The only party which argued the property rights line in the foreshore and seabed furore in 2003-04 was ACT. ACT said iwi should be able to pursue due process through the courts. National belatedly rediscovered property rights with new intakes of MPs from 2005.
That rediscovery fuelled National’s agreement with the Maori party to repeal the 2004 act. But its bill in turn has stirred fears, which ACT shares, that backroom cabinet-iwi deals might transfer large sections of the coastline into iwi hands.
ACT has lined up with the Coastal Coalition and other pressure groups, including one led by former Hawkes Bay Labour MP Bill Sutton, that have tried to build those fears into a popular protest movement. ACT deputy leader John Boscawen has held many public meetings to fan those fears.
ACT’s evolving foreshore-seabed position illustrates the seesaw ACT has constructed for itself: principle at one end, popular pitch at the other. How long it can back-and-forth along this seesaw without falling off is the party’s great challenge.
At the principle end is the right to personal liberty, which includes economic liberty, with corollaries of small government and light regulation. The right to exclusive ownership of property is integral to liberty and governments may interfere only under strict public-interest conditions.
The popular pitch end of the seesaw is about attracting votes among those who are not too bothered about liberty but do have particular concerns. ACT’s “three strikes” sentencing of repeat violent offenders in response to crime concerns helped lift it from two MPs to five in 2008.
Leader Rodney Hide bounces at both ends of the seesaw. He drove the principled ground-breaking government instruction in August 2009 tightening rules on legislation and regulation. He was principled chief perk-buster. As a populist, he was a prime mover in getting “three-strikes” David Garrett into Parliament in 2008. And, junking principle, he took his now wife on a high-perk taxpayer-funded international trip and holiday.
Those in the party who stand for principle, don’t like Hide the populist. They want ACT to emulate the Greens, who for four elections in a row have cleared the 5 per cent hurdle by standing on clear principles.
At the 2010 conference former deputy leader Heather Roy took a stand at the principle end of the seesaw. For that and some other sins, real and imagined, she was replaced as deputy with Boscawen. She will disappear from Parliament in November.
Roy pointed out the blindingly obvious: that in 2005 and 2008 ACT won seats in Parliament only because Hide won Epsom. Ironically, Roy was an important factor in building his confidence and campaign in Epsom in 2005
So some in the party have been agonising how to wrest the party back to the seesaw’s principle end and somehow also wrest it back off Hide, at least so that he presents himself and the party as principled and not as embodied in an idiosyncratic, if engaging, leader.
This will suffuse the ACT’s conference this month.
ACT’s tensions are also a talking point for National. Almost certainly, despite misgivings in some quarters, National will again tip a wink to its voters in Epsom to vote for Hide with their electorate vote. By doing that it gets a net seat or two extra on its side. Also, if ACT polls low, as seems likely at this point, National won’t need to make as many concessions post-election as in 2008.
But that would be small consolation to ACT’s believers-in-principle. It would keep ACT on life support, where it has been since 2002, when its vote was 7 per cent.
Can it rebuild to a 6-7 per cent party, counterbalancing the Greens on the left? For that National would have go badly wrong and shed votes to its right. Never say never in politics. But the signs for ACT are pointing to extinction, not regeneration.