Hide, Roy & ACT: Two strikes down, one to go (if Epsom allows)

The party that introduced the three strikes law is itself one strike away from permanent political imprisonment. Its fate now lies in the hands of others, as it looks more like a party of past

As the week nears the end, we know so much more about the long-presumed tensions within the ACT party, and yet are left with so many questions. As you dig around in the detritus of Heather Roy's sacking, one question leads to another, and then another, and then more, like an avalanche. The little party that bet the House on Epsom in 2005 and defied the odds to win a seat, is now at risk of being crushed under their weight.

Let's start with a few off the top of my head... Is the party split? How badly is it damaged in the eyes of voters and can that damage be repaired? Is Rodney Hide a bully or just "forceful"? Did he accuse Heather Roy of drug use and was he right? Is he simply not up to being leader? What influence does Simon Ewing-Jarvie have?

Will those on the right of New Zealand politics hang around to find out, or will they find another vehicle? What about Sir Roger Douglas? And perhaps most crucially, what do the voters of Epsom and the key strategists in National make of these poisonous revelations?

There are many more, but let me take a few of the crucial ones. First, the MPs are divided, but not in the ideological way that some seem to be suggesting. Hide, Douglas and Roy, for example, are all solid economic liberals.

John Boscawen, Hide's new deputy, is as nuts about climate change as his leader, for example, but in contrast is a champion of compulsory savings and tougher financial regulations. That's quite something in a party which usually considers "compulsory" and "regulations" as swear words.

David Garrett? Well, apart from his 'lock 'em up obsessions, who the hell knows?

In other words, they are a bit of a political pick 'n mix.

And it's true that there have long been tensions in the party between the pure libertarians and the more populist reactionaries. But that ain't what this is about. This is personal. This is ego and anger and power and all the things that get amplified in small parties, simply because they are so small.

Roy and Hide are very different personalities, and those differences have been stretched to breaking point. The problem for Roy was that she felt compelled to fight for a new strategy. In a small party where the leader holds the seat that's the only thing keeping you in power, and two of the five caucus members owe him their political lives, that was a fight she could never really win.

So, can ACT survive this damage? The short answer is yes. The short-ish answer is yes, but it's a hell of a big ask. And the long answer goes something like this...

The rich political twist in this is that the party which got the three strikes bill passed to further punish our worst offenders is now onto its last hurrah.

The first strike was Hide's perk-revelling, taxpayer-funded trips to Europe and Hawaii with his girlfriend. This fallout with his deputy is the second. A third offence against the laws of politics and they're doomed.

The question becomes whether the ACT MPs can learn their lesson and turn their political lives around, or whether the first two strikes make a third inevitable. Is the discipline just gone?

The people who ultimately get to answer the question of ACT's survival are: a) the National party and b) the voters of Epsom. (I could add c) the fickle money men, but I expect that even at their nuttiest they'd be able to find someone).

National has turned on ACT in the past, so you can't rule out them tiring of their minor partner's, er, eccentricities and standing a strong, and strongly endorsed, candidate in the country's wealthiest electorate.

Yet what have they got to gain by doing so? John Key is on the centre-right (with a bundle of centrist and right wing add-ons), closer to the centre than his right wing predecessors Bill English and Don Brash. He wants a party to his right, not least because it gives him cover to enact some right wing policies and keep the base of his own party well fed and watered.

If you do the simple electoral maths, Epsom and its MP will be part of any right wing coalition, whether it's held by National or ACT. That's a given. The greatest risk to National is if ACT doesn't get a seat or cross the five percent threshold, yet still wins, say, two percent of the vote. That's two percent lost to the right, which isn't in National's interest at all.

So they're likely to rally behind ACT for some time yet. The good people of Epsom are harder to read. Many voted strategically in 2005 to keep ACT in parliament. Are they willing to ignore the shenanigans and keep doing that?

I'm guessing, but I suspect it gets harder with every incompetent strike.

Of course, there is one final question that no-one's asking just yet, and that's whether New Zealand even cares anymore. ACT's been below two percent in the Pundit Poll of Polls for more than a year.

Frankly, it looks more and more like a party of the past. Its ideology has run its course in this country, at least for now. Or, at least in this form, with these faces. Just this week, the Prime Minister ruled out an old ACT favourite, education vouchers, as he tacks back to the centre to fend off Labour's recent burst of activity.

Perhaps all this fuss is a sign of frustration, an expression of irrelevance. New Zealand had its dalliance with ACT ideas – and even some of its personnel – in the 1980s and '90s. It even went home with them, but it didn't respect itself in the morning.

New Zealand has latched onto something else since, found a new model. While ACT pines and preens and agonises, the fact is that New Zealand isn't going to call. It's moved on.

Which, if we're really honest at the end of this week, leaves ACT faced with the biggest question of all. Has it simply done its dash?