Three years ago, at a party hosted at Alan Gibbs' sprawling north Auckland farm, an interesting chapter in ACT's history was written. Key figures on the Right discussed setting up a new Right wing vehicle.
It never got off the ground - but the conversation inspired a coup which installed former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash as leader. It was futile: at the general election six months later the party returned only one MP, former Auckland mayor John Banks, to Parliament.
Fast forward 15 months - and the leading lights of the Right are again milling among Mr Gibbs' expensive contemporary art sculptures. The ACT party is holding its annual meeting and conference at the 400 hectare farm on the shores of Kaipara Harbour this weekend.
In recent years, the party has struggled to attract more than 80 delegates. Mr Banks believes switching the venue to the farm, which is usually closed to the public, will attract more than double that number.
Mr Gibbs will today deliver a speech and is "delighted" to offer a helping hand to the party he helped found in 1994.
"I put a lot of effort into establishing ACT. I'm very keen that it will prosper."
One of New Zealand's richest men - estimates put his wealth at about $450 million - Mr Gibbs returns for three months every summer. He roams the globe, selling his James Bondesque amphibious vehicles, with London his base.
"I get the best out of New Zealand and the best out of the UK because I'm not there in winter.
"A big society has a lot of stimulus to offer. I enjoy that. I enjoy New Zealand but I'd rather be a citizen of the world than live in one place."
Like many of ACT's more recognisable faces, he now chooses to remain on the fringes of the party.
Septuagenarian MP Roger Douglas retired at the election and Stephen Franks runs a successful law practice in Wellington.
Co- founder Derek Quigley lives in Canada. Former leader Richard Prebble recently married on his 65th birthday and Rodney Hide writes a newspaper column when he's not renovating his house.
Dr Brash has kept a low profile since the election routing.
Few of last term's MPs - Heather Roy, Hilary Calvert and the ignominious David Garrett - remain publicly associated with the party.
Mr Gibbs agrees the election result and a police investigation into election donations to Mr Banks last year were "undoubtedly damaging".
"It's obvious that we haven't done as good a job as we would like to do in recent times."
But ACT isn't yet dead, he insists, its supporters just need re- awakening. "It's survived under MMP for 16 years. It's hardly a failure," he says. "
"I think New Zealand is going through an unfortunate phase. We now have four parties on the Left, National in the middle, ACT is really the only party on the Right."
However, he believes "the Right will never go away." And far from being worried about the rise of Colin Craig's Conservative Party, he says there is room for more than one party. ACT are liberals, not conservatives, he points out.
"The idea that there aren't more people in New Zealand that believe in ACT principles would surprise me. I think they've got to be found and tapped," he says.
He doesn't pretend to be returning as the saviour of ACT. "I'm not a marketing man, I'm a doer. I have never presumed to tell ACT how to go about their job."
Mr Banks believes ACT's salvation lies in the success of its flagship charter schools policy. The first public-private partnership schools are due to open their doors in 2014.
Mr Gibbs isn't so sure.
"ACT is not just a party about charter schools, it's about smaller government and more self- reliance. Charter schools are important but they are not the central issue for ACT."
National will need ACT more than ever when the country goes to the polls next year. And with that in mind it should aim to squeeze more from any confidence and supply agreements.
"The nonsense around John Key and Banks having a cup of tea and sorting out Remuera, that's just politics and total rubbish.
"National would be very wise to ensure that ACT is strongly represented if they want to stay in power. That's obvious."
Mr Gibbs and Mr Banks do share strong views on the pension age.
"People should be working if they are fit at 67," said Mr Gibbs. "I'm working and I'm 73. New Zealand has a colossal liability for unfunded future pensions. It's a Ponzi scheme - future generations are going to miss out."
Mr Banks this week signalled he will differentiate from National policy in election year - and singled out the retirement age. The 65-year-old does not collect the state pension and said he intends to stand again in 2014.
Mr Gibbs still sees ACT as a classic liberal party. "I don't think they should change their principles."
Mr Banks says he no longer sees politics as Left versus Right.
"Good policy is not about Left and Right," the small-business minister said. "I just want to be involved in a political group that has a commitment to some basic values."
He adds: "There are policies that the Green Party have that I really really believe in, and support and help fund. Shark fin fishing in New Zealand waters, whaling in Antarctica . . . [but] we don't support printing money . . . you talk about Left and Right, a young mother in south Auckland struggling to make ends meet doesn't think of it terms of Left and Right."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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