John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: On the road back, but nasty bumps ahead

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As one longstanding party insider attending Act's weekend conference put it, the party is no longer in need of life support. It is no longer even in intensive care. It is somewhere short of full recovery, however.

Though the two-day conference justifiably celebrated the party's resurrection from near oblivion in 2005 to holding ministerial portfolios in 2009, there was no smugness.

Instead, the conference exhibited a healthy realism, knowing Act's condition could easily slip backwards again just as quickly.

The sternest warning came from the party's deputy leader, Heather Roy, who said as gratifying as it was to have made such progress, the party's biggest challenges had just begun.

"We must re-establish our political relevance every single day," she told Saturday's session, referring to the party's need to constantly lift its profile and maintain its separate identity and not be suffocated by National in the present governing arrangement.

Act won five seats in Parliament at last year's election, registering 3.7 per cent of the vote. Party leader Rodney Hide's target is to double those numbers at the next election.

Hitting that target would put Act on a par with the Greens, indicating the party is a viable parliamentary force over the long term while removing its dependence on Hide holding on to his Epsom electorate which gives Act its foot in the door.

However, since the introduction of MMP in 1996, voters have been amazingly punishing of minor parties that have helped to prop up a government.

Act's entry into what Hide describes as the "death zone" consequently saw the conference focus heavily on political marketing and branding, with an analysis of post-election candidate interviews and voter focus-group research presented by Auckland University academic Jennifer Lees-Marshment.

She emphasised the party needed to switch to "permanent campaign mode" now rather than waiting until election year.

Act needed a strategy that included effective communication of what it was delivering policy-wise and emphasising those achievements had been gained only because Act was part of the governing arrangement.

She said the party should revisit its pre-election 20-point plan and possibly launch an updated version. The party needed to be open and honest when it was unable to deliver on expectations.

It needed to create "new product" for the 2011 election. It had to target new audiences with its messages while maintaining relations with its existing ones. And so on.

There was talk of Act softening its image to broaden its appeal to women and younger voters, and appealing to voters' hearts as much as their heads.

In short, Act needed to display "emotional appeal", rather than just cold hard logic, to win over voters.

In essence, it was suggested Act should be somewhat akin to the Greens, such that people could empathise with the sentiment expressed through the party's brand even if they did not agree with all of its policies.

However, the research also uncovered worries that the party had missed out in getting ministers into the Cabinet, but would get the blame for things going wrong in Government.

Meanwhile, Hide's and Roy's portfolios were taking them out of the political action as well as cutting communication between them and the party's other MPs and the wider membership.

While Act might need to begin its 2011 campaign now, the party is stretched organisationally and financially. Act's campaign budget last year went into the red to the tune of $300,000. The party has still to recover from the hit its membership took from Don Brash taking over the National Party leadership.

Yet, the message from Lees-Marshment's presentation was that Act cannot afford to be complacent and stand still, given the three-year electoral cycle.

As Roy told the conference, Act has a lot to think about but not much time to do it.

- 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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