What to do with a party like ACT? It's a question that I've been pondering since the 2017 election, and I'm yet to find and adequate solution. I also suspect that ACT itself might be in the same bind.
In many ways, 2018 should present itself as an ideal year for David Seymour and ACT. With the End of Life Choice Bill going through Parliament, and likely to end up with a public referendum, David Seymour is going to be at the forefront of the debate on that issue. It's an issue that lines up with what is at the heart of ACT's raison d'être - giving individuals more control over their lives.
But that's also part of the problem for ACT. With the significant economic and government reforms of the 1980s and 1990s done and dusted, the economic libertarianism that gave rise to ACT has largely dissipated. Even by the time of its formation, most of the battles on that front had already been won. This is largely why for most of the past 20 plus years ACT has had a rather interesting combination of public spending watchdog (e.g. Perk Buster Rodney Hide) and, somewhat oddly for a libertarian party, and an advocate of punitive, rather than rehabilitative, law and order policies (think Richard Prebble and John Banks).
In many ways ACT's dilemma of identity was best illustrated during the conscience vote on Civil Unions, where five ACT MPs voted for the bill and four against it. ACT was effectively made up of a socially progressive libertarian wing and a socially conservative libertarian wing (the latter of which has always struck me as an odd position for a libertarian party. Surely they want the government out of both their wallets and their bedrooms?).
That problem of identity for ACT is what has led it down a path where it increasingly had to rely on the personas of leaders to get it over the line, rather than policies. David Seymour is something of a departure from that model. He didn't come to the leadership with the same benefit of name recognition that Prebble and Hide did before him. In many ways that's both benefitted and hurt ACT's fortunes. And while Seymour has carved a niche for himself in New Zealand politics, I don't think the same can be said for ACT as a party.
That's why I think the challenge lies for ACT and David Seymour in 2018. As Seymour is working to get the End of Life Choice Bill through Parliament, and campaigning in the subsequent referendum that seems likely to happen, he needs to use that additional exposure he gets as a springboard for ACT after the referendum.
That being said, Seymour has to be careful to keep party politics out of the debate around the End of LIfe Choice Bill. While the Bill fits nicely with Seymour's personal ideology, to ensure the success of both the bill and the referendum, Seymour's advocacy of the issue, and his work to rejuvenate ACT with the additional attention he'll get need to kept separate lest Seymour alienates potential supporters of the legislation.
In many respects the End of Life Choice Bill does point to a way forward for ACT in terms of growing its support. Seymour could well steer ACT towards a form of libertarianism that's and minimising, or checking undue Government regulation in both people's personal and economic affairs. Seymour has already touched on this when he successfully got liquor licensing laws modified around the Rugby World Cup. If he can continue to find similar issues where regulations are creating seemingly heavy hand responses to common sense issues, he could carve out a far more productive niche for ACT than the perk busting years of Rodney Hide.
Fixing liquor licensing laws around public holidays (e.g. the requirement that you have to order a meal in order to have a drink on certain days) could be a similar issue that Seymour could pursue going forward that would put ACT in front of a pool of voters they might not ordinarily reach. Likewise, there's no doubt other regulatory headaches lurking around for homeowners and small businesses that Seymour might also find fruitful to work on which could also provide easy wins for the Labour-led government.
With National already weighing up plans on how it can best address its own looming issue of finding support partners to form government with after the next election, Seymour's ability to build a formidable public profile and rejuvenate ACT could turn 2018 into a make or break year for the party.