Can ACT Hide and still be a real runner in the election?

Nine years ago at this time ACT met in conference as a 2 per cent party. Richard Prebble was made leader and made ACT a 6 per cent party in the election in October.

That’s Rodney Hide’s task as he goes into his first conference as ACT leader this weekend.

ACT’s poll average in the four major polls published in February was 2.1 per cent. That is microscopically better than the February 1996 four-poll average of 1.7 per cent (the precise election vote was 6.2 per cent).

But it is less than half the 4.4 per cent and 4.5 per cent in February 1999 and 2002, which prefigured votes of 7.0 per cent and 7.1 per cent in the elections in November 1999 and July 2002.

And, for good measure, the political terrain Hide must traverse en route to this year’s election is starkly different from those earlier years.

In 1996 National was an unpopular government, ACT was new and so was MMP. Votes flung loose from the two major parties in the turmoil of the 1984-92 policy revolution were up for grabs.

Prebble campaigned with verve, imagination and mischief. He also pocketed the Wellington Central seat.

His campaign was well-funded by well-heeled backers who wanted the economic policy revolution restarted and saw ACT, founded by the revolution’s hero, Sir Roger Douglas, as having the potential in Parliament to trigger it.

In 1999 Prebble lost Wellington Central, thereby (having lost Auckland Central in 1993 for Labour) earning the unique distinction of losing the country’s two most educated electorates. But National was even more unpopular and in 2002 it was adrift. Many despairing National-leaning voters went to ACT in those elections.

And now?

National is on a long-term upswing, even if still of modest momentum. It is headed back in the direction of power.

Don Brash revived National supporters’ hope last year. Sure, he still has a tough grind ahead to return National to power but he is dogged, focused, genuine and credible and has a kind of charm. That mix of attributes may well lift National during the campaign.

Anyone who thinks Brash has dropped into National’s leadership on an excursion, as Labour grandees seem to think, would profit from reading Paul Goldsmith’s useful biography.

Moreover — despite the fudges now being liberally applied to National’s policy to detox its fear-potential for suburb-dwellers who don’t want the revolution restarted — Brash the monetary policy tsar and 35-year campaigner for lower regulation and taxes still engenders a belief in true-believers that he might do more in office than his minders want talked about right now.

That belief undermines belief in ACT’s catalytic role and bleeds backers and votes out of ACT. Moreover, it has been compounded by Brash’s vigorous stand on Maori issues, which commandeered anti-PC ground ACT also used to have and scooped out poll support.

Moreover, there is a strong strand of opinion in the National party, reaching up to high places, which discounts or rejects outright any value to National of ACT. One put it to me: “Every ACT vote is a National vote. Every ACT dollar is a National dollar.”

So any tactical decision to nudge National voters, overtly or by winks or nods, to give ACT a seat– even if, say, ACT is at 4 per cent in polls a fortnight from the election — would divide the party, the more so since Prebble’s recent savaging of Brash.

But ACT has first to get to that 4 per cent.

The novelty value ACT had in 1996 has gone. Sir Roger has drawn back. So have the early backers.

And Hide is not Prebble. He is determined and fearless and can be funny. But he doesn’t have Prebble’s bewitching mixture of ferocity and fun that can turn a television trick.

Worse, Hide’s popular image is as a scandal-monger. That is not a reason to vote for a party on the ground of its policy positioning.

ACT has not done what the Greens have done at the other end of the spectrum: build a set of small constituencies around a general theme (social and environmental concern). ACT has tried to patch together the scandalised and the classically liberal.

You might say Hide is the ideal man to do that. He revels in scandal and he promotes classical liberalism with passion. But actually the two don�t mix — just as the equally ideological Greens would not be able to mix scandal with planetary love.

It might also be that there is not a big enough constituency for ACT’s ideology. The Greens have a strong brand and a constituency that almost ensures 5 per cent long-term.

Hide has tried to present deregulation and lower taxes as good for “workers”. There is a potential line there but Hide and ACT have not succeeded in developing it. Now it might be too late.

So will it be all gloom this weekend? No. Some in ACT see glimmerings of rekindling interest as National softens its policy.

And ACT people are a cheerful lot, always a pleasure to be amidst. In the conference cocoon their uphill slog will likely be tinged with optimism. Hide is good at optimism. Just as well.