Act's lone MP, John Banks, has been making all the right noises about the party's negotiations for a confidence and supply deal with National. There would be gains for Act in the areas of "choice, responsibility and private enterprise", he said after a second round of talks with John Key. The wording was designed to emphasise Mr Banks' affinity with Act's founding principles, and to draw attention away from his previous existence as a Cabinet minister in two National governments. He was, in effect, trying to persuade Act's dwindling number of supporters that he was one of them. It would be understandable if few were convinced.
Many of those supporters might, indeed, now be ruing the fact that Rodney Hide was deposed as Act's leader. However much his reputation had been battered, he at least embraced the full spectrum of the party's beliefs and could put them across well to a wider audience.
His successor, Don Brash, might have shared that philosophy but proved inept at getting the message across. Mr Banks, while preserving the party's presence in Parliament with his win in the Epsom electorate, does not present well on either front.
His true colours were revealed when Dr Brash backed the decriminalisation of the personal use of cannabis. This advocacy tallied with Act's promotion of individual freedom and personal responsibility. It was to be expected from a party that embraced classic liberalism. Yet Dr Brash's initiative was rejected out of hand by Mr Banks, confirming that he was very much a social conservative.
The disenchantment of many in Act with Mr Banks has been underlined by Stephen Whittington who, at number seven on Act's list, is regarded as one of the party's brightest young talents. He has questioned the Epsom MP's compatibility in the harshest terms, pointing to his attitude to ethnic minorities and the gay community, and suggesting there was also a yawning gap on economic issues. Mr Banks was, he said, "interventionist", a fatal flaw for a party that stands on sidelining the government as far as possible. Mr Whittington has also advanced the view that, with Mr Banks making it his personal mission to "suck up" to National, Act exists in name only.
By most yardsticks, that seems a reasonable conclusion. The party's brand has been badly tarnished by a succession of scandals. As much was confirmed by its 1.07 per cent share of the vote on election night. Now its only MP does not fit the Act mould. There appears every reason for the supporters of its principles to call it quits and establish a new liberal party. They could do so in the knowledge that there will always be a niche constituency for their core philosophy, even if Act's high-tide mark of nine seats and 7.14 per cent of the vote, in 2002, will be difficult to revisit.
It has been suggested that Mr Banks, for his part, would fit far more snugly with the Conservative Party. Under the leadership of Colin Craig, it garnered 2.76 per cent of the party vote but could not secure an electorate. Having made an impression in its first election, it needs now to find a way to keep itself in the public eye. If Mr Banks were to leave Act and join the Conservative Party, it would, in many ways, serve the interests of both parties.
Any such leap of logic has not, of course, been Act's strong point in recent years. The fact that none of the party's five MPs in the last Parliament were in the frame on November 26 carried its own commentary on the degree of dysfunction. Now, Mr Banks' act opens the party to further ridicule. As Mr Whittington has intimated, Act appears beyond repair. A new liberal party seems the only viable solution.