Wednesday, 25 August 2010

"Act Two"

Location, location, location: If Act could reposition itself in a spot more congenial to the New Zealand voter, it might just have a chance of surviving its present identity crisis.

HAS ACT lost its soul – as political scientist Bryce Edwards suggests? Or can its present troubles be traced to a series of major strategic blunders dating all the way back to the formation of the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers in the early 1990s?

If it’s the former, then there’s no hope of recovery, and Act will soon be joining what’s left of the Alliance in Oblivion’s waiting-room.

But, if it’s the latter, then there is still a chance (a very small one, admittedly) that the Act Party can recover.

Strategic errors tend to be cumulative, with every mistake driving you closer to the brink of disaster. But, so long as there is a way of escaping the worst effects of your errors, and the possibility of rebuilding your strength, catastrophe can be avoided.

Just think of Mao Zedong and his Communist comrades in the grim autumn of 1934. A lengthy series of disastrous political decisions and military blunders had left them confronting what appeared to be certain disaster. The Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek were closing in on their positions and the general consensus among foreign observers (even the Russians) was that the Reds were finished in China.

But then Mao set out on his famous "Long March" – leading his troops out of the trap the Nationalists’ had set and embarking on an epic trek of many thousands of miles to a new base in the north-west of the country. It was here, in the city of Yan'an, in Shaanxi Province, that the Communist Party reconstituted itself as a new, peasant-based movement, and Mao's exhausted troops became the core of a new People’s Liberation Army – the unstoppable peasant force which finally defeated Chiang’s Nationalists in 1949.

Act’s original strategic error, the one from which it has never truly recovered, and which led inexorably to all the other errors, was allowing its political enemies to cast it as an ideological party of the far-right. The moment that identity was pinned on its back it was doomed to remain on the fringe of New Zealand politics.

Most New Zealanders simply will not vote for parties they perceive as being either far-left or far-right.

Sir Roger Douglas, as a former Labour Party minister, understood this. It’s why he spent so much time in the early days of Act visiting factories and talking to workers. He was desperate to convince them that his economic ideas were actually far more emancipatory than those of the Left. Unfortunately, his own political persona was already inextricably bound up with the pain and privation of the "reforms" which bore his name. The workers were having none of it.

Richard Prebble, a less ideologically driven (and much more Machiavellian) politician than Douglas, took his cue from the American Right, which was then engaged in fighting the bitter "Culture Wars" of the Clinton Era. He targeted the angry and alienated denizens of rural, provincial and suburban New Zealand, using the classic wedge issues of race and crime to break-up traditional political allegiances.

Prebble’s strategy was successful to the extent that it secured Act just enough of the Party Vote to become (and remain) a parliamentary player. But, in terms of opening the way to an expanded share of the Party Vote it was a failure. The issues Prebble campaigned on were far-right issues, and that doomed Act to playing politics in the shadow of the National Party, its much larger and more moderate right-wing competitor. Denied access to the centre-ground of politics, it was (like the Alliance) confined to its own rather narrow and politically eccentric demographic.

Sir Roger Douglas’s faction of the party understood this and was forever trying to break Act out of the cul-de-sac into which Prebble’s strategy had steered it. With the election of Rodney Hide as the party’s new leader in 2004 they finally got the chance.

In his heart-of-hearts Hide is a libertarian, and if he'd been able to prevail upon his colleagues to recalibrate Act’s political pitch to that part of the population receptive to libertarian ideals, then the party’s future might have been very different.

The model Hide should have followed is Sir Robert Jones’ New Zealand Party. On economic issues, Sir Robert was very much a part of what was then called "The New Right". But – and it is a vitally important "but" – on other issues he was well to the left of the Labour Party.

To the consternation of his business colleagues, Jones not only declared himself a supporter of a Nuclear-Free New Zealand, but he also called for an end to the ANZUS Treaty and the abolition of the armed forces.

This radical pacifist stance seriously messed with the voters’ heads. It was very hard to pin a "far-right" label on a man whose defence policies stood to the left of the Values Party! The 12 percent of the popular vote which Jones’ NZ Party attracted in the snap-election of 1984 included a much broader cross-section of the electorate than Act has ever been able to attract. Jones’ political iconoclasm was pure electoral gold.

So, if Act really wants to break out of the authoritarian cul-de-sac in which it finds itself, it needs to come up with some radical and head-messing policies. An across-the-board decriminalisation of all drugs would be a good start – supported by a comprehensive drug-education programme in schools and generous drug-treatment and rehabilitation schemes for addicts.

And that would only be the beginning.

What's to stop Act from going on to announce a campaign to restore all the traditional rights and freedoms of free-born citizens by rolling back all those so-called "reforms" of the legal and penal systems which have empowered the State at the expense of the "sovereign individual"? Or, coming out in support of a woman's right to choose and gay marriage?

Overnight, Act would lose its creepy followers from the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Family First. In their place it would attract a much larger – and younger – slice of the electorate: a slice that is socially-liberal, economically "dry" and temperamentally hostile to the claims of large and authoritarian institutions – especially the State.

The party would still be a bastion of neoliberal thought, but by taking such a radical libertarian stand on issues like drugs, law and order and the power of the State, Act would finally be able to detach the "far-right" label from its back.

Is it too late for Hide to rediscover his "Inner Libertarian" and jettison Act's far-right authoritarian baggage?


But it’s just possible that Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy, having suffered so cruelly at the hands of the creepies in "Act One", could redeem both themselves and their battered party by striking-out on a long march of their own towards "Act Two". 


Will de Cleene said...

I agree with you, Mr Trotter. There are more fertile fields in the libertarian left vote than the far right in NZ. What is more, no party has ever cultivated that crop. It's just sitting there, growing wild.

Victor said...

Will de Cleene

In my political lexicon, only Anarchists qualify as 'libertarian left'. I don't detect much enthusiasm in New Zealand for the abolition of property, communes or 'propaganda by deed'. Obviously, you mix in much more interesting circles than I. Perhaps I should get out more.

Anonymous said...

"Has ACT lost its soul" etc etc

Well, wo is me and pass the tissues. NOT

Geesus, don't you and Bryce have homes to go to ?

ACT is in the shit, good oh,

end of story.

Use your time on the planet for something that matters

Tauhei Notts said...

Chris, your's is the most intelligent piece written about my Act Party in many years. And I have been a member for about fifteen years. There is something spooky about the party that it attracts people like that hyphenated mug that was Heather Roy's offsider. It is 27 years since the N.Z. Party promoted their no armed forces policy. Somebody will be able to tell me what the armed forces have achieved in that 27 years. When a brave soldier like Heather Roy complains of being bulllied by an effete ballroom dancer, then my party's chances are very slim.

peterquixote said...

I went there Chris and I discovered that ACT never had a soul to lose, and it was a sad lesson for me, peter quixote

Anonymous said...

No.No. Legalise all drugs and harmacuticals and sell them to anybody over l8 at drug stores, yes. Abolish marriage, yes. GMI. Yes. But Law and Order on the streets is necessary if your going to have a 24 hour party. In Germany the police arrest anybody interfering with people having sex in parks. But anybody over 16 should be able to go around in only a g string and women should have the total right to have sex with anybody.The military, a necessary evil for the next l00 years. It how some people get their jollies and all nations need to participate in eliminating pirates, Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Will de Cleene said...

Victor, in my political lexicon the libertarian left has a tolerance of reasonable chaos. As opposed to the authoritarian mindset, which imagines all chaos to be a threat.

Anonymous said...

Nice article Mr Trotter - but Yunnan is in the south of China... perhaps you mean the city of Yan'an?

Chris Trotter said...

Indeed, I did, Anonymous, although in my history book it is referred to as the "Yenan Soviet". The Long March did pass through Yunnan Province but, as you say, it terminated more than 500 miles to the north.

I shall correct the mistake forthwith.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Some of the comments within the comments reveal the real disease. Too much prejudice with too little pride.

Victor said...

Will de Cleene

I agree there are plenty of pro-business, anti-authoritarian, anti-traditionalist neoliberals around, who want the freedom to smoke pot, contract gay marriages and abandon current military commitments.

But they are surely the libertarian right, as opposed to the authoritarian right.

What's 'left' got to do with it?

Will de Cleene said...

Victor, the libertarian right are a bunch of subjective objectivists with Ayn Rand fixations. The left contains much more depth and fluidity. Noam Chomsky and John Ralston Saul have a lot more to offer than Glenn Beck.

Madison said...

Excellent article Chris. This is the kind of stuff that drew me to the blog in the first place, excellent analysis and a real view behind the sound bites that mostly make up the major media. If ACT could pull off this move it would be very important for their survival but also it would be possible to really energize some of the younger voters.

I've had most of my problems selecting who to vote for based on having very split-spectrum ideals and never agreeing totally with a party's full platform. A party recognising that you can be far left on one topic and far right on another would hopefully get some more people paying attention and encourage other parties to look for more personal stances instead of being trapped in idealogical slots on the spectrum.

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks Madison.

It occurs to me that National, under John Key, has been very successfully guided by the Jones model.

If you cast your mind back to the early days of Key's leadership, when he visited McGeehan Close in Mt Albert, took young Aroha to Waitangi, and threw his party's support behind the anti-smacking legislation, it's pretty clear that, like Jones, he was deliberately making it difficult to pigeon-hole him as a far-right ideologue.

In fact, the whole "Labour-lite" strategy may be seen (with the benefit of hindsight) as pure Jones-ism in action.

Unfortunately, Labour has never "got it" and continues doing everything in its power to "prove" that Key is a wolf in sheeps clothing.

Even now, they still don't seem to understand how attractive a certain amount of ideological confusion can be to the electorate.

Most of us are, as you say, a mixture of often conflicting beliefs and principles. A politician who reflects our own contradictions in the stances he or she takes on important social and economic issues is bound to come across as much more "representative" of the "ordinary voter" than a stone-cold, but perfectly consistent, ideologue.

That's why the Labour caucus's refusal to allow Phil Goff to stray even a little from the straight-and-narrow path of social liberalism is so foolish.

As Emerson so rightly said: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

Olwyn said...

Rich people back parties that look like furthering their interests, and it is difficult to see where the money would come from if ACT went back to its roots,given that it is a small party. Furthermore, given the various forces that are actually at play in the real world, I simply do not see how Douglas's Utopia could ever come close to being implemented. There's Monte Carlo sure, but that's a town full of rich people, not a couple of islands full of strugglers. I actually think that Douglas is an intelligent man who allowed himself to be deceived by an international push to the right, and has never been able to admit it to himself.

Victor said...

Will de Cleene

OK. I finally understand your terminology.

All I can add is that hell would have to freeze over before ACT could transform itself into a party that fans of Chomsky or Ralston Saul (amongst whom I number myself) would want to vote for.


I am, as you know, far from doctrinaire and didn't start out thinking of Key as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

But, increasingly, if you read the policy details, he's looking like a wolf in wolf's clothing.


You are undoubtedly right about the difficulty of making choices when you don't fully agree with any party.

But it's inherent in both our parliamentary system and the presidential system you grew up with.

Even niche parties are coalitions of a sort and are often less tolerant of deviance than 'broad church' major parties.

Victor said...


Rogernomics is what you get when you put an accountant in charge of the economy.

An accountant in charge of the economy is what you get when the Prime Minister is a lawyer who doesn't understand economics.

At least Lange understood about cups of tea.

Chris Trotter said...

No, Victor, Rogernomics is NOT what you get when you "put an accountant in charge of the economy".

Rob Muldoon was an accountant and he fought the Treasury ideologues to a standstill.

Sanctuary said...

Victor, Rogernomics (just like the final solution) is just another warning of what happens when you put a pre-disposed, efficient, first world bureaucracy at the disposal of a fanatic.

Victor said...

Chris and Santuary

You are both right

I was being flippant

It's a communicable disease

Madison said...

To Victor, yes choosing a party has always been about trying to find out which policies or issues matter the most, but what I liked here is Chris pointing out the realities of the brains behind ACT which vastly differentiates them from the media portrayal, a reality I wouldn't have thought was real.

It was also very important to show how National used the idea to portray themselves as Labour-lite, or as normal people to basically steal votes from Labour without changing any of their policies or ideals. They simply showed a human side of John Key. Since here many of the decisions made by parties are made at the top I think it would be vastly more valuable to have a semi-personal understanding of the leader of the party and their own personality rather than deal with the party image which is locked into a specific slot on the spectrum.

Victor said...


Act is a right-wing, pro-business lobby. There was a time when it used to dress its ideology up in the fashionable garb of social liberalism and consumer choice,notions which are,I acknowledge, broadly reconcilable with its ideology.

It then changed its rhetoric ever so slightly to embrace a degree of social and intellectual conservatism. But it remained, above all, a right-wing, pro-business lobby.

Yes, there may well be a large group of right wing people with liberal tastes and aesthetics out there who might vote for Act if it again tried selling itself as a liberal, life-style party.

Conversely, there might be some more socially traditionalist voters who would then abandon the party.

But that wouldn't be a reversion to its original ideology, merely the recycling of discarded packaging.

The issue facing all of us in every developed nation is whether we agree with Margaret Thatcher that "There is no such thing as Society, only individuals and families".

If you believe that, vote for Act. I won't be joining the rush

Madison said...

No no, I wouldn't vote for ACT, but knowing more about the people managing the party gives you a clearer idea about the policy decisions they are making. It also gives people a better view on whether they believe a politician is selling his soul to keep the party or just to buy votes.

Olwyn said...

Just this morning I began to think of ACT as for the most part a collection of right wing lobbyists of various stripes, whatever its original plans were. Rodney for big business, Boscowen for talk back conservatism, and Garrett for the Sensible Sentencing Trust. The other two seem to cling to some purist form of materialised Calvinism that no longer has much traction now that it has served big business's purposes.

Madison said...

Realized that I forgot to add that if Rodney Hide is such a libertarian yet presides over a party that pushes far harder for ultra-conservative policies to keep the votes from SST and Family First coming in then he would truly be far worse as a person and politician who sold out his own beliefs simply to get votes for his party.

Victor said...


I agree with you entirely.

I've never actually thought that the Act crowd had sold their souls (not even the ex-Labour cabinet ministers amongst them). Nor are they, by and large, stupid. They're just profoundly wrong.

Victor said...

Hi Madison

Just to make it clear, my agreement is with your penultimate post not your most recent one.

Whichever way they try to portray themselves
(neo-liberal or neo-conservative) Act is way out on the right of conventional New Zealand spectrum and is a lobby group for running the country in the interests of the corporate sector.

There are honourable, pleasant, intelligent and good looking people in this party of fanatics ......and then there's Rodney.

But, at the end of the day, they're the same bunch of right-wing doctrinaires and remarkably similar in their views on the great issues confronting New Zealand.