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Act Party anxious to keep identity

Published: 8:29AM Monday March 16, 2009 Source: NZPA

Less than four months after signing a support agreement with National, the Act Party has set about ensuring it isn't forgotten between now and the next election.

Its leader, Rodney Hide, is aware of the problem that afflicts small parties which go into coalition or support arrangements with the big ones.

The can become irrelevant in the minds of voters, they don't get noticed and they struggle for media attention.

So it wasn't by chance that the theme "we are different" ran through the speeches at Act's annual conference at the weekend.

"Our confidence and supply agreement allows us to disagree, deliver on our campaign promises and to contribute as ministers," Hide told delegates.

"It sets out clear goals, definite policies ... it means we can disagree, and yet hold National to account."

Prime Minister John Key, who spoke at the conference, had a similar message and it probably wasn't just coincidence.

"Together with the rest of the Act caucus, Rodney and Heather Roy are providing the Act Party with a strong and effective voice in this Parliament," Key said.

Act's problem is going to be keeping that voice "strong and effective" for the next three years.

The party is, however, in a good position to maintain its profile as the government grabs the headlines, which governments always do.

Hide has two portfolios which give him opportunities to make his mark and claim the credit, which he won't be shy about doing.

He is minister of local government and also holds the somewhat cumbersome title minister for regulatory reform.

Hide is already talking about keeping rates down and forcing councils to keep to their core businesses. It was something he campaigned on, he has been on this particular track for years.

He has also suggested that councils should seek the consent of ratepayers before launching into expensive pet projects.

"If there's going to be a spending binge, the people paying for it should have a say," Hide said earlier this month.

As high and rising rates affect everybody who owns a property, he has a wide constituency on this issue.

So go for it, Rodney. Most of them probably think they are paying too much already and they will remember you if you do something about it.

In his other role, regulatory responsibility, Hide has an integral role in the government's recession-fighting strategy.

Cutting red tape isn't a new objective. He once wanted to light a bonfire of "bureaucratic rubbish" on parliament's forecourt but he wasn't allowed to.

Tough talk

Hide is talking tough.

"New Zealand is over-regulated," he told the conference.

"The government has got too big.

"Businesses big and small are drowning in bureaucracy.

"We have taken a 'can do' country and turned it into a 'can't do' country."

A lot of people probably agree with him and if he puts his money where his mouth is he will be applauded for it.

As for Act's ability to disagree with the Government, it does plenty of that as well.

If anyone can disagree, it is Sir Roger Douglas. He disagrees with just about everyone, and on Friday he told the government its had made a big mistake in the way it was trying to handle the recession.

"Borrowing beyond our means, to increase the amount of spending, is what households have done over the past 10 years and has led to our current recession," he told the conference.

"Now the government wants to try the exact same strategy to get us out of the recession."

He then spelled out 10 "lessons" for the government on how to go about its business.

Another useful MP when it comes to making noise is David Garrett, the hard line law and order spokesman who thinks prisoners are pampered.

He is taking Act's "three strikes" bill through parliament and it isn't going to be easy.

The government supported it on its first reading and it has been sent to a select committee for public submissions.

Hide made a point on Saturday of saying the government wasn't committed to passing it into law and he urged people who support it to go along to the select committee hearings.

Act also has a second minister, Heather Roy, who holds consumer affairs and is an associate minister in defence and education.

Those aren't as high profile as Hide's portfolios, but she can make a difference and she's a determined MP.

Act, which increased its party vote at the last election and now has five MPs, is well placed to survive under MMP.

Hide holds the Epsom seat, which is a lifeline because that means the party can continue to have a presence in Parliament without having to cross the 5% threshold.

As long as he keeps it, that is, but there is no reason to think he won't because National isn't likely to make a serious attempt to take it away from him.

Act's support agreement gave National the numbers to command a majority in Parliament and form a government. The agreement with the Maori Party came later, and wasn't essential to make up the numbers.

So long as National stays in power, Act is likely to be there alongside it.