Parliament's inflexibility displaces Act press conference

If the law is an ass, then Parliament's rules are sometimes as stubborn and stupid as a pack of mules.

The inflexibility of the institution was amply demonstrated in farcical fashion on Tuesday when Don Brash held a press conference following his chairing of Act's weekly caucus meeting for the first time.

Despite there being countless meeting rooms within the parliamentary complex, Dr Brash and his media entourage had to decamp to the offices of the legal firm Chapman Tripp several blocks away.

The reason? Dr Brash may well be the leader of a parliamentary party again. But that is irrelevant as far as parliamentary authorities are concerned. He is not an MP. He is thus banned from using parliamentary resources.

Things become even sillier on discovery that Dr Brash could have held court in front of the media in Act's caucus room. There just happens to be an exemption for caucus rooms because non-MPs such as party presidents frequently attend caucus meetings.

In Act's case, however, its room is far too small to cater for the hordes of media feasting on all things Dr Brash. Rodney Hide's office nearby would have been big enough - but that room comes under the ambit of ministerial services, another slow-to- adjust branch of the bureaucracy.

Things are even more inconsistent in Dr Brash's case, because he is a former MP and is thus entitled to enter the parliamentary chamber and watch proceedings from special seats to the left of the Speaker.

Dr Brash did just that this week and intends doing so on most Tuesdays when Parliament is sitting, no doubt as an in-your-face reminder to senior National MPs of Act's intention to be much more aggressive in differentiating itself from its centre-right ally.

Dr Brash's pre-election position as a "leader outside Parliament" is not without precedent. The Greens' Russel Norman did a two-year stint as such after being elected as one of his party's two co- leaders. His fellow co- leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, who was an MP, said at the time Dr Norman would have the same duties and responsibilities as her.

That job description caused little fuss. The Greens were in Opposition-driven obscurity, however. With Act part of the current governing arrangement, Dr Brash's halfway house status has got quite a few constitutional knickers in a twist. Some happily so.

Labour has raised breach of privilege questions with the Speaker about the acceptability of the Prime Minister "taking direction" on ministerial appointments from someone outside Parliament. Lockwood Smith has yet to respond - a sign he does not consider this to be a matter of pressing importance.

Labour has erected a straw man. All ministers ultimately serve at the Prime Minister's pleasure. John Key long ago vetoed any prospect of Act's Sir Roger Douglas joining his ministry. Neither was he willing to accept the inexperienced Hilary Calvert as part of the latest revolving-door round of changes to how Act fills its entitlement to two ministers outside the Cabinet.

Those conditions made something of a nonsense of Labour's claim that Mr Key was beholden to Dr Brash. It may well be a breach of privilege for an outsider to "intimidate" an MP. Mr Key may think a number of things of Dr Brash. Feeling intimidated will not be one of them. Still, it was worth a try on Labour's part.

When it comes to constitutional niceties, the more important question is whether Dr Brash's not being an MP weakens ministerial and parliamentary accountability. The buck still stops with the minister, however. If there was some catastrophe in an Act-held portfolio as a result of meddling by Dr Brash, the Prime Minister could still only sack the relevant Act minister. But that is no different from present practice.

Judgement on the leader would rest in the court of public opinion - as it does now.

What we have in Dr Brash's case is another development in an ever evolving system of minority government running smack into the Westminster tradition. As has been the case with other MMP- produced anomalies, New Zealand's informal constitution will adapt.

The bigger headache is Act's. Its leader is deprived of one of a leader's normal platforms. The onus is on deputy leader John Boscawen, as the party's designated leader in Parliament, to make sure Act does not look rudderless while Dr Brash takes to the road to drum up support.

That such voter backing will largely have to come at National's expense has seen the major party quietly play down the chances of any resurrection of Act's fortunes.

Present circumstances are seen as being very different from those that drove Dr Brash's remarkable turnaround in National's fortunes in 2004 on the back of his Orewa speech on race. Much of the anger provoked by Labour's so-called political correctness has since dissipated. The foreshore and seabed imbroglio has been sorted. Dr Brash's economic prescription is seen as unsaleable. National may be right.

The polling which Dr Brash commissioned to reinforce the grounds for his coup is understood to show that under his leadership Act would draw support at a level of around 5% to 6% compared with the roughly 2% willing to vote for a Mr Hide-led party. This puts Act above the 5% threshold - but it falls a long way short of the 15% Dr Brash has talked of securing.

National's polling is said to show Act's basement-level support has not shifted one iota since Dr Brash took the helm. Dr Brash's answer to Mr Key's painting of him as an extremist is typically bold. His aim is to bust Act out of the niche party ghetto and attract a wider audience. His first step in looking more moderate is to stress he is only campaigning on much the same manifesto he did with National in 2005.

Act MPs and the party's board will nut out a revised election strategy next weekend. As a minimum, Act wants to win enough seats sufficient that National has to rely on it to govern.

The first priority, however, is to smooth feathers within Act which were hugely ruffled by the brutal nature of Dr Brash's takeover.

The second priority is to fast-track John Banks' selection as Act's Epsom candidate. That is seen as necessary to give voters the confidence that a party vote for Act will not be a wasted vote. Only then will Act's support start to climb.

At some point Dr Brash will deliver what he will hope to be a big-bang, agenda- setting speech. Still, rolling Mr Hide was easy. For Dr Brash, the hard part begins now.

John Armstrong is the New Zealand Herald's political correspondent.



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