It's a juggling ACT

The party of business, so it says, is ACT, which has its annual conference this month. But now there is competition: Don Brash’s version of the National party.

Moreover, there is an eery parallel.

Brash is a classical liberal ( which is ACT’s proclaimed ideology) but did not start out that way. If he had followed in his father’s ideological footsteps, as he did until his early twenties, Brash would logically have been alongside Michael Cullen instead of fighting him.

Most of ACT’s contingent have made the same journey, though more recently than Brash.

Richard Prebble (leader) and Ken Shirley (deputy leader) were Labour cabinet ministers in the late 1980s. Stephen Franks was to Labour’s left when a student, then a Labour card-carrier. Deborah Coddington was Labour. Rodney Hide came from a leftish sort of environmentalism. Donna Awatere-Huata, an early standard-bearer for ACT though now excommunicated, was a Maori “nationalist”.

People who acquire a new ideology are often very committed, as are those who get religion in midlife. ACT MPs act that way. So does Brash.

Brash navigates complex issues not as a pragmatist does, on the basis of a scan of the facts (though he does do that). The pilot is his worldview. Thus, when he went hard against the government’s policies toward Maori he was not being populist, though that was at least partly the effect and maybe the intention of some of his advisers.

Brash was saying what he believed to be right. He does that on other major issues, too.

This ideological approach used to be the preserve of parties on the left in our politics. It is still uppermost in the Greens’ approach. But, though ideology is still visible in Labour’s policy and actions, especially in defence of gays, pragmatism rules. Labour wants to stay in power and pragmatism is the time-honoured way of doing that in this country.

Now ideology is largely the preserve of ACT and of Brash’s National.

The problem for both is that it is the same ideology. Why vote ACT when you can get what ACT promises with Brash and National?

For all Richard Prebble’s jaunty congratulations of Brash for saying the right things, this poser will stalk ACT’s conference.

ACT is a product of MMP. While Prebble did win a constituency seat in 1996, ACT has not won one since. It got into, and has held on in, Parliament because enough National-leaning people have voted for it to puff up total numbers on National’s side — or, in 2002, because they despaired of National.

But to one strand of opinion within National this doesn’t make strategic sense. This line argues for a merger with ACT.

That would then free National to woo United Future, the Christian contingent of which has the potential to form a grouping on National’s side of the political spectrum with a distinctly different — moral conservative — message. United Future is no admirer of ACT.

Without ACT, this argument goes, National and United Future could at some time in the future face off against Labour and the Greens as alternative governments.

But there is still New Zealand First to account for. Any voting pattern which leaves a Brash-led government dependent on New Zealand First would not be credible. So National has to find a way of finessing or finishing off Winston Peters.

The Treaty policy might do some of that work. Brash’s calm assurance and personal authority — a potentially persuasive plus on television — might do a bit more.

But Peters is a durable bloke. And in any case there is a flaw.

Why would ACT merge with National? That would amount to submerging in National — not hugely different than being voted out of Parliament. And if National swings back towards the centre sometime, that would again potentially open up space for ACT if it hangs on in Parliament.

By the time you read this, there may be an answer of sorts from Richard Prebble’s write-in poll on merger after National shot ahead of Labour in February — or from a different quarter, the simultaneous push for Rodney Hide as leader.

But the real answer is in voters’ hands. In the 1990s the imperative for many National-leaning voters was to straighten National out. After four years of a strong Clark government the imperative is to get her out.

The extent to which ACT is a help in that (as cheerleader) or hindrance (as a complication in coalition arithmetic) may well decide its fate.