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Act - sprinting into the valley of political death

Act – a party sprinting into the valley of political death?
By Paulo Politico - first published on Spectator.co.nz

It’s nine years since Act’s parent organisation – the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers – was formed. Now with nine months to go before an election the Act Party is in serious trouble.

The Act Party evolved out of a desire by its father figures, Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley, to promote the continuation of the neo-liberal policy agenda that dominated New Zealand during mid 1980s and 1990s.

The Act Party was to become a means of maintaining the free-market agenda, as a viable agenda, in the new era of MMP.

Visions and nebulous policies seldom gain much traction in politics. But in fact Act was never a visionary concept.

Act was, and continues to be, a component in the political contrivance designed to keep the centre-right afloat long after the first-past-the-post electoral system was voted out of existence. Since day one Act was always going to be a bit player that, if it was very lucky, would one day coalesce with National to form a coalition government.

Nearly nine years have passed since Act’s parent organisation – the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers – was formed. Now with around nine months to go before the next election the Act Party is in serious trouble.

Centre-right political parties no longer dominate the political landscape in New Zealand.

For nearly four years, parties on the centre-left have collectively won more support in public opinion polls than parties on the centre-right.

The National Party is not only languishing in the public opinion polls, its parliamentary leadership and caucus is being consistently outperformed by a Labour-Alliance government in the House and on the hustings.

Bill English appears to be without shame or original thought. His policy announcement reflects National’s inability to rise above political opportunism and its inability to demonstrate innovative leadership.

For Act the situation is worse. Without an electorate MP and hovering dangerously around the all-important 5 percent threshold, Act is in real danger of being voted out of parliament later this year. Failure to win parliamentary representation would almost certainly spell the end of the Act Party as we know it.

The danger for Act is compounded by its own internal fragmentation.

There is very serious debate taking place about almost every part of the party’s election year strategy. Debate is healthy. But debate Act-style is a matter of life or death.

Leader Richard Prebble is acknowledged as a powerful and effective debater in the House. He is the only opposition MP who has a good understanding of Standing Orders.

While National and New Zealand First try and bluff their way through debates and procedural issues, Prebble clearly understands House procedures. He has a quick and sharp mind and his political antennae is able to note an opportunity to grandstand on issues that come up on the House floor.

Act’s media unit routinely pumps out media statements. While National’s media unit appears sleepy and unresponsive, Act’s spin-doctors are sharp and responsive.

But quick thinking and sharp minds in parliament is not enough to guarantee that Act survives the next election. Act needs so much more, and right now the party’s needs are not being met.

Finance spokesperson Rodney Hide is reported to have a very keen interest in contesting the Epsom electorate against National’s Richard Worth.

Few people beyond Hide himself think that he stands a chance of unseating Worth. Despite the fact that the incumbent is rather grey and has almost no profile, Epsom is one of the few seats in the Auckland region that is true-blue. No amount of posturing by Hide or his supporters is likely to change that.

Act’s funding streams appear to have largely dried up. Big donations from corporate benefactors helped to get the Act Party started. Now that money appears to have gone.

But perhaps the biggest problem confronting Act is the fragmentation of its caucus. Act’s reputation as a muck-racking scandal-driven party does not fit comfortably with its doctrinal membership.

The party has also stumbled into areas that so-call purist liberals ought not to go.

Act MP Stephen Franks’ clumsy attack on the Prime Minister’s dress sense looks shabby and desperate. Civil libertarians would frown at his crude and churlish attack on the Prime Minister for wearing a stylish pair of black trousers at a State banquet in honour of the Queen.

Franks has been seen by many commentators as a potential future leader of the Act Party. This puts him at odds with Hide, the finance spokesperson who must surely covet the top job for himself.

What is to become of Prebble himself? The former Labour MP for Auckland Central, turned Act MP for Wellington Central, now finds himself without an electorate and leading a party that is hovering dangerously around the threshold to parliamentary representation.

Now in his mid 50s Prebble is by far and away Act’s most effective debater in the House. But he is also deeply unpopular with the electorate. He carries significant baggage insofar as he is linked to the excesses of the Rogernomics era of the 1980s.

If Act does not surpass the 5 percent threshold at the next election then election night will surely spell the party’s death. This result would be a disaster for the National Party.

National and Act are natural coalition allies. The two parties rely on one another. A Bill English-led National government is dependant on a Richard Prebble-led Act Party gaining significant representation in parliament.

In a National-Act coalition government, English would have Prebble as his deputy. Prebble himself would be the first choice candidate for the role of minister of finance. It’s a deeply unpopular potential coalition in the eyes of thousands of voters. But it’s the best that National can hope for.

Given Act’s strategic importance to National, the slow fragmentation of Act is a worry for the centre-right. Act’s demise would render the centre-right impotent as a political force in New Zealand for many years to come.

Act is the party of big tax cuts and small government. Its policy agenda is treated with suspicion by middle New Zealand, which understands that Act’s tax cuts could only be financed by cuts to public health and education, including the closure of smaller schools and public hospitals throughout the country.

Act has overestimated the generosity of voters.

Unfortunately for Douglas and Quigley, Act has relegated itself to the lowly status of a carping opposition promoting as opposed to a constructive and forward-thinking political machine ready to move from opposition to government.

The heady days in 1996 are but a pipedream for Act. 2002 is a year of survival for the party. One or two bad headlines – such as the Fiji ‘scam’ allegations currently swirling around Rodney Hide – and the Douglas-Quigley dream may well end in tears.

Watch this space.

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