By HELEN TUNNAH deputy political editor





The architects of New Zealand's free-market reforms, former finance ministers Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, have backed Stephen Franks to be Act's new leader.



Their support for Mr Franks was expected, but Act's co-founder Sir Roger has also endorsed current deputy and his former Labour colleague, Ken Shirley, as a possible replacement for Richard Prebble.



Sir Roger's support has been delivered with less than subtle criticism of the outspoken populist contender Rodney Hide.

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He said last night that Sir Roger had respect within the party. "But the members can form their own views. I'm confident in the members."



Mr Franks and Mr Hide had been considered the two frontrunners for the job after Mr Prebble's sudden decision to step down, following Act's slump in the polls.



However, Sir Roger's decision to also lend his weight to Mr Shirley could see him emerge as a compromise candidate. A fourth MP, Muriel Newman, is considered an outside prospect to be leader.



While Act's members are now voting on who they think should be leader, the final decision rests with the eight-MP caucus and board.



They will meet for two days at the end of next week to choose the leader.



Sir Roger yesterday issued a statement backing Mr Franks and Mr Hide, while former National finance minister and now Act supporter Ms Richardson has lent her name to an endorsement pamphlet distributed by Mr Franks.



Sir Roger's statement did not directly lash Mr Hide, but his criticisms were clear.



He has in the past complained about Mr Hide's high media profile, suggesting he should focus instead on his job as the party's finance spokesman.



Leaders, he said yesterday, got the media presence they deserved through "public and private consistency".



He said leaders got the kind of loyalty they displayed towards their colleagues. Mr Hide has been an ambitious seeker of the leadership.