ACT tilts at windmills, but don't forget other minors

New leaders, new poll, and a new crusade for ACT. But will it end any differently? And what of the other small parties?

If I was a cartoonist today I'd be digging out the old Don Quixote images, like this one, and placing Jamie Whyte and David Seymour on their respective steeds. The two new Act leaders (they need to be seen as a unit) are off on a vain quest for relevance, determined to champion a code of free-market purity that few still care about in a world where political reality is being defined by coalition deals.

Whyte and Seymour were chosen yesterday as the young men (by political standards) to re-energise the ACT party and reconnect it with a disinterested and disillusioned public. In that sense, they are the brave and ambitious choice. If Act want a future as more than National's puppet and beyond this year's election, then it needs the clean break this pair represent.

If you're on the ACT board or a forward-looking member, this is the 'hail mary' choice (hey, it's superbowl day). Throw the ball to these guys and see if somehow, they can get it into the in-zone. Because otherwise ACT is toast anyway.

John Boscawen, to continue the gridiron metaphor for a moment, could have moved them forward a few inches, got them another down at this election and done another deal for another three years. Perhaps that could have been a base to grow. But we're talking about Act here; a party with a reputation so tarnished it yesterday registered a fat 0 percent in tv3's first big poll of the year (though it's still on 0.4 percent in our Poll of Polls).

So good on Act for giving it a whirl. My fear however is that Whyte and Seymour are embarking on a quixotic adventure that will, as with our old Spanish friend, lead to some adventures that veer between comedy and tragedy, but end up with our heroes back where they started.

Their problem is that, like chivalry in Quixote's time, libertarianism is an idea currently sitting on the dark side of the moon. It's out of fashion, eclipsed. There's nothing like a global financial crisis with the world's largest economy dependent on quantitative easing and government stimuli par for the course nearly everywhere in the developed and developing world to make people nervous of 'small government'. (I noted that Conor Roberts has just tweeted that the Libertarians are no longer registered as a party).

TV3's poll has got a lot of commentary already today, both with New Zealand First's rise above the 5 percent threshold and the double zeroes for National's coalition partners United Future and Act. But while those are notable, they are hardly surprising.

New Zealand First's rise is confirmation of my thoughts last week (if I do say so myself), that John Key's announcement that he could consider a coalition deal with Winston Peters after all is a re-birth for the man and his party. But what is surprising is how quickly it's happened. Maybe it's simply an announcement bump that could fade between now and the campaign. But it shows that when Peters is prominent in the public eye, voters still like what they see.

Looking back at the Poll of Polls, at this time in the last election cycle he was down in the twos. If other polls back up the fact that he's already pushed his way from the 4.5 percent where he's sitting now to over five percent, then it's a hell of a launching pad for the party.

But if you thought this is all good news for New Zealand First, consider this. Yes, his own backers can vote for him happy to trust him to decide whether he goes with National, Labour or neither after the election. But what if you're a voter somewhere between the centre and the right who wants to give National a wake-up call or who perhaps wants to supply National with a coalition partner who isn't on life-support?

New Zealand First is a gamble. Peters won't disclose his preferences and could go with Labour. Some of those supporting him now might be assuming that he'll end up with the government, as many have suggested. But if they want to be really certain of a Key government, then where do they look? To the Conservatives, of course.

In a funny way, Colin Craig can afford to be quite happy with this poll. Not only does he stay over two percent while there's a swing to New Zealand First, there's room for him to pluck away at these larger New Zealand First numbers and become National's new best friend.

As for the double zeroes, well, United Future has been there for a while in our poll and Act's near-death experience has been widely discusssed. The political reality is that both parties are utterly reliant on National handing them a seat, and that hasn't changed.

Little mentioned in the discussion of this first election poll today has been the Maori Party. I've been meaning to write a separate post on them, but for now just let me say that Te Ururoa Flavell and co should not be overlooked this year. While the party's two seats are still being chalked up on National's side of the ledger, it's increasingly clear that that should not be assumed. It is not a party to be taken for granted this time round.