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.