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Act Heading For Alliance Style Split

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The Act Party conference this weekend has publicly exposed the divisions emerging within that party.

That's why I believe that the party could be heading for an Alliance-style split. On the one hand, you have Sir Roger Douglas and deputy leader Heather Roy spouting the fundamentalist neo-liberal line. On the other, you have Rodney Hide who is beginning to morph into a Jim Anderton-like figure in that he is prepared to actively have Act acquiesce with National, thereby compromising his party's ideological purity.

Similarly, Anderton did this almost ten years ago with the Alliance while it was in coalition with Labour. He attempted to turn the Alliance into a mere faction of the Labour Party which was something that many members (me included) became alarmed by. In 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, these simmering tensions culminated in the splintering of the Alliance over the Afghanistan War. This had damaging consequences in that while Anderton and his so-called Progressive Party survived, the Alliance was cast out of Parliament even though it was Anderton who had left the Alliance and not the other way round.

Therefore, I can now feel a sense of deja vu coming this time with the Act Party. It now appears that Hide is very comfortable in his relationship with John Key. This good relationship has worked in Hide's favour to the extent that the PM saved the Act leader's butt in the midst of a leadership coup attempt last year. John Key publicly stated that if Hide were deposed, they would review National's relationship with Act and upon hearing that, the Roy/Douglas coup faltered. This has eerie similarities to Helen Clark's indifference to the electoral survival of the Alliance when she endorsed Anderton to retain his Wigram electorate under the Progressive banner just before the 2002 election. I am now expecting that Key will do the same with Hide in Epsom next year if there is a split.

There are other reasons as to why Act could divide into two competing parties. With complaints about Act's policy wins being too far and too few (which is similar to the way that many Alliance members felt ten years ago) and National hogging the spotlight to the detriment of its smaller de-facto coalition partner, I can only see such a development coming. The trigger for that final split into a Roy/Douglas led splinter party with Hide leading the remains of Act has not appeared yet. But it could be just around the corner as with the fuse now lit, things could go off. Most likely it could be over National making greater concessions to the Maori Party as former Act MP Muriel Newman yesterday complained about the so-called 'racial division' being fostered through the National Party's association with the Maori Party.

And the split could be ugly. I can remember the Alliance imbroligo with the caucus splintering into two, with the Alliance Party being led by Laila Harre (which took a more critical stance towards Labour) and the Progressives (taking a conciliatory approach towards Labour) by Anderton. This split was replicated within the wider party with activists and ordinary members parting ways into either one or the other party. There were fights even over parliamentary resources with access to faxes and computers being the subject of tense meetings between the left and right factions. All of this looks to be in prospect if the Act Party descends into complete chaos.

Overall, it could deprive National of a potential, reliable coalition partner, especially if MMP is retained. The good thing though from a left perspective is that the threat of Act having a role in any future centre-right coalition would be almost diminished. For many on the broad left, that would be a relief. Even better would be if the Alliance were to re-enter Parliament at some future stage with Act no longer there. Then the left would have the final laugh at the New Right's expense.

In the meantime, Act will continue to teeter on the brink, even as National looks to assauge it throughout 2010. But in 2011 as National heads back towards the centre to prepare for the election, all bets will be off as a desperate Act might indulge in the same level of election year infighting that saw the Alliance evicted from the House of Representatives.

If that's the case, then it sounds good to me!

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