A return to its roots or back to basics. Call it what you like, the ACT party is set to travel back in time – to when people knew what it stood for.
The journey began yesterday at its annual conference in Auckland.
Leader David Seymour has been warming people to the idea for a while.
“Should we be a party of ideas? Or a party that focuses on pushing for less government and lower taxes?”
He has chosen the latter.
The re-brand could also see ACT undertake a name change down the track.
In a ‘back to the future’ move, Seymour is lodging a Member’s Bill at Parliament called the “smaller government bill”.
It’s part of the plan to redefine the party’s image and its core message – governments need to get out of people’s lives.
He wants to cut the number of MPs from 120 to 100 and reduce the size of the executive ( the number of ministers, associates and under-secretaries who run the country) from 31 to 20. The Maori seats would be abolished.
A publicity stunt to mark the start of a new era for ACT? “No,” said Seymour.
“National might just support this (if it is drawn from the ballot) and then it would be up to NZ First. Winston Peters says we should have a parliament of 100 MPs so there is no reason it shouldn’t succeed.
“Unless of course, Simon (Bridges) or Winston chicken out.”
The ACT leader told the conference attended by about 75 supporters, that it was time “to drive a wedge between the two parties ( Labour and National ).”
Seymour attacked them with equal vigour.
He painted National as a party bereft of ideas that relied on ACT and Labour for its policies . “Sadly National adopts three Labour policies for every ACT one.”
“If Labour brought in full blown communism the Nats would campaign on managing it better.”
The comment drew loud laughter but the reaction to Seymour’s attack on the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was muted. The risk of laying into the most popular politician in the country was not lost on anyone in the room.
Seymour too, knew he was in dangerous territory and prefaced his remarks with “Jacinda Ardern is lovely. She is one of the nicest MPs” before describing her as a “show Prime Minister” who is weak and not in control.
He talked about how former Prime Ministers John Key and Helen Clark were tough. Key had been a “smiling assassin” behind the scenes and Clark, if she was PM in this Government, would’ve “fired three ministers by now.”
Seymour said it was generally accepted that David Lange had been a weak Prime Minister and the real work was done by Roger Douglas.
So who is the “real” Prime Minister currently? He raised Winston Peters but said Peters is “ not the Winston of old. He is happy to enjoy the baubles of office and drift along.”
Four MPs were singled out for special mention:
Finance Minister Grant Robertson – weak and can’t say no to anyone.
Labour’s deputy leader, Kelvin Davis – an embarrassment and incompetent.
Shane Jones- pouring money into his own neighbourhood. Calling it pork barrel (politics) would be unfair to pigs.
Clare Curran – lied to Parliament and nothing happened.
With its Member’s Bill, Seymour said ACT was “drawing a line in the sand.”
He would have been pleased reporters from all major media turned up to cover his speech which he delivered with energy and wit.
Much of it was devoted to the issue of how much New Zealanders were over-taxed.
Seymour claimed New Zealand had the highest taxes in the world outside Europe (which he described as mainly socialist) and that Kiwis now spend 54 percent or their incomes on housing compared to 27 percent 30 years ago.
It was a simple message and one Seymour will repeat at every opportunity now as he switches ACT from being “a party of ideas” to one that concentrates on what he calls “visceral” issues.
ACT’s policy is to reduce the top personal tax rate from 33 percent to 25 and lift the age entitlement for NZ super from 65 to 67.
The focus on taxation risks boring the electorate but the way Seymour sees it he has few options.
In 2002 ACT had 7.14 percent of the vote and nine MPs.
At the last election it got 0.5 percent and relies on Seymour winning Epsom to stay in Parliament.
ACT is a one man party and Seymour knows it will drop out of sight unless he can bring in some mates like the party’s deputy leader Beth Houlbrooke.
Houlbrooke, a local body politician, was number two on ACT’s list at the last election.
Seymour, light heartedly but with a note of slightly desperate optimism in his voice, announced the latest Colmar Brunton poll had ACT at 1.1 percent, which meant the party was only 2,500 votes away from getting a second MP.
When questioned about a possible name change he seemed uncharacteristically hesitant, saying he was proud of the ACT brand and had been a part of it since he was a 17 years old.
The “Reform” party and “Liberal” party are two names being touted.
“If we change, it needs to be a name that is clear and descriptive and one that is immediately understood by people.” Seymour told reporters after his speech.
The case for a name change seems strong. The current name and brand is not resonating with voters – it is doubtful many younger voters even know ACT is an acronym for “Association of Consumers and Taxpayers.”
Seymour himself is unlikely to be impacted; he enjoys a high profile in his seat of Epsom.
If voters in the so called “smartest electorate in the country” decide to throw him out it won’t be because he gave his party a new name.