ACT’s conference over the weekend was determinedly upbeat with very little reference to its often-troubled past.
Of the seven former leaders the aprty has had over the 22 years it has existed, only Don Brash turned up and that was only to hear the current leader, David Seymour’s keynote speech.
It was left to right wing commentator, Mathew Hooton, who said he had always voted ACT, to remind the delegates how unsuccessful they had been as a political force.
“The whole time Act has existed there has been a slow drift to the left – so that John Key now feels comfortable to present policies to New Zealand that a dozen years ago would have been to the left of Laila Harre,” he said.
Whilst Hooton (typically) overplayed the situation, the fact is that ACT’s wins under National have been minor; the three strikes policy and charter schools, a far cry from the flat tax, minimalist government that Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley proposed when they founded the party in 1994.
Hooton proposed that the party challenge National more.
They had nothing to lose he suggested.
It was a challenge that ACT leader, David Seymour, indicated he was willing to take up.
He plainly found it difficult when he came into Parliament as the party’s sole MP in 2014 and unlike John Banks before him he had no Parliamentary experience.
“”I’ve been getting up to speed,” he says.
“I think my confidence and assertiveness has grown and I think you will see us start to put clearer lines in the sand as far as National is concerned.”
He gave an indication of where the might come during his speech to the conference.
“After eight years John Key still hasn’t done anything that a Labour cabinet couldn’t have signed off,” he said.” ‘ “
“Even the flag change is Labour Party policy.
“But what of the long term issues facing New Zealand?” said Mr Seymour.
“On RMA reform, the Government has only tinkered, despite housing costs being one of the biggest causes of poverty in New Zealand.
“The staple of a centre-right government should be tax relief.
By the next election National will have gone eight years with nothing to say about it.
“Even adjusting tax brackets for inflation seems too hard for this Government.
“All politicians privately agree that New Zealand should follow the rest of the OECD by signalling a higher age of entitlement for Superannuation as life expectancies increase, but both major parties have their heads in the sand.”
But before ACT can credibly challenge the Key Government it needs to get its own support up so there will be changes within the ACT organisation to back this up.
Party President John Thompson, who is retiring next year probably to stand as a candidate in the election, told delegates they hoped to establish a full time office in Wellington before the end of the year and appealed for money so the party could conduct more market research.
The aprty is shortly to also appoint a new Chief of Staff at Parliament – believed to be a staff member from a senior Cabinet Minister’s office.
The other optimistic sign for the aprty was the age of many of the delegates – younger than we have seen in the past at ACT conferences.
And the presence of a number of young Chinese delegates suggested that the aprty has maintained its appeal to the Asian community.
Along with Mr Seymour’s new (slightly shaky) pitch for the environmental vote, what this conference shoed that there are signs of new life in ACT.
As Mr Seymour himself says, we won’t really know how robust this new growth is till much closer to the election.
But this weekend was at least a new start for the aprty.