Hide's big task: an ACT of influence

ACT MPs have a message for their annual conference this weekend: ACT is making a difference in the government. But how much of a difference?

ACT isn’t the big-money, big-crowd party of the mid-1990s. It fits in a school hall. It depends on Rodney Hide to win Epsom with National party votes and needs all of Hide’s oomph to stay in business.

Hide has to walk a swaying tightrope. He must win big enough successes and trumpet them loudly to impress rank and file members and voters. But he must not risk their disappointment when they calculate whether fact matches rhetoric. And he must not be so successful and/or so loud that moderate Nationalists and voters fear the National dog is being wagged by the ACT tail and future wins are blocked.

So how has ACT gone? Leave aside Hide’s joyriding at your expense last year with his new love and his scathing dismissal of National’s timidity at an ACT show. Those blunders will biodegrade with time. Has he triggered real changes National would not have made?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is not as much as some of his rhetoric suggests.

Hide got himself made Local Government Minister to hack back local and regional councils’ activities to a “core”. He wanted voter referendums on spending at local election time. He wants lower rates.

But Hide’s “core” expanded as he toured councils. It even came to include Manukau City’s COMET programme which spends rates “to build leadership in education in the Manukau community and to help people access education and employment”. By late October his radical proposals had been radically downscaled.

David Garrett has got the essence of his “three strikes and you’re in” (prison) policy. Hide made a big point of that in his 2010 opening parliamentary speech. Liberal Simon Power puts on a brave face.

Hide won a review of climate change policy and its science, which ACT says is bunk. But National still takes the science seriously and has kept the all-sectors, all-gases emissions trading scheme, even though softening it. Hide called that “atrocious” policy from a “very, very good government”.

ACT is keen on school choice. Deputy leader Heather Roy won a National-ACT-Maori taskforce to study a scheme of scholarships on the principle that “once parents, whanau and students have made a decision on schooling they should be allowed to follow through on it, going where they want”, with “money in hand” to so parents can “make providers sit up as it empowers students and parents and electrifies choice”.

The taskforce cut this to the highest-performing (gifted) twentieth and lowest-performing fifth of 6s-to-16s who, once chosen, would be able to access an approved provider of a personal learning plan. A disappointed Roy released ACT’s much more ambitious minority version.

Hide won a Don Brash-chaired commission to say how to catch up with Australia in wealth and wages by 2025. But John Key spoke for his National ministers when he dismissed the first report before it was published.

Given that the Brash report heavily emphasised deregulation and smaller government, that rejection does not augur well for Hide’s aim, as Minister for Regulatory Reform to rewrite of his 2006 Regulatory Responsibility Bill in line with a radical report by a taskforce headed by former Treasury Secretary Graham Scott.

That report proposed embedding in statute property-rights-based and economic-cost-benefit principles and procedures which would guide court judgments on new and existing law. Several academics, not all of the left, have called that unworkable, revolutionary or at odds with jurisprudential or constitutional principles. Senior National ministers are wary.

Nevertheless, Hide did get a joint statement out of Bill English greatly toughening up the criteria for new legislation and regulations, requiring ministers and chief executives to certify it meets the criteria or say why not and subjecting all existing legislation and regulations to a review. That is a big change that would not have happened without ACT.

If some ACC services are opened up to competition, that will also be essentially ACT’s doing.

In short, ACT has been influential beyond its five-to-58 ratio with National, especially given that National can turn to the Maori party.

Still, the outcomes are short of what members and voters dream of. Such is the frustration of small parties. The Greens were frustrated collaborators with Labour governments. The trick is to get supporters to value such wins as are scored.

Hide’s fallback is to claim to have ensured there is a centre-right government. This weekend he has to convince the faithful the “right” part is not just a convenient adjunct to “centre”. This is the test year.