Can ACT lift its game under David Seymour's leadership?

11:48 am on 26 February 2016

Power Play - David Seymour now has more than a year under his belt as the leader of ACT and as the party's sole MP in Parliament.

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David Seymour championed the Red Peak flag design. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

He had a high profile year in 2015 with a bill to allow bars to open in the early hours for the Rugby World Cup, his championing of Red Peak, and his unfortunate comments about the French and what they love in a flag.

David Seymour is affable and self-deprecating, and has seemingly taken to political life like a duck to water.

He had plenty of media coverage last year, but finds it frustrating the media seem more interested in gaffes and stunts than, for example, his contributions to parliamentary debate.

The problem for his party, and has been for a number of years, is that profile has not translated into public support.

A contributing factor is that when the National Party is strong electorally, ACT is weak.

When the ACT party was at its zenith in 2002 with 7 percent of the vote, National had its worst ever election defeat, securing only 21 percent support.

The resurgence of National under Don Brash in 2005 saw ACT shrink back to 1.5 percent, which it has struggled to increase ever since.

But David Seymour believes there is room to grow the centre right in favour of ACT beyond traditional boundaries; business people who feel National has not done enough for them, those who feel disadvantaged by older generations, and "new" New Zealanders, ethnic minorities looking for a political home.

One advantage for the party is ACT had a scandal free year in 2015.

After lurching from Rodney Hide, to Don Brash, to John Banks to Jamie Whyte, in past years the publicity surrounding ACT was more about the foibles of the leader at the time than policy debate.

Introduced under the leadership of Mr Banks and continuing under Mr Seymour is the charter school policy, with a second round of applications currently being considered.

However, the imminent closure of Te Pumanawa o te Wairua, a charter school in Northland, generated headlines that gave opponents of the policy further ammunition.

Bad publicity will compromise a policy like charter schools, that has already had its fair share of controversy, but Mr Seymour says it is a policy he believes in and will continue to push.

Although National Party ministers, with the formal delegated responsibilities, have had to publicly defend the schools, this is an ACT Party policy, and one that differentiates it from its larger governing partner.

Perhaps one of the reasons Mr Seymour turned down a ministerial role when it was offered to him last year was to maintain a modicum of independence from National, necessary to present ACT as an alternative on the right.

He says he wants to focus on the Epsom electorate - crucial to ACTs presence in Parliament - and on rebuilding the party's support and structure.

A new "School for Practical Politics" will soon be up and running, aimed at schooling candidates in media training and how to stay on the ACT message.

There will also be a move to more than halve the number of ACT board members, from a total of 20 to nine, as well as updating and upgrading the party's supporter database and its website.

ACT still has the support of major donors, including the Gibbs family. But with the likes of John Boscawen, who lost the leadership to Jamie Whyte in 2014, putting his chequebook away, the party has to broaden its appeal and persuade potential donors to part with their money.

The party says money is starting to flow in, always difficult in the years between election year, which will fund dedicated staffers and political research.

At its conference in Auckland this weekend the focus will be on environmental policy; Mr Seymour believes that is a message that has been "neglected" by the media, and one that is pertinent, with the passage of the Resource Management Act through Parliament, and the ongoing debate over development versus environmental protection.

And a theme common to any smaller party come conference time, the aspirational goal of increasing the vote, delivering more seats in Parliament and wielding more political power.

ACT is aiming for at least 100,000 votes in 2017 and five seats in Parliament, to allow it to exert more influence if a National-led government is re-elected, to cut out United Future and the Maori Party as support partners, and to block New Zealand First.

That is truly aspirational, with ACT struggling to top 1 percent in the polls in the 16 or so months since the 2014 election, with no indication that will improve any time soon.

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