Where are the right-wing alternatives?

There may be more than one way to skin a cat but the same doesn't seem to be true of right-wing politics in New Zealand over recent years.

ACT may be looking increasingly lonely and ridiculous as the only remaining right-wing outpost of National but there is nothing else currently on the horizon to take its place.

There has been plenty of chatter about setting up a new right-wing vehicle, but mostly it seems to have been the sort of talk that takes place over dinner and a few wines.  Other than excited arm-waving and critiquing of National's shortcomings as any sort of right-wing government, nothing has ever eventuated.

As darling of the neoliberal set Matthew Hooton noted yesterday, money is hardly the problem; tens of millions of dollars has been sucked up by ACT over the years and could quickly be diverted into a new vehicle if required.

A few years ago millionaire businessman Alan Gibbs even hosted a weekend stay-over for the country's right- wing luminaries after which many of the players were fizzing about the idea of a new party. But nothing came of that either.

Hooton leads the charge among right-wing thinkers who believe the Key government is dangerously interventionist and middle of the road.

Surprisingly, there are even areas where the likes of Hooton agree with Labour - corporate welfare and cronyism are labels both sides use to describe some of the Key government's intervention on behalf of players like Warner Bros or  Chorus. National would call that pragmatism. The free market purists would argue that if the economic settings are right everyone would flourish.

Whether there is enough life to fuel a new party in a movement which has struggled to find heroes since the heyday of Don Brash, Ruth Richardson, Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble remains to be seen.

The only decision so far seems to have been to pause for thought over the summer break following the initial flurry of interest.

The mood for caution is understandable. National has become such a broad church it has sucked up all the oxygen to the right of the political centre.  

The Conservative Party may be the first sign of National’s centre right stranglehold loosening since it is a fair bet that some of the 2 or 3 per cent who look like peeling off to Colin Craig have come from National. 

There may still be room on National’s right, meanwhile, for a purist economic party like ACT once was (till it turned off its liberal supporters with its mash up of social conservatism and hardline law and order-ism). But it is hard to see it picking off refugees from National at a time when the economy is set to take off a rocket.

This is where National differs markedly from Labour, which even at the height of the Helen Clark years was never able to fill the sphere to the left of the political centre to the same extent. But under MMP this has been to its advantage. 

First the Alliance and then the Greens have been useful outlets for disaffected Labour voters, but because their votes stay on the left of Labour they still count on its side of the ledger and give it room to move in the opposite direction when it is looking for coalition allies.

National's problem is that if ACT disappears, its only options lie with the Maori Party, NZ First or Colin Craig's Conservative party, which while morally conservative is far to the left of National on some areas of economic policy. 

Without ACT or another right-wing party as ballast on its other side, the dangers of a Conservative-National coalition would be two-fold - there would be some pretty sticky areas of policy difference to traverse and, more crucially, National would look entirely hostage to a party which is starting to look decidedly flaky.

That's a problem not just after the election, but before.

Even Prime Minister John Key must be privately wondering if Craig is barking mad, despite his attempts to gloss over the Conservative leader's latest clanger on the moon walk.

Key bravely theorised  that Craig is yanking the media's chain by  keeping them guessing about his views on chemtrails and the moon landing conspiracy theory. He even suggested it might be a "genius" plan to make the headlines and win name recognition.

Of course, if name recognition was the trick to success in politics, David Garrett, Aaron Gilmore and David Benson Pope would still be among us (in the public office sense).

But Key is probably prepared to look a little bit ridiculous if it helps make Craig look a bit less flakey given that the damage he is doing to his own brand may already be rubbing off on National

In life before Key, National had a women problem, one exacerbated by the hardline policies espoused by then leader Don Brash and the party's ill-considered liaison with a right-wing Christian group, the Exclusive Brethren  in 2005. 

Both were enough to cause a mass exodus of women voters which only turned around under Key's leadership, starting with his repositioning of National on smacking, when he backed Helen Clark on the issue.

Key might have got away with flirting with the Conservatives at the last election but the equation becomes much harder in 2014.  In a sign of how quickly things can change, National lost a lot of women voters last year when it made a hash of education policy.

The Christchurch East by-election was a wake up call to National that the tide is going out and while Labour's resurgence may not yet be showing up in the polls, it is evident in the mobilisation of its grass roots, who made a staggering 13,000 door knocks to secure the win.

Key's choices are limited in those circumstances; in the absence of a credible alternative - and all there are stirrings at the moment - his best option on the right still remains ACT.

Throwing it a lifeline in Epsom would give it a chance of limping back into Parliament and rebuilding, though patience must be wearing thin.

As for the Conservatives, they will probably get a lifeline but the speed with which National announced Paula Bennett's candidacy in North Harbour to quell talk that a deal had already been done suggests Key is not there yet.

And if  Craig can’t think of a sensible answer when someone asks him next if he thinks Elvis faked his own death, he may never be.

Fairfax Media