Tuesday 21 August 2018

Act’s Populist Soufflé Unlikely To Rise Twice.

On Message: Close study of American politics had convinced Richard Prebble (above) that if Act's classical liberal policies were to be given a third crack in the New Zealand legislature (after the successes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson) then they would only get there on the coat-tails of right-wing populism.

DAVID SEYMOUR is attempting to replicate Act’s political success under the leadership of Richard Prebble. Unfortunately for Act, David ain’t no Richard. He lacks Prebble’s political instincts: those fearsome talents honed to a savage cutting-edge by years of hand-to-hand conflict in the Labour Party trenches. David is a theorist – not a pugilist – and, therefore, quite unsuited to the raw exigencies of populist politics.

The confident statements of young political reporters notwithstanding, however, it was not Richard Prebble who launched the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (Act) in 1994, but Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley. What’s more, nothing could have been further from their minds, vis-a-vis their new-born political infant’s political identity, than populism.

With massive financial backing from one of New Zealand’s most enterprising business leaders, Craig Heatley, Act’s founders embarked on a nationwide tour to sell the classical liberal ideology of their new party. The man who gave New Zealand “Rogernomics” asked his many enthusiastic backers in commerce and industry for access to their workforces. Douglas was firmly convinced that once ordinary working-class voters “got” his message of freedom and enterprise, Act could look forward to receiving mass popular support.

It didn’t work. The New Zealand working-class remained stubbornly loyal to the Labour Party. A reputed $1.5 million and months of hard yakka by Douglas and Quigley netted Act a return of just 1.5 percent in the opinion polls. Pure and unadulterated classical liberalism did have an audience in New Zealand. Unfortunately, that audience was vanishingly small.

Enter Richard Prebble.

Close study of American politics had convinced Prebble that if classical liberal policies were to be given a third crack at the New Zealand legislature (after the successes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson) then they would only get there on the coat-tails of right-wing populism.

Years in the Labour Party had taught Prebble that if you want to bag political troglodytes, then the place to go hunting for them is in the countryside. He also knew that although the working-class supported Labour it did not do so unanimously. Working-class tories, “Waitakere Men” – call them what you will – constituted a substantial and readily recruitable political force. Of course, you had to be prepared to get your hands a little dirty – quite a lot dirty, actually – but a little grime under his fingernails had never bothered Prebble unduly. Not if it helped him to win.

Hard right-wingers from rural and provincial New Zealand; social conservatives and ambitious battlers from the working-class suburbs of the big cities; these thoroughly un-Act-like demographics were peremptorily bolted-on to the refined upper-class ideologues from the leafy electorates and the eager young libertarian idealists from the universities to power the party over the all-important 5 percent MMP threshold.

It was a butt-ugly way to make it into Parliament, but it worked. In the first MMP election, held in October 1996, Act secured 6.1 percent of the Party Vote and (with a nod and a wink from National’s Jim Bolger) Richard Prebble won the seat of Wellington Central.

Over the next three years, Act’s manifesto took on a decidedly Reaganesque flavour. Prebble’s dog-whistling over issues ranging from the Treaty of Waitangi to welfare cheats and law and order consolidated his grip on the unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals with which he had secured the party’s parliamentary beach-head. Act’s 1999 Party Vote was 7.04 percent rising to 7.14 percent in 2002. The former Labour Party political brawler had proved it could be done.

Unfortunately for David Seymour, however, making Act electable (without National Party assistance) requires the services of a Darth Vader – not a C3PO. Prebble’s sudden departure from parliamentary politics in 2004 left Act floundering. It’s Party Vote in 2005 fell to 5.3 percent. Crucially, Rodney Hide’s heroic campaigning in Epsom secured Act the electorate life-saver it needed in the House of Representatives.

Seymour’s attempt to resurrect Act as a populist party is almost certain to fail. That he is even trying strobes abject political desperation. It also signals a curious insensitivity to the zeitgeist – the “spirit of the times”. If ever there was a moment for someone to lift up the banner of freedom – it is now. Combine the defence of free markets with the defence of free speech and Act – proudly rebranded as “The Freedom League” – might once again aspire to Prebble’s electoral success.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 August 2018.


Wayne Mapp said...

Interesting column. As you correctly note, to sell a populist message requires a populist. Richard Prebble was one, and so was Rodney Hide.There has to be a raw, rollicking humour in all populists, at least in our style of democracy. Witness the two above named, also Winston Peters, and Shane Jones. Arguably Judith Collins is the female version. And of course Nigel Farange and the ultimate, Donald Trump.

David Seymour is simply not cut from the same cloth. But he is not really trying to get 5%. Between 1.2 and 2.0 % is his aim, enough for one or maybe two extra MP's.

That could make all the difference at the next election.

Anonymous said...

Populist? Does your hypocrisy know no bounds, Trotter?

The current government is the least capable any western democracy has ever experienced. It is the absolute epitome of "populist."

Our Prime Minister is a vacuous, vapid, incompetent little girl. Who belongs to an abusive cult infamous for the practises of incest, polygamy and paedophilia. Voted into office by the same ignorant, low-information voters in NZ as those in the U.S. who elected Trump.

Polly. said...

I think that David Seymour will hang on, get stronger.
National will, I believe, still support him.
TOP has re-entered the fray.
The Greens are wobbly and weak.
Labour needs to think carefully about its policies for the future.
Labour is under the control of Winnie and his gang and more importantly everyone knows it.
Nobody in Labour like it.
National is still very strong in the polls.
A stronger Right block to Labour is emerging.

Rick said...

I don't know that he is trying to resurrect a 'liberal' party, is he?

The point of being National's pet MP (kennelled in Epsom) is to float policy trial balloons and say and do things that are 'dirty jobs' they would like done without it impacting on the Nat's brand. That's why they keep him around. Both parties had the use of Peter Dunne in similar capacity until Greg O'Connor defied expectation by a smidge. The Ohariu scheme had to be halted so fast that Dunne didn't have time to negotiate very much of golden handshake (that we know of) for getting his vote-splitting tail out of there (too late.)

greywarbler said...

Thinking about Prebble brings various scenarios to mind. His souffle has gone down. They need careful handling, bull at the gate tactics can beat the eggs, but then the whites have to be folded in so the mix doesn't get spoiled, finished successfully only at the right temperature and time. And if it sinks it can't be put back together. You have to start afresh. But we are desperate for sustenance, so what now. He should never have been let in the kitchen. From overbearing chef to chief cook and bottlewasher in one short step, but a long one for NZ humankind.

He also reminds me of toad in the BBC classic of Wind in the Willows. Toad weaves an artful story to the owners of a desirable car who are to be lured away so he can hijack it; he asks them to look at his vehicle problem "My crankshaft's flat". The minute they turn away he is off with their property for his own satisfaction and crashes it. Just so like bouncy, know-it-all 'Mad Dog Prebble'.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I was at university at the same time as Prebble he didn't strike me as having a great deal of humour then. Just arrogance. But maybe he matured into it.

Nigel Farage doesn't have much rollicking humour he's just got the usual right-wing punching down. Do you notice is always pictured or filmed with a pint in hand. But you never see actually drink it. He's simply a master of self advertising.

Donald Trump doesn't seem to have any sense of humour at all. He never seems to laugh even at his own jokes. And again he always punches down. I guess it's a little difficult to punch up if you're the president of the US though to be fair.

"Our Prime Minister is a vacuous, vapid, incompetent little girl. Who belongs to an abusive cult infamous for the practises of incest, polygamy and paedophilia. Voted into office by the same ignorant, low-information voters in NZ as those in the U.S. who elected Trump."

Bullshit. Some opinions only deserve mockery. This doesn't even get that far. Particularly as she seems to have left her cult – I doubt if she could operate in politics particularly well if she was still in it anyway. And she seems to have put more thought into her decision to leave her religion then you put into that anonymous comment.

Kat said...

Ok Chris , why are you continually publishing comments from "anonymous" shyte such as at 21 August 2018 at 22:11?. Its bad enough having to combat Wayne Mapp and his belligerent one eyed Nat propaganda. As Winston told a journalist in Aus today " your at the wrong press conference".......

Unknown said...

Richard Prebble always had that streak of mongrel in him.

Too bad he did not use it for New Zealand's working class.

He was a first rate Trojan horse. A Labour Party piece of shit who stabbed the working class in the back.

The volcanic lake upon the edge of which he live these days rises and falls. May it rise and swamp his un-humble abode.

The only thing that ever intrigued me about Mr Prebble was his weird taste for black women.

Oh well, each to their own.

Geoff Fischer said...

Political parties which claim that the realization of their utopian vision will benefit all classes of society are greeted with justifiable skepticism, and in consequence generally poll around the 1% mark. Transcendental meditationalists, utopian socialists, and free market fundamentalists all fall into this category.
Richard Prebble saw that the case for a program of change becomes more plausible if you explicitly identify a group that benefits from the present supposedly unjust order, sheet home to them the blame, and promise them a dose of stiff medicine. He pointed the finger at allegedly lazy, greedy and incompetent manual workers in the MOW, Railways, Forest Service and other departments of state. There was just enough truth in this claim to make it credible.
"Dog whistle" politics is less effective because it is aimed at voters who are unsubtle by nature, and by definition the dog whistle leaves crucial things unspoken. The dog cannot know for sure that if he answers the whistle there will be tucker in his bowl.
So free market utopianism and dog whistle politics both founder on the scepticism of the voting public, and so to a degree does the politics of blame. ACT is running out of groups to blame for the state of the New Zealand economy just as quickly as it is running out of state owned enterprises to be privatised.
Could ACT reconstitute itself as the "Freedom Party" as Chris suggest they might? I don't think so, for the simple reason that despite the etymological association, liberalism and freedom are not politically synonymous. ACT is a liberal party which is committed to the idea that nothing in New Zealand should be free or even cheap. No free education, healthcare, libraries, broadcasting, swimming pools, fishing licenses, holidays, camping grounds or walking tracks. Certainly no free public transport or housing.
This is not playing semantics with the words "free" and "freedom". The requirement to pay limits freedom just as surely as state prohibition, and the more those limits are imposed unequally across the population, the more aggrieved and restive the working class will become. ACT, or whoever inherits ACT's political legacy, will then have to impose a more rigid, authoritarian governance in order to preserve the rule of property.
Even now, the party makes an exception for the security services, military, police force and penal service in its program to cut the size of the state service and reduce taxes.
ACT knows well enough that while it can always remain a liberal party it cannot be the "Freedom Party". Its best option is to be what it ultimately must be - the party of state repression. I doubt, however, whether David Seymour is the man to lead that transition.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Even now, the party makes an exception for the security services, military, police force and penal service in its program to cut the size of the state service and reduce taxes."

Of course they do. These are the people who protect their "property rights". Seems to me they are closer to libertarian than liberal though. Much more utopian.

greywarbler said...

shane Mcdowall
Chris has a weird taste in enabling free speech here, so that men like you can say what they are thinking about black women, and show themselves up as not thinking at all.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well said grey. I do believe I have been censored here for saying a lot less.:)

Unknown said...

Anonymous Warbler: Alamein Kopu said exactly what I wrote, in an interview with the New Zealand Herald.