Without Richard Prebble there would be no ACT. In March 1996 ACT was polling the same as now, around 2 per cent on average. Prebble got it to 6 per cent.
But this year it began to look as if with Prebble there would be no ACT. His curious attack on Don Brash at ACT’s conference in March indicated a man losing his grip.
So ends a quarter-century in Parliament but only five years in government. Prebble lost what used to be called the two most educated electorates, Auckland Central in 1993 and Wellington Central in 1999.
He was — is — a puzzle.
One Prebble was principled, a stickler for parliamentary and constitutional tradition, the rule of law and justice in its widest sense — in short, a statesman.
The other Prebble was unprincipled, a ruthless numbers player in Labour’s Auckland Central electorate and in the wider party who drove off loyal party people in droves. This Prebble used and misused information and used and misused principle to sell a case — in short a rogue.
One could never be sure which Prebble one was dealing with, which made him both enigmatic and at times devastatingly effective. Once you were in Prebble’s jaws, you knew how much teeth could cut.
None of those proposed as his successor has that useful duality. Rodney Hide is the get-the-ratings choice but risks the core vote. Stephen Franks is the core vote’s on-message darling but with zero popular appeal. Ken Shirley is worthy and dull.
Maybe Hide might build votes but at a cost. The others might manage if a slice of voters despaired of centrist tendencies in National but Don Brash’s conviction politics will mute that.
ACT’s plight is that of parties at the edge of the political circle. They must build a core vote and stick to it as their base in Parliament. But if they stick too closely they risk marginalising themselves.
The Greens have managed it well. Winston Peters did, too, in 2002. But now his core vote, the cultural insecurity vote, is being raided by National and he risks confinement to the edge again, as in 1999.
Peters is about to relaunch himself nationally and around the marae in defence of the foreshore/seabed bill. National thinks he has made a fatal mistake. And he will run into the Maori party, another edge party.
It is too early for predictions about that party in the next election. The foreshore resonances go far beyond the rowdies on the hikoi buses. Some in Labour think those resonances portend a strong vote next year for a Maori party, perhaps the loss of all seven Maori electorates and a damaging slice of the party vote.
But for that any Maori party will need big names and none of real substance has yet emerged. For that, watch the Tainui royal family and Nanaia Mahuta. If she joins, it is potentially big.
Moreover, in a tight Parliament a seven-seat Maori party might well hold the balance of power. What then? If it got too pushy, an overpowering mood would develop to abolish the seats, which National, New Zealand First and ACT are itching to do.
It would then need to be a 5 per cent party. That is hard to do from the edge. And even on the edge there is tribal and personal fractiousness: the only effective and durable Maori party anyone has got up was the Ratana grouping in the 1930s and Ratana is still with Labour.
For the moment, however, Tariana Turia and Mahuta are doing what Parliament should do: giving a voice to the concerns of a small but significant group, who might otherwise resort to disruptive extraparliamentary politics. They provide an escape valve. Minorities need escape valves for our sort of democracy to work well.
But majorities also need confidence in their governments for our sort of democracy to work well. That confidence has been shaken as the Prime Minister has bent over backwards, sideways, even upside-down, to keep Turia in the tent.
Labour president Mike Williams thought he had a deal as Helen Clark’s envoy. MP Tim Barnett, who has done a lot of the donkey work in the community and voluntary sector (Turia’s erstwhile portfolio), thought he had a deal as Clark’s envoy. They and Clark think they were toyed with. There is deep anger at Turia.
In the process Clark has squandered a precious asset for Labour: her strength. She has looked a marionette on the end of Turia’s strings. Brash is ahead. The last time an opposition leader was preferred Prime Minister, it was Clark and she won the election.
Why did Clark go so far for a minister who she says now was not up to her job? Because Turia did reach some Maori more effectively so they could be assisted. Because Clark has been trying to broaden as far as possible the reach of her foreshore/seabed bill, to get a little nearer to consensus. Her fault was to get too close to the edge.
Prebble recognised that danger for ACT. Once Sir Roger Douglas talked of 50 per cent. Later, ACT hoped for 20 per cent. Now it hopes for 5.
Life’s hard on the edge. As Turia will find out. The bigger question is: has she brought Clark down with her?