Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ACT and the Dunedin stadium

Former ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff delivers a speech at the Dunedin Town Hall, 29 March 2009. (Photo by the author).

Local body politics constitutes something of a paradox. In election years, interest is low and apathy high, with voting turnout under 50% (compared with still a 70%+ rate in national elections). Coverage of councils' activities in the national media is accordingly minimal, unless there is some particular interest point such as an entertaining mayor along the lines of Tim Shadbolt or Michael Laws. Even in most local newspapers (with some exceptions), coverage of local body politics takes a decided back-seat to the minutiae of central government's activities. To the best of my knowledge, there is not yet a New Zealand blog dedicated to local body politics, despite the dozens created in recent years (including this one) which are devoted to national politics. This is perfectly understandable: for the most part, local councils perform a function akin to wallpaper. As long as the rubbish is being collected and everything is working as it should do, voters can afford to let their eyes glaze over at the mention of local body issues.

But when a big local issue comes along, interest can arise in a town or region to an extent unthinkable for anything but the most divisive of national issues. On Sunday evening, the Dunedin Town Hall was filled with over 1800 people, including myself, who came to hear six speakers explain why they opposed the building of a new sports stadium beside Otago Harbour, at a meeting sponsored by the Stop the Stadium Trust. The last time I recall the Town Hall being filled for any sort of political event was for the visit to Dunedin by the Dalai Lama in 1995. It certainly outshone the "meet the candidates" forums held in local body election year, which on a good day attract a couple of hundred at the very most.

What is at stake is $155m of money which is set to be collected from Otago ratepayers for the building of the new stadium. But the word "Otago" could just as well be "Auckland" (which saw off the construction of a waterfront stadium in 2006) as it could be the name of any other province in the country. $155m is perhaps not a lot of money spent nationally, but with a population base of only around 200,000 people, this is a project similar in scale to one costing a couple of billion dollars if implemented on a nationwide basis. It is a tremendous sum.

Reasons to oppose "the stadium" are numerous and too many in number to explain in detail here. Speakers at the meeting raised issues on everything from the stadium design (the planned roof would prevent grass growth) and the site (which sits on reclaimed, marsh-like land difficult to build a large structure on) to the fact that the economic benefits of the stadium have been oversold (planned "international concerts" would never eventuate and the building would sit idle for most of the year). Then there is the fact that private investors have hardly been forthcoming with capital for the project, which will leave the local authorities shouldering all the risk and facing a mountain of debt to pay off over the next 20 years (or longer).

As the meeting heard, Dunedin is not a rich city and thanks in large part to the closure of Fisher and Paykel's Mosgiel factory and the downsizing of Cadbury Confectionery, it has lost a staggering 1,000+ jobs in the last 12 months. Added to the large number of people not "working" in Dunedin (the many elderly, children and students take up a sizeable chunk of the 120,000 population), this gives some idea why the project looks unaffordable.

The ACT connection lies with two of the six speakers at Sunday's meeting: Alistair Broad and Gerry Eckhoff. Broad is a local real estate agent and is the partner of Hilary Calvert, ACT's long-time party organiser and stalwart in Dunedin. Eckhoff was an ACT MP from 1999-2005 and in 2007 was elected to the Otago Regional Council. (He also likes to be known simply as a "Roxburgh farmer"). Of the remaining speakers, marketing lecturer Dr. Robert Hamlin, Natural History New Zealand CEO Michael Stedman, former Dunedin mayor Sukhi Turner and DCC councillor Dave Cull, I am only aware of the political leanings of Mrs. Turner, who is left-leaning and as I recall a Green supporter. For the others, I have no idea. But to have at least one-third of the speakers being ACT supporters is a sterling effort in a city like Dunedin, which holds two of Labour's safest seats.

What was in keeping with ACT in the approach of Broad and Eckhoff was their attention to the decision-making processes behind the building of the stadium. For the past three years, ratepayers who read the Otago Daily Times have become accustomed to reading major decisions only after they were made and without consultation, under the guise of "commercial sensitivity". (This is despite the small fact that the ratepayers' money is what is being used). To give but one example, earlier this year ODT readers discovered that they were buying Carisbrook for some $10m and were paying off the Otago Rugby Football Union's debt (both to the city and other investors) of over half that amount again.

Alistair Broad told attendees at Sunday's meeting that he had applied under the Local Government Official Information Act to see a copy of the building contract about to be signed with a building firm, which has supposedly a "Guaranteed Maximum Price". Expecting to be thrown the commercial sensitivity line, Broad had said in his request that he would be happy for the exact figures to be blacked out; it was the wording of the maximum price clauses in which he was interested. His request was denied. Given that the contract to build the stadium is essentially one between the ratepayers of Otago (and especially Dunedin, from where the bulk of the funding is being sourced) and the builders, it seems outrageous that one party to the contract has been blindfolded from seeing the very contract it will be responsible for fulfilling (and paying).

Gerry Eckhoff was clearly very annoyed over the fact that so many of the hearings on the stadium had been held in closed committee. He told the audience that he knew the terms of reference for central government's $15m underwriting guarantee, but was unable to reveal this because he learnt it in a closed meeting of the Otago Regional Council (ORC). Eckhoff also read portions of the Local Government Act 2002, for which he sat on a select committee as an ACT MP. In his speech, Eckhoff also enumerated the major projects that the ORC was now funding - a $28m new headquarters, its contribution to the stadium and the Leith-Lindsay river flood protection scheme - and concluded that only the latter amounted to anything like core business of the council (regional councils are chief lyresponsible for environmental issues). Ironically, the ORC's new headquarters are also planned for the Dunedin waterfront and in any other year would be a very controversial issue in itself (as it stands, it is being quietly pushed through while the stadium occupies the ODT headlines).

The meeting concluded with the reading of a letter from ACT leader Rodney Hide, in his capacity as Minister for Local Government. Hide was mostly sympathetic to the meeting's agenda. It was not up to him as Minister to micro-manage every last decision made by councils, but he was in favour of councils focusing on core business. Big projects were usually bad, but not if there was an exceptional reason. But if there was such a reason, ratepayers should be asked and listened to. If this was not happening, Hide asked to be informed.

Responding to this, the meeting then passed a resolution to invite Hide to Dunedin to scrutinise the decision-making process. I see three possible outcomes of this:
  1. Hide comes and listens but takes no further action. He does not want to undermine the decision of a National minister who granted $15m for the stadium.

  2. Hide orders the suspension of the project, by putting it under central government control (as he is entitled to do under the Local Government Act 2002).

  3. Hide orders a review of some kind of the project, focusing on the decision-making processes and whether ratepayers have been properly consulted.
The third option seems the most likely to me. In 2006, Hide led opposition - along with Keith Locke - to the proposed waterfront stadium which was to be built in Auckland, a project which would have brought a similar financial burden to northern ratepayers. To do nothing in Dunedin's situation would seem at best inconsistent; at worst, hypocritical. Yet to order the cancellation the project outright would be a bridge too far - Hide supports the autonomy of councils and will not want to become or be seen as an autocrat, especially as his knowledge of the specific situation in Dunedin will be understandably limited.

A suspension of the project pending a review would be the most logical and painless way to deal with a situation which cannot be ignored. Luckily for the stadium opponents, the fact that Hide, an ACT MP who has long campaigned against rates increases, is Local Government Minister means that the prospect of action is infinitely higher than it would be under a National MP who would be content to rubber-stamp the approval for the stadium made by a colleague.

Dunedin's exact future hangs on whether the stadium proceeds or is halted. A minister from ACT now has the power to decide that future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Conference 2009: the broad church?

If you work in a large organisation, I'm sure you'll be familiar with the "general reminder" e-mail or memo sent out to all staff. "Could all staff please remember that in future....?" or "Just a friendly note that...." and so on. In my experience, these messages are usually directed at just one or two colleagues, but are sent out in a cloaked fashion to all employees in order to avoid broaching the specific issue with the person in question.

Like the not-so-subtle reminders to employees, ACT's decision to adopt a conscience-vote model for all bills is a general one, but is squarely directed at the party's division over the three-strikes and gang patches bills. As Rodney Hide announced in his speech to the conference, caucus members will have a genuinely "free vote" on all bills not part of the confidence and supply agreement with National. Essentially, this makes most bills into a conscience vote for ACT MPs. It differs from the traditional whip approach used by most parties in Westminster democracies, which in case of disagreement requires a party's caucus to go away and reach a unified compromise between themselves.

Because confidence and supply bills are financial and taxation ones, the free vote provision will have its greatest impact on bills of a non-economic nature. Indeed, it is clear that the new system is directed at the current circumstances in which the party finds itself, namely that two socially conservative bills (the "three strikes" and the anti-gang insignia legislation) have clearly led to differing opinions from the five MPs.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the socially conservative/socially liberal "fault line" in ACT. But Hide's decision to allow his caucus members to vote according to their own views does provide some evidence that the liberal/conservative divide exists within the caucus as well as within the party as a whole. Evidently, the differences must have been so great that the caucus has been unable to come to a compromise behind closed doors.

In his speech and media coverage of the decision, Hide has pointed out the disastrous fate of other small parties which have whipped their caucuses into shape against their MPs' wills. Foremost of these examples is the Alliance, which crumbled over a failure to compromise over the party's support for the involvement of New Zealand troops in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001/2. Hide stated: "we have seen what happens to third parties with leaders who just dictate their party's vote. Those leaders end up thinking they are the party, and those parties don't last".

With history in mind, the free vote decision could be seen as an adept solution to a unpalatable problem. Perhaps the traditional whipping system is unrealistic for a party with strong personalities and even stronger opinions. Why risk possible division over relatively small issues? Why not let MPs decide for themselves? Indeed, is ACT not a party based upon freedom of the individual?

Yes, it is a possible solution and at least in the short-term could work well. On some pieces of legislation, socially conservative MPs will line up behind the likes of David Garrett; the socially liberal MPs will vote in another block, perhaps led by Sir Roger Douglas. Douglas was very non-committal in Friday's "Focus on Politics" programme to the three strikes bill, saying that while he accepted ACT was a broad church, he would not himself becoming involved in advocating for the bill. Yet even so, it is difficult to tell with Douglas: traditional disinterest in ACT's crime policies does not necessarily mean he does not support them.

I'm undecided as to which "group' the remaining three MPs - Rodney Hide, Heather Roy and John Boscawen - belong. Hide seems supportive of Garrett, has been well aware of his hardline stance on criminals and would have had a good deal of influence over his high list-ranking. So he could well be voting with Garrett. On the other hand, Hide described himself to me in 2007 as belonging to the "liberal end of the caucus", suggesting that he might be uncomfortable with such an authoritarian stance. But it would be tough for a leader to not support a first-term MP and indeed one of ACT's chief campaign policies. I therefore expect Hide to vote for the three strikes bill and for the anti gang-insignia bill. I have no firm evidence for Roy and Boscawen but suspect they could well fall into the socially liberal camp. (EDIT: it has been suggested to me that Hide, Douglas and Roy form the liberal wing, with Boscawen and Garrett heading the more socially conservative grouping. This gives a 3-2 ratio and seems quite plausible to me. For reasons of leadership, however, Hide may well side with the conservative grouping on issues such as three-strikes, as noted above.)

But whether the ratio is 4-1, 3-2 or some other proportion is really immaterial. ACT would not have decided to follow a conscience model for all bills had there been no schism, however mild. Whether the decision is effective or not depends on whether it will help the party to avoid the very division it fears. In this, I think ACT is misguided: in seeking to avoid replicating the fate of the Alliance, it may be creating just a different style of division, whether real or imagined (i.e. media-driven). If ACT MPs end up voting against each other on a regular basis, voters may well and truly lose any concept of what ACT stands for, a situation which is as it stands hardly crystal clear. If certain MPs become nerve centres for different factions of the caucus, will this not set the party up for an easy division later on?

This is clearly, for ACT, the worst-case scenario and reality is probably not nearly as dark. The conscience-style model has the best chance of success if incoherence is employed only when absolutely necessary. If ACT MPs vote together 90% of the time, the party is probably still ACT. If that became 50%, perhaps this assumption becomes questionable. I suspect the former outcome is more likely, taking the heat out of only the most firey of debates between socially liberal and socially conservative ACT supporters as to the party's final position. A split vote in these 10% of cases will be better for ACT than a split party.

But the move is still a risky one. It is all very well to call ACT a "broad church", but actually, why should it be? The very point of small political parties is that they can fill certain niches; members are frequently attracted to join because they disagree with the one-size-fits-all approach of the mass parties. Never was this truer than in the case of ACT, a party jointly established by the disaffected supporters of the broad churches of Labour and National, symbolised by co-founders Sir Roger Douglas, a former Labour minister, and Derek Quigley, once a National cabinet minister. Admitting that ACT is a broad church is one thing; embracing it is quite another. Accordingly, ACT will need to be wary of following in the footsteps of its political parents - undergoing permanent division, which unlike the structurally much stronger Labour and National, could ultimately prove to be fatal.

Conference 2009: Deborah Coddington

It's safe to say that Deborah Coddington hasn't been ACT's greatest cheerleader in recent years. Even when she was an MP, she wasn't one to mince words, calling Richard Prebble's stunt-like suggestion in 2004 that ACT merge with National in the wake of Don Brash's Orewa speech “disastrous”. In 2007, Coddington criticised Hide for being “rapt in his own dancing, flash suits, swimming and catwalk modelling”, instead of promoting policies such as “radical personal tax cuts”.

If the criticism from Coddington has in the past been blunt, it is now razor-sharp. In her Sunday newspaper column published during ACT's conference this week, she gave ACT a pen-lashing that even her fellow Herald on Sunday columnist, unionist Matt McCarten, might be proud of:
I received many emails and calls this week, in the lead-up to Act's annual conference, from past and present Act supporters dismayed at their party's increasing tendency to jettison principles, not only over the so-called "iwi tax" but also the U-turn to support the ban on wearing gang patches.

But why are they surprised? Gradually, Act has morphed from a political party which stood for issues - small government, property rights, choice in education - to a negative and angry party, opposing anything to get a headline. Oh, and posing on the D-list celebrity pages.

There are many good people in Act with enough clout to halt the party's slide into a replacement for NZ First.
Coddington's complaint is that ACT's criticism of a Maori tribe's ability to charge for the use of its land goes against the party's supposed defence of private property rights. This is actually a good point and I'm sure a majority of ACT members would actually agree with Coddington's argument. But you can see why ACT has gone for the opposition of a so-called "iwi tax" - it's much easier to explain this stance to conservative voters than to explain what property rights are, why they matter and why they apply to Lake Ellesmere. Yet the simple and more populist path contradicts ACT's ideology. This gets to the heart of ACT's age-old dilemma: ideology attracts members, but repels voters.
Coddington is of course from the disenchanted libetarian end of ACT; her fit with the party was never a tight one and her shift from Libertarianz to ACT never really worked out. Her comments may be cutting, but they are not surprising.

But Coddington's comments give another illustration of the depth of feeling felt by supporters of the party's socially liberal wing - activists who do not hold a lot of formal power but who can certainly make a lot of noise.

Conference 2009: coverage guide

Not attending ACT's conference myself, I've spent the last couple of days digesting the reportage on it, which has actually been very good. For an excellent background to the conference, I suggest listening to last Friday's Focus on Politics programme from Radio New Zealand, which examined the state of ACT. ACT MPs Rodney Hide, Roger Douglas and David Garrett were interviewed for the programme, along with University of Otago Politics lecturer Dr. Bryce Edwards.

All of the participants on the programme shared some interesting insights. Hide explained that his low profile since the election was driven by a desire to become involved with the "doing", rather than the talking. Garrett gave a surprisingly frank admission that he had learned not to "joke" with journalists, lest these comments be published (although he gave no indication that his most controversial comment to date - that we've become too hung-up on people's rights - was made in jest). Douglas made some guarded comments over Garrett's anti-crime agenda (see one of my later posts).

Edwards gave some excellent analysis on ACT's first 100 days, particularly with regard to the party's apparent de-emphasis of its traditional economic issues, despite the country being in the midst of a recession. If you prefer a written version of Dr. Edwards's insights, you can also read a detailed post he has placed on his personal blog.

For raw material on the conference itself, ACT's website has transcripts of several of the speeches given to the conference, although unfortunately not Dr. Lees-Marshment's presentation. Nevertheless, the speeches by Hide and Garrett in particular are worth reading. As might be expected, Garrett seemed somewhat defensive of his hardline crime stance: "Although some people – even within the Party and, perhaps, this audience – have accused me of being indifferent to human rights, it is a given that prisoners should be entitled to decent and humane treatment while in prison. I firmly believe that that is right". For John Key's speech, go to the National leader's own site . NZPA has a report on Key's speech to the conference and an in-depth report on the event as a whole.

In the remainder of the print media, John Armstrong appears to have attended the conference and produced two good write-ups both previewing and reviewing events, while Colin James has written two excellent pieces which perceptively examine ACT's present situation, one in Management magazine, the other in his column in the Otago Daily Times (not yet online, but probably on James's website in the coming days).

In the blogosphere, there is coverage from the usual sites: David Farrar considers John Armstrong's analysis, while The Standard has the usual counterpoint based on Colin Espiner's summation of events.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Conference 2009: David Garrett

Since the election, one of the more talked-about ACT MPs has been its lowest ranked one: David Garrett, formerly a lawyer for the right-wing lobby group the Sentencing Sensible Trust. In the lead-up to ACT's annual conference this weekend, I look at the debate over ACT and its views on crime. Much of this has its roots in the age-old debate over ACT and the concept of "liberal".

Firstly, thank you to Not PC for the linking through to this blog on this liberal debate. I examine the differing meanings of liberal most fully in my dissertation, but for a lighter introduction to or refresher on the subject I suggest reading Dr. Bryce Edwards's excellent recent post on the "Drinking Liberally" gatherings and the differing interpretations of the concept.

This time, the liberal debate has resurfaced over ACT's "three strikes" bill, which seeks to automatically imprison offenders who commit three violent offences from a defined list, and ACT's agreement to support a National bill to ban gang patches. Before reading my humble opinions, I recommend reading Lindsay Mitchell's various posts criticising and critiquing the bills and ACT's views on them. My commentary here will generally sidestep here the merits of the bills themselves. There are others better qualified to comment on the specifics - such as Graeme Edgeler's legal assessment of the three strikes bill at Public Address.

What is the debate about? Briefly, what I will simplify here as ACT's social liberals feel uneasy about David Garrett's gung-ho attitude to the three strikes bill. Taking Lindsay Mitchell and supportive commenters as a yard-stick, they have both concerns about the bill itself and particularly with Garrett's answer to the Attorney-General's evaluation that the bill could breach the Human Rights Act: "Alter the Bill of Rights Act. We've got too hung up on people's rights".

A related dispute is over a "deal" between ACT and National which will see the parties supporting each other's crime bills. National intends to ban gang patches and expects ACT's support for this in return for itself advancing the three strikes bill. Mitchell and supporters argue that the anti-gang patches bill goes against what they see as a core ACT tenet: freedom of expression.

Again taking Mitchell and the various commenters as a straw poll on the liberal debate, it seems that some have problems with both bills, just the gang patches bill or just Garrett's statement on the Human Rights Act. The issue here is whether the debate is vociferous enough to lead to a break up of ACT, in a way that support for the invasion of Afghanistan led to an implosion of the Alliance in 2002. I think not, for several reasons.
  1. Although I don't have any formal evidence to prove this, my gut feeling is that a clear majority of ACT supporters are natural social conservatives. There are plenty in the party who agree whole-heartedly that criminals should be treated harshly. David Garrett is representative of more the rule than the exception. The acceptance of Garrett and the granting to him of such a high list position to a candidate so strongly connected to the Sensible Sentencing Trust emphasises this.

  2. Even if list-ranking is something conducted at a party level (led by the party president), both Rodney Hide and Sir Roger Douglas must have approved of Garrett. Douglas's support is significant, as he became disgruntled over ACT's pursuit over more pragmatic issues in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly Hide's "perk-busting". However, while a hardline stance on crime might not be Douglas's first priority (that's the economy), that doesn't mean he disagrees with it. A hardline stance on crime is more substantial than perk-busting.

    Moreover, Garrett's suggestion to change the Human Rights Act is not dissimilar to Douglas's traditional view that reforms should be pushed through on a large-scale and quickly, to prevent opposition from interest groups (giving little time for criticism and review). Both Garrett and Douglas are thus comfortable with (to put it mildly) accelerating the legislative process. The ACT caucus is clearly supportive of Garrett and the party's actions on the two bills. I would also put down ACT President Garry Mallett as a social conservative, if only for his negative comments (admittedly somewhat backpedalled later on) regarding homosexuals on assuming the ACT presidency. These are powerful supporters to have in a party which with a decline in regional organisation has been managed increasingly from the top down over the past decade.

  3. The socially liberal grouping in ACT is by far the weaker one, both in numbers and in personalities. The social liberals in ACT include both younger supporters, often associated with the ACT on Campus group (which has vigorously campaigned against the raising of the drinking age, for example) and the traditionally principled supporters such as Mitchell. To Mitchell we could add the likes of Andrew Fulford, an ACT board member who resigned in 2006 to start his own party (which never eventuated), or perhaps Peter Cresswell of the Not PC blog.* (EDIT: Cresswell states at Not PC that he "for the record, has never been an ACT supporter". My apologies for this misinterpretation.) These figures might be prolific in the blogosphere, but they are not office-holders in ACT and lack the power to implement their ideas.

    Even then, it is important to note that the social liberal "faction" (which is too strong a word, the group are united more in a vaguer intellectual fashion) is not a coherent beast (neither is the socially conservative grouping, for that matter). Mitchell's own blog promotes welfare reform, for example, something which would normally be seen as a socially conservative cause (and in ACT formerly under the patronage of Muriel Newman).

    I would estimate the balance between generally social conservatives and generally social liberals at about 70-30 in favour of the former.

  4. The liberal debate in ACT is nothing new! The three strikes bill is really the latest variation on a theme. ACT has advocated a tough stance on crime since at least 1999 and indeed in 2002 campaigned vociferously for "Zero Tolerance for Crime" (along with much more potent socially conservative causes, such as "One Law for All"). Essentially, ACT has zig-zagged along the political railway tracks for the past decade, emphasising and deemphasising socially conservative issues at will according to voters' moods. If you're a genuinely social liberal and you don't like ACT's position on these issues, you should and you would have left the party a long time ago, as many have done.

  5. A hardline stance on crime is easily the least controversial socially conservative issue, because tougher sentences for criminals have become accepted across the political spectrum. ACT's position on the three strikes bill is hardly that shocking (indeed, it sent out a newsletter to members several weeks ago pointing out that it actually wasn't as punitive as it had been characterised). ACT has emphasised far more controversial socially conservative issues in the past, from a tough stance on social welfare (promoted especially by Muriel Newman), to anti-affirmative action views. The three-strikes bill is really pretty mild in comparison and while in new packaging, certainly nothing we haven't really heard of before.

    ACT could pick up far more controversial socially conservative issues, but now deliberately chooses not to. For instance, a constituency for anti-immigration calls is clearly under-served with the absence of New Zealand First and in a recession the topic could be ripe for picking, but ACT has never protested immigration (the reasons for this are covered in my dissertation). If it ever did, a few more social liberals might come out of the woodwork in ACT.
Those are five specifc reasons why ACT won't be breaking apart over a debate over the word liberal. Inevitably, there will be a few disgruntled voices over Garrett's actions. But a party can never please everyone, whether members or voters, and it should not try to. Like Fulford, Newman, Deborah Coddington and others, some might split away.

But new supporters will find the tough crime stance appealing, not least the supporters of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. And others who are not so enthralled will tend to look past Garrett to the meat on the bones - ACT's economic policies - and see "three strikes" as the grist for the mill which ACT has to also provide to stay politically alive.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Conference 2009: preview

ACT's Annual Conference takes place next weekend. I won't be attending this year, so would appreciate reports from anyone who is. ACT has always held its conference early in the year and in post-election years this gives it a good opportunity to report back to members on the election outcome. In 2009, I imagine the mood will be very much self-congratulatory, perhaps even surpassing the 1997 "Victory Conference" after ACT made it into Parliament for the first time. There is good cause for this: not only were the 5 MPs ACT gained at the 2008 election at the top end of expectations, but ACT is also in government for the first time.

But we know all that. There can only be so much time for self-congratulation. ACT now has to focus on the realities of day-to-day governing and implementing as many of its policies as possible to reward members, who in many cases have given the party 15 years of loyalty. In the past, ACT conferences were used for "big-picture" policies or slogans - last year Douglas wheeled out the "beat Australia by 2020" plan. And just last month - even after being elected - Douglas was peddling a reformed version of the Guaranteed Minimum Family Income tax programme, something which might be nirvana for ACT, but which in reality never would be implemented under ACT's current support arrangements.

ACT has never been short on long-term planning, but it needs to grind out of National more incremental changes towards that goal. The time for firey rhetoric, slogans and above all grand plans is over. ACT does not need to fight an election for another three years. But its best chance to push through its core economic policies will come over the next eighteen months. After 2010, National will be unwilling to risk anything seen as remotely non-centrist. Can ACT get the 39% top income tax rate removed, last year derided by Douglas as an "envy tax"? What about bulk funding in education - a plan central to ACT ideology but opposed by National under John Key's leadership because of its perceived unpopularity? These are just a couple of examples of small but achievable gains ACT could squeeze out of National early on.

What is the conference programme? Each MP is naturally allocated a time-slot, but they've clearly been asked to keep it short! In accordance with their list placings, John Boscawen gets 4 minutes; David Garrett has been given 5. Rodney Hide will give one of his no doubt entertaining speeches. Coffee breaks. Lunch break. Graham Scott, former Treasury Secretary and 2005 ACT list candidate, gets a slot later in the day, while former rugby league coach Graham Lowe has an hour early on. I'm sure all of these will be feel-good affairs: Scott will assure members that ACT's economic policy is the right one to pull New Zealand out of the recession; Lowe will give some "gutsy" motivation from a no doubt "ordinary Kiwi".

John Key turns up at 8.50 on Saturday morning for a 15 minute slot. I expect little of substance from his speech. Will thank ACT for working constructively. National pleased to have ACT's support and that even though they don't agree on everything. Both parties working to improve the future of New Zealand. Unique partnership with National, ACT and the Maori Party. Isn't it great that we all work together? From memory, John Key will be the second National leader to speak to an ACT conference: Don Brash was the first, with his speech to an ACT regional conference in 2003, shortly before his leadership coup, creating friction within National.

The real interest for me is the keynote speaker, Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment. Lees-Marshment is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Auckland and formerly of the UK. Her theory of political marketing and particularly her typology of the various market/sales/niche orientations of political parties has become a seminal work for studies of modern party politics. In my dissertation I used her theory as the initial basis for my analysis, with the chapter on ACT's "image problem" stemming from what I saw as ACT's sales-oriented status (i.e. ACT does not change the policies it offers based on popularity, but tries to convince voters via political marketing to want them).

Lees-Marshment has been given access to ACT's internal files and research and presumably she will give the party an assessment of the success of its marketing in the election campaign. Given ACT's return to an emphasis on social conservatism (specifically, the "three-strikes" bill), I would be interested to hear what she makes of the role ACT's image now plays and whether this is something the party can or should change.

Incidentally, Lees-Marshment is not the first academic to speak to an ACT conference. If my memory serves me correctly, several years ago Dr. Raymond Miller (also from the University of Auckland) spoke to the annual conference, while Colin James has also been a keynote speaker. The traditional willingness of ACT to accept outside academics and critics at what is essentially a feel-good party affair is to be commended.

Sir Roger Douglas has been shunted to the Friday evening part of the conference weekend, ensuring that his speech will gain minimal media coverage. According to the ACT newsletter, he will give a "controversial" speech. The slight problem here is that with Douglas, nothing really surprises. The most controversial speeches are always given by the least controversial-seeming people. Douglas certainly does not fit into this category!