ACT's attitude shift

ACT LEADER: Jamie Whyte at his home in Ponsonby, Auckland.
ACT LEADER: Jamie Whyte at his home in Ponsonby, Auckland.

ACT leader Jamie Whyte has revealed his party's internal struggle with brand over ideology.

Whyte is set to announce a law and order policy in a keynote speech in coming days. It won't be as controversial as a headline-grabbing speech on race-based laws last month but it will set out the party's views on the rule of law.  

Whyte said today the party had explored moving away from a tough-on-crime stance.

Under previous leadership it had strong links to the Sensible Sentencing Trust and spearheaded a three-strikes policy for serious offences.

"I held tough-on-crime views [before entering politics] because I see the enforcement of the law as an important part of having a free society...[but] from a brand point of view some people in the party thought we should go for a softer brand," Whyte said.

"Honestly, that stuff, I don't really understand branding. I do understand that it is at peace with our philosophy. I personally have got no problem with it. There are some voters you gain, there are some that you lose. If we start fretting about that endlessly I won't know what to do."

The party wrestled with a similar dilemma over Whyte's controversial speech on race-based laws. He was heavily criticised for saying Maori were legally privileged "just as the aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France".  

ACT Party Board member and Dunedin North candidate Guy McCallum withdrew from the election campaign in protest.

"The guy McCallum that said I'd concocted it. It's actually completely the other way round. There was some talk when I first got the job [as leader] of maybe not running with it but that was for brand reasons. That wasn't out of principle.

"Then, I was travelling around the country talking to people and I realised that it was being a bit cheap of me not to run with it.  So I think you just stick to what you really think."

In recent years, the party was engulfed by a series of scandals not least the conviction of former leader John Banks, for filing a false electoral return.

"I have got to remind people of stuff," he said.

"Over the last few years, with Banksie, that is all they have thought about with ACT all that stuff and some people have forgotten about our policies. The one I am banging on about the most is actually tax. That was always our thing, we should be known as the tax party, it's part of our name."

Curiously, he draws inspiration from the Green party, who are now Parliament's third biggest party. ACT, currently polling around 1 per cent, needs to win Epsom and a 1.2 per cent share of the party vote to get Whyte to Wellington.

"They've done really well, politically. They've gone from a tiny party that lacks electoral credibility to being a major force in New Zealand politics. They are not just consistently over 5 per cent, they've been over 10 per cent. I admire their success in that. I don't agree with them - about anything."

He adds: "On the whole I find they speak calmly and mainly about policy and I also like that. You can have a proper argument with them. I kind of hoped politics was a debate...but I have quickly learned it isn't  debate at all."

He won't reveal the new crime policy until the speech, on either Sunday or Monday.

He will criticise both Labour, for its "shocking" proposal to reverse the burden of proof in rape cases, and National, which has indicated it will look at ending the right to silence in sexual violence cases.