Heather Roy's return to parliament this week was a bit rich – Katherine Rich, that is. By following the former National MP's example, Roy has bought herself some time, but is it borrowed? And will the right-wing parties can together or divide?

If you front up, they can't stab you in the back. That seems to be the theory Heather Roy has decided to go with this week, as she returned to parliament talking about her commitment to the party and her appetite for hard work.

And so far, it's worked a treat.

It's over a week now since Roy, most notably the former associate defence minister, was dumped from the deputy leadership of ACT, in a 3-2 vote, and sent home to think about her future (read: write her resignation letter). Every indication was that her leader, Rodney Hide, wanted shot of her, as he started to paint a picture of Roy as nice, but easily influenced and not quite up to the job.

"I think she got off track as a minister," Hide said, even though PM John Key and Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said they didn't have any concerns about her performance.

"Heather's been a very good person and I think she's been poorly advised," Hide continued last week. Then, this week, he went on TVNZ's Breakfast to say that she was "a very good MP" and that he wanted her back on the team, but that he also "feared" she was going to become an embarrassment to the government.

He followed that up with a speech to the rotary club of Epsom, his version of events being: Roy lost confidence of caucus... Hide stayed mum to protect her and held out the olive branch... She accepted, but then came the revelation of the leaked document, tsk, tsk...

The implication seemed to be that for all his efforts, things just weren't working out.

From her garden, where it seems she was quickly becoming bored, Roy figured that another week of those shennanigans and she'd be utterly damned by all this faint praise. So she packed her bag and went back to work, pointedly not telling anyone in her party, except Sir Roger Douglas (and isn't it interesting he didn't tell his leader?).

Her return has echoes of Katherine Rich's performance in 2005, when Don Brash stripped her of National's social welfare portfolio and demoted her from fourth to 10th on the party's rankings. (Although Rich's scrap was over crucial policy, and Roy's more to do with leadership and ego).

Brash had used his second Orewa speech to raise the prospect of putting limits on the dole, forcing DPB mums back into work and cutting off payments to mothers who made a "lifestyle choice" to stay on the DPB.

Rich politely said the speech raised some, er, interesting questions, but couldn't endorse it. That cost her the welfare portfolio.

But rather than slink off, she stayed in parliament, went to question time and spoke of her loyalty to the party and its leader. It was the politic thing to do.

By following that example, Roy has outfoxed Hide and bought herself some time.

Who knows how ACT may twist and lurch in the coming months? And after all, she has the support of the party's heart and soul, Sir Roger Douglas, as a weapon in her armoury.

But it all resolves nothing, only delaying the end-game by a matter of months.

The future still ain't bright for Roy, or ACT. Her list place has to be dealt with, so while she pretends the party has moved on and mouths platitudes about unity that not a single voter believes, Hide will presumably be looking for ways to push her down and out in the future.

All the while, ACT has to train its attentions on Epsom. Hide's Rotary speech was interesting in that it was, in the middle year of an election cycle, a full-blown campaign speech. He said:

And we will keep pushing and prodding the government to deal with issues now, not leave them to the future.

But while doing that, the Prime Minister has my absolute assurance that his government will not have to worry about confidence and supply.

Nor will he have to worry about ACT support for any of the many policy changes that you would expect from a centre-right Party, but which would not be supported by the Maori Party.

Because without ACT, National would be stalled, dependent on getting Maori Party support for any change it needed to make, and thus be able to make very little useful change.

That is why we need the ACT Party in parliament.  And that is why I have no doubt that we will continue to see ACT well represented, better represented, in parliament in the future.

All of which is a very clear plea to a right-wing electorate to think strategically, and keep ACT in parliament for National's sake. It's pathetic, but it's realistic.

The question is whether National will see it that way. Will the right hang together? Many in the party think of Remuera as "their" seat, many don't like to give away seats, even under MMP. With Richard Worth in place and safe with a list seat, the party could wink to the Remmers Tories and whisper that they had a National MP of their own anyway.

Not so now. Are they willing to go through a full nomination process only to stand a dud? Will they do a 'Mark Thomas' to some poor sap? Or will they, as has been rumoured earlier in the year, turn to the wealth, local knowledge, ethnic appeal and political skills of Aaron Bhatnagar?

With Key's backing, Bhatnagar could destory Hide and ACT in one fell swoop. So National will be asking itself, has ACT served its purpose? It can yet be blamed for the Super City next year, but it has already been used as cover for three strikes, 90 days and the like. Maybe National will have had enough.

Yet history tells us that when National seeks to embrace the further right of the electorate, it gets itself into trouble; it could open doors for Labour in the centre and New Zealand First around the fringes. So maybe not.

For now, ACT is hoping that they can lock up these miserable few weeks and shove them to the back of the closet. It's some hope. This, my friends, is far from over.

Comments (16)

by Mr Magoo on August 27, 2010
Mr Magoo

Ahhh. And justice for all.

Where are the smarmy smirks and childish digs from Rodney on this one?

A disgusting end to a disgusting party....I hope.

by stuart munro on August 27, 2010
stuart munro

We wish. But I think that Winston Peters established that notoriety alone is enough to keep a worthless party close to the 5% threshold. ACT got a whole bunch of free negative publicity - which for them is infinitely better than their deserts - no publicity at all.

by Tim Watkin on August 27, 2010
Tim Watkin

But Stuart, Peters had (has) a cast of push-button issues to call on that can connect with more than five percent... Are ACT's issues as popular?

Magoo, where do you reckon the supporters go if the party dies?

by stuart munro on August 27, 2010
stuart munro

@ Tim no - so they run on notoriety alone - Peters did it for a while too.

Yet many NZers do feel that they are paying too much tax (and no longer getting the full service state that once justified it)- certainly they have little left over for discretionary spending. And the Murdoch media support every soundbite ACT utters.

But if ACT were reported as neutrally as the Greens, it would have expired a long time ago. A surprising number of NZers still resent the asset thefts of the second Labour government, and their fellow kleptsiarchs, the 'black decade' 90s National governments. Some proportion of the public's loss of patience with Helen Clark was her failure to roll back these errors of judgment sufficiently.

by Mr Magoo on August 27, 2010
Mr Magoo

If they go anywhere it will be to National at the moment.

However in the next election they probably wont go anywhere. They most likely will go to ACT in the hopes of winning Epsom. If they don't win their votes will suffer the same fate as NZF last time.

After that? National unless they attempt a revival or some other party attempts to fill the gap.

But my comment was mainly wishful thinking. We know that the only reason they exist is because National allows them to. And I think that Act are too convenient on several levels for them.

by william blake on August 27, 2010
william blake

I agree mr Magoo that ACT exists due to the self interested indulgence of the Nats, but I woder what the fall out from the teething of the super city will do for mr Hide?

Us Jaffas suspect an impending balls up and Rodney Hide is going to wear the blame. Epsom voters may feel reluctant to vote for the chump if the worst predictions become reality. ie. the Canadian super city examples where costs skyrocketed and service plummeted.

Those super cities no longer exist and neither do their architects.

by The Falcon on August 28, 2010
The Falcon

@Tim - Australia probably, and will hopefully take a decent chunk of NZ's tax takings with them. No one likes to live in a country where their votes count for nothing.

by Deborah Coddington on August 28, 2010
Deborah Coddington

Tim I think it's unfair to compare Katherine Rich with Heather Roy. Katherine was urged to take leave but refused. She maintained her dignity and never, ever criticised her leader, despite Michael Bassett writing the opposite in his Dominion Post column.

And why do you think former Act supporters would go elsewhere? They just drop off the radar because there is no political home for them. There are still social and economic liberals out there. They don't support the hard-arsed, three strikes, Sensible Sentencing, smack the kids mentality Act has adopted. They don't support the anti- review attitude Act has adopted towards the Foreshore and Seabed Act either, because Act used to strongly support property rights. Property rights should be colour blind.

But they do support gay marriage, voluntary euthanasia, the right for all parents - not just wealthy parents as Act supports right now - to send their children to the school they select.

They are concerned about the appalling infant mortality rate, they are concerned about the environment , don't necessarily think the ETS is the way to go, but also understand our trade situation.

In other words, they fit somewhere between National's pragmatic populism, and Act's nuttiness, and for all Rodney Hide's faults, he does understand the economic side of their concerns because most of them are small business people, or working people, trying to get along.

What Act needs to do really, if it's to survive, is get some decent candidates. But if it's only got about 1000 members, I don't know how it can do this if the rational reasonable people are leaving, and the nutbars are left behind.


by Claire Browning on August 30, 2010
Claire Browning

And why do you think former Act supporters would go elsewhere? They just drop off the radar because there is no political home for them.

I'd venture there are any number of voters, on all parts of the political spectrum, without a comfortable 'political home'. I should know, being one of them. Doesn't mean they don't vote.

They may [and I do] flirt with the delicious, seditious possibility of staying home on election day, but in the end I bet most of them don't. Civic duty. Habit. Taking charge of one's own destiny, even when it fully sucks. Etc.

This utopian vision you outline, Deborah, strikes me as the kind of thing Heather Roy might have been driving at. I mean if this is what ACT stands for, some people really need to start telling some other people, not prancing about Disneyland in yellow jackets, having mid-life crises.

Roger Douglas isn't the one to do it: too much of a hate figure. I don't think Roy is, either, but the thrust of your comment seems not entirely dissimilar to where I understood her to be coming from, however clumsily she went about it. The spirit of where she was coming from anyway, rather than perhaps the letter. 

by Deborah Coddington on August 30, 2010
Deborah Coddington

Even when I was in Act, I was told to shut up about S59 of the Crimes Act because they knew as a journalist, writing in North & South before I even joined Act, I'd advocated repealing it. I couldn't see why children weren't entitled to be treated the same as adults in court, if they'd been assaulted. I never saw it as an "anti-smacking" law. But Heather Roy has always joined the latter-day Act in arguing it's an anti-smacking law, nanny-state telling parents how to raise their children, etc. It is written in Act's constitution that caucus members have a free vote on bills, they are not whipped, but she has (from memory) supported three strikes, opposed foreshore and seabed, etc. So she's not been socially liberal at all.

by stuart munro on August 30, 2010
stuart munro

That's why we need individual, issue by issue citizen voting. No well-informed person is likely to find any party completely satisfactory. But if we compromise just to form a bloc, what chance is there of intelligent, constructive progress? And more importantly, the democracy of commonsense that should grow out of enlightened pragmatism, is buried under party interest, and sacrificed to compromise with still other parties, who in turn stick to a public line that often falls infinitely short of their aspirations.

Of course, were it working well, there might be good reasons not to reform it. As it stands... there isn't much reason to stick with what we have.

by Bruce Thorpe on August 31, 2010
Bruce Thorpe

Sorry Stuart,I cannot see issue by issue voting as a means of coherent government. We all want more services and fewer taxes, more responsive policing and greater privacy, less for their lot and more for ours, free flowing of traffic to and from our destinations and restricted speed limits in our street.

The personalities in the fringe parties could be increasingly critical to deciding future governments in this country, and it would seem in the more traditional political structures of Britain and Australia.

The MMP system seems to require small populist parties to get the major parties over the midpoint to govern.

Hide personally seems to suit Key's clubbish style of government, and so does Sharples. Although both these Aucklanders have some unfortunate party colleagues from any moderate conservative's point of view.

But both men have a rather insecure political outlook.Hide is beginning to smell in the noses of the media as well as  traditional Nats and the rest of his members in parliament must be quite an embarrassment.

And Sharples is beginning to show some of the pressures that come with age, and his fumbling of such issues as gang associations might also test the tolerance of Nat supporters, who already are uncomfortable in being allied with Harawira and the increasingly chauvinist positions of the Maori political voice.

On the left, there are similar problems of ageing leaders of virtual personality cults. Labour could find a replacement for Anderton a bit of a problem. A return of Peters is neither certain nor likely to last more than one further term (although I am sure he for one never forgets the late born career of his namesake).

The exception to these forebodings is the Green Party. It is looking pretty permanent and possibly more populist, to boot, and for that reason the likelihood of a return to a Labour government in one term or two, seems very likely. .


by Claire Browning on August 31, 2010
Claire Browning

So she's not been socially liberal at all.

No, agreed. I was referring to what I'd understood to be at least part of her point, about Act needing to step up on to a proper policy platform of its own, and tell voters about it -- rather than scratching populist itches and snuggling up to the government.

Stuart, issue by issue citizen voting: disaster.

Funny, actually, you should mention that as the solution in this context. Isn't that exactly Act's problem? The party of unwhipped individuals, all riding their own hobby horses, all leaders in their own minds and legends in their own lifetime. Consequently, nobody can tell what (if anything) it stands for as a party. Not a recipe for working out a coherent policy, and sticking to it, as good government requires. Not a recipe for the public interest, either, as opposed to popular interest.

by stuart munro on August 31, 2010
stuart munro

@ Bruce - we haven't had a coherent government in a generation - which rather dilutes your objection. But direction citizen voting could work by displacing a proportion of list votes, according to how many respond on any given issue.

Claire -disaster for entrenched interest groups and a wake up call to the rest. I'm nearly fifty and I've yet to see a NZ government do anything sensible, much less anything I want. How long am I supposed to wait?

by Frank Macskasy on August 17, 2011
Frank Macskasy

"Magoo, where do you reckon the supporters go if the party dies?" - Tim

Tim, you've nailed it precisely.

As much as I find ACT and it's ideology of extreme capitalism as distastedful as any other "ism" - at least we can keep an eye on them as long as they remain a distinct entity.

This has always been my #2 rationale for supporting MMP - that people with extreme views are able to form their own parties and maintain their own "brand". Otherwise we get the situation where extremists can "colonise" a mainstream Party and implement policies that the mainstream membership never debated, much less agreed to accept as policy. It was such secret agendas, by a fringe  group, that took control of Labour in 1984. (The rest is recent history.)

Far better that ACT remains in existance. Heck, I'd even be satisfied with one or two MPs from that Party  in Parliament. (My stomach heaved as I wrote that.)

At least they won't collapse as an entity and scurry away to join National or Labour...

by Frank Macskasy on August 17, 2011
Frank Macskasy

"That's why we need individual, issue by issue citizen voting." - Stuart Munro

I could think of nothing more destructive to democracy, Stuart.

What you're advocating is complex social and/or economic issues reduced to simplistic arguments and a Yes/No response.

Aside from the prospect of Dictatorship by Majority on social issues and the Treaty claims-process - I'm reminded of one similar situation in 1975.

Labour had a superannuation savings policy in operation. Muldoon hated it and devised his infamous "Dancing Cossacks" advertising campaign  ( http://tinyurl.com/68pd7xy ) which demonised the super-plan as "communistic"* and promised to can it and refund everyone's money if elected in 1975.

Well, we took the 'bait'; elected Muldoon; got our super funds back - and became one of the worst savers in the OECD. We are now as reliant on overseas investment as a heroin addict on his/her next fix.

Meanwhile, across the Ditch, our Aussie cuzzies implemented a similar compulsory plan in the early 1990s, and they have a trillion dollars saved. Neat, eh?

But not so "neat" that we voted on a complex economic issue and we got it horribly wrong.

Having direct citizen voting would compound that, by a thousand-fold.

And just imagine the prejudices that could be made real, as social policy, by simply voting Yes/No?

It would be Mob Rule legitamised in a very frightening way. Just look at what happened in California when the Good Citizens of that state voted to deny their fellow Californians the right to marry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposition_8). "Can we vote on your marriage now?" read one billboard, soon after.

God help us if we were ever foolish enough to go down that road...



* Kinda like John Key slamming "Working for Families" as "communism by stealth"...


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