beyond repair. Not only has it strayed from its founding principles but several of its MPs have besmirched them.

This has happened even though National's move towards politics' central ground created a vacancy that Act should have been able to fill. Instead, Mr Banks has recently found himself having to take shots at Colin Craig's Conservative Party which, with an Epsom-type deal, could become a stronger and more serviceable ally for National.

At the last election, Act secured just 1.07 per cent of the vote. There is absolutely nothing to suggest it would do better next year. For some time, starting over with an alternative neo-liberal party under younger leadership has appeared to be the only viable response to Act's many woes. The departure of Mr Banks underlines this.

It may take time for a new party to get off the ground. But there will be a constituency for its core philosophy and territory in the political spectrum for it to occupy, all because both of these substantial pluses were squandered by Act.

- NZ Herald

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