At one early ACT conference Rodney Hide and Richard Prebble were the after-dinner act. It was a laugh a minute, smart, intelligent and sharp, a great evening’s entertainment.
Hide, you will gather from that, has a great sense of humour, irrepressible like the rest of his personality, plus a skill at sound bites. He has huge energy. He has bravery, bravado and braggadocio.
In short, he has profile, oodles more than Stephen Franks whom he narrowly beat for the leadership. He has the sort of profile the leader of a small party needs to get it noticed.
Now he has to add gravitas. He has to weld the party together, dig it out of the 2.5 per cent hole into which Don Brash’s rise has tossed it and run like hell for 5 per cent.
In that race Hide must clear four hurdles.
The first is to rebrand himself as a man who can and does articulate the party’s core philosophy.
The “can” is not in doubt. At his best he does it as well as Franks, the darling of those who want ACT to be pristinely “classical liberal”.
But Hide is known instead to the public and to many of ACT’s supporters as a scourge of scams: taxi chits were an early hit and he went on from there. The trouble with that is that not too many vote for ACT because it exposes scams. Most of Hide’s many headlines were electorally inconsequential.
And that put him at odds with grand party figures, including co-founders Sir Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley, who want a strictly market-liberal party. It has complicated president Catherine Judd’s attempt to clarify project on the “liberal” brand.
On Sunday, clothed in Sunday-best seriousness, he promised a different Hide who will do less “holding the government to account” and more presenting ACT’s vision of a nation of freedom and personal responsibility.
He has complained in the past that he couldn’t get the media to report his serious economic speeches. With the more attentive media cover a leader gets, now is his chance to show whether there is a statesman lurking inside the bovver-boy.
But pumping the party brand will take him smack into the second hurdle. As voters generally see it, the brand is tax cutting to the point where health and education and other social services will disintegrate.
And in fact the point of distinction Hide chose to emphasise on Sunday was tax: ACT’s plan for a 20 per cent top income tax rate. He said Michael Cullen’s Budget could have afforded that this year.
Low tax does appeal to a small segment of voters, as does the market-liberal brand as a whole. But ACT needs a broader segment of voters to get 5 per cent to stay in the game.
Flip that coin, however: if Hide succeeds in broadening ACT’s voter base while trumpeting the brand and thereby makes ACT a serious prospect for coalition government, might that not deter some centrist voters who would otherwise vote National?
Not necessarily, is the lesson we learnt from the Labour-Alliance success in 1999 when the fact that they presented an alternative government outweighed centrist worries about too much Alliance influence. Hide is banking on this. A small counterfactual: Labour is not yet in such low esteem as was the late-1990s National government.
Then there is Brash. He is a big hurdle for Hide because his image is an ACT sort of image. Even if you are a market-liberal, why vote ACT when you can have Brash?
Hide comes at this hurdle straight on: ACT will be needed alongside National to stop it being corrupted by compromises with New Zealand First or United Future.
He might have added, but politely did not in so many words, that ACT could also stem compromises between Brash and his own caucus. Both for tactical reasons (not to frighten centrist voters) and because a sizable chunk of the caucus is centrist, compromise is rampant.
Hide insisted on Sunday he would not (yet) talk bottom lines with or about National. But he did talk about tax and made it a point of differentiation with National. National had “signed up to Helen Clark’s 39 per cent top tax rate”, he said tartly. ACT would “never” accept that.
Hurdle one: his personal brand. Hurdle two: the party brand. Hurdle three: Brash. The fourth is National’s prime need to recover its major-party status. There is not yet any enthusiasm to ensure ACT’s parliamentary future by standing aside so it can win an electorate seat and dispense with the need for 5 per cent.
Four hurdles to clear and the frame and bulk of an all-in wrestler — and short with it: quite an athletic challenge.
Hide does, however, start with an advantage. The “primary” voting process involving party members may have been divisive of the caucus but it has added around 1000 members and rekindled enthusiasm. So there is some raw energy to draw on.
But Hide only narrowly won the members’ vote, 54 per cent to Franks’ 46 per cent. He must yet earn their respect. He has maybe six months, maybe 12. And if he fails, Franks has staked his claim to be next in line.
Life’s tough at the top in small parties.