Monday, March 27, 2006

John Armstrong: Turia speech an inspired Act

You had to keep pinching yourself. Was that really Tariana Turia up at the podium giving a speech to Act's annual conference?

The conference's "mystery guest speaker" was truly a surprise choice for a speaking slot usually reserved for some disciple of market liberalism.

It was also an inspired choice on Rodney Hide's part.

It mattered little what the Maori Party's co-leader actually told the conference. Her appearance during yesterday morning's session provided news enough for a party struggling to make the news.

Mrs Turia's presence also had the benefit of upstaging yet another outburst from Sir Roger Douglas. It is hardly news that Sir Roger is unhappy with the direction he sees Mr Hide taking the party. But the timing of the Act founder's renewed criticism of the leader was considered unhelpful, prompting dark mutterings of "treason" around the conference.

Mr Hide had other, more strategic reasons for asking Mrs Turia along.

Act's fundamental problem is that it is trapped on National's right flank. Act has two only votes in Parliament. It votes the same way as National. It has no leverage.

The Maori Party is unpredictable when it comes to casting its four votes. It can thus determine the fate of legislation. It has leverage.

Act could emerge from National's shadow were it to support Government measures occasionally. That would differentiate Act from National in an instant. While not necessarily going that far as yet, Mr Hide clearly wants some of the leverage Mrs Turia and her colleagues enjoy.

Forging ties with the Maori Party is a first step in Act trying to adopt some kind of broker's role which helps National, United Future, NZ First and the Maori Party to strike deals on legislation and hamper the Government.

Sharing a platform with the Maori Party and stressing what the two parties have in common is also part of the Act leader's efforts to give voters an idea of how a centre-right government might be configured - something National has neglected woefully.

Addressing the conference earlier, political scientist Raymond Miller agreed National's poor understanding of MMP politics had been a hindrance to Act.

However, Dr Miller also touched on reasons closer to home why Act had struggled. He suggested the pursuit of scandal made it difficult for voters to see anything different between Act and other populist parties.

That is a huge beef for those who joined Act as the party of radical, innovative ideas.

The election of Hamilton businessman Garry Mallett ahead of the more pragmatic Hawkes Bay farmer John Ormond is a message to Mr Hide that the party wants him to use his superb communication skills articulating Act's vision.

The leader insists he is merely doing the job expected of an Opposition MP in "holding the Government to account".

But he appears willing to meet his critics halfway.

In his keynote speech to the conference, Mr Hide said Act should not only ask the tough questions of the Government, it had to deliver answers as well.

His speech was followed by questions from the floor. That was a gamble. But a fairly safe one. It was unlikely any of the 80 or so delegates present were going to confront Mr Hide over his populist tendencies in front of the media.

Mr Hide can now say no one raised concerns when they had the chance. However, those who might have said something may have already voted with their feet.

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