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Hide: ACT Is Back

ACT Is Back

Rodney Hide

Speech to Victoria University 2005 Post-Election Conference, Legislative Chamber, Parliament Buildings.

The last election was tough for ACT.

Many ACT supporters switched their support to National when Don Brash became leader of the National Party at the end of 2003.

ACT's struggle was reinforced by National's decision to knock ACT out.

ACT's election campaign was ignored in large part by the media except for a regular obituary in the major dailies and television.

It was a tough campaign, but we made it. I'll do my best to explain how in four sections:

1. The research that backed our campaign.
2. ACT's survival strategy - winning Epsom
3. The Party Vote Campaign
4. Some final thoughts

1. The Research

In March, ACT commissioned a US polling firm - Public Opinion Strategies - to poll 1000 voters nationwide. The focus was on policy areas to target and to gather initial research on the language to use. We followed the poll with four focus groups. From this research we determined our major campaign themes of tax and waste, which were of most importance to our core voter base. In addition, we needed to expand that base by targeting those interested in health, education, crime and welfare abuse.

Our other major research project in the run-up to the campaign was a detailed model of the electorate. Between April and July a random 17,000 voters were surveyed for their voting preferences and policy interests. The result was analysed - along with historical polling data, the age, sex, occupation, and precise location of voters - to score every voter on the electoral roll with their probability of voting ACT. We then used this score to target our campaign communication.

Our early research showed the campaign would be very difficult - despite our core voters' approval of our party. Our problem was that they wanted to get rid of Helen Clark more than they wanted to keep ACT.

Here are some of the comments said about National and us.

Rodney and ACT are seen as short, provocative "fox terriers" who expose wrong-doing like a "dog on a bone". Note that the imagery is in direct contrast to National's "reliable," "conservative," and "old school" image.

Our potential voters believe ACT can provide National with the spirit (ACT is the "conscience of National") and have certain parts of the anatomy to get the job done; ("balls," "spine" were offered up).

Importantly, ACT voters did not perceive a vote for ACT as a vote against National. Rather, it was a vote to get what they really wanted out of National.

2. ACT's survival strategy - winning Epsom

It was always my view that ACT should have an electorate seat to prevent being written off when polling below 5 per cent. The absence of a seat risks the perception that a party vote for ACT could be wasted.

For that reason alone we thought it worthwhile to make a serious attempt to win Epsom. In our only other attempt - in 1999 - we reduced the majority from 20,000 to less than 2,000. Even in 2002, when we focussed solely on the party vote, 20% of Epsom voted for me anyway.

ACT's goal was to win seven-per-cent-plus of the party vote and win Epsom as well. However, it became clear through the campaign that ACT needed to demonstrate we could win Epsom to reassure our supporters that their party votes wouldn't be wasted.

We polled extensively in the electorate from December 2004 onwards. The early polls showed me trailing Richard Worth by 30%. But when asked a tactical voting question - whether they would vote for me if National needed ACT to form a government - they were roughly split 50/50.

In a May poll we looked at the reasons why voters were supporting Richard Worth instead of me. The vast majority of respondents (69%) stated they wanted to support National or change the government. These responses suggested people were still voting along party lines, with no consideration of splitting their votes.

This result showed that a highly tactical campaign explaining how voters in Epsom could help National by voting for me would prove effective.

And that is what we did. Everything the campaign produced underscored this message. Its resonance increased as we approached Election Day.

We conducted a weekly tracking survey of 400 Epsom voters in conjunction with Sydney-based Capitol Research from 14 August.

We started out 34 points behind and coming third.

18 days out from election day, we were even with Worth.

12 days out, we were clearly ahead.

The near-fatal hit against our campaign was TV1's Epsom poll eight days before polling day showing me 15 points behind. At that time, ACT's polling had me 8 points ahead.

Colmar Brunton conducted the poll asking,

"Now thinking about your other vote, the electorate vote for your local MP in the Epsom electorate when you choose your local MP, which party, if ANY is this candidate likely to come from?" (unprompted)

The question asked for the party that voters were supporting with their electorate vote. It missed the entire tactical point of the Epsom campaign and the Epsom vote. It was a disgracefully incompetent poll, clearly incapable of determining the true support we had in Epsom. TV1's Colmar-Brunton poll single-handedly finished any hope ACT had of dispelling the "wasted vote" ghost that had blighted our campaign.

Professional political commentators never bothered to read the question to determine what was being polled, but just accepted the poll's false result that ACT was toast.

We were up against Colmar-Brunton. We were up against the media.

Sunday Star-Times Political Editor Helen Bain in a column titled "Just stunned? No, ACT is definitely dead" wrote:

"It is not terribly polite to publish an obituary while the subject is still breathing, but in the case of ACT, we might as well"

"So, finally, there remains little to be done for ACT but to administer the last rites and turn off the life support."

Christchurch Press Political Editor Colin Espiner declared "ACT is dead and buried".

We also had the two old parties joining forces against us. National Party President Judy Kirk distributed a letter throughout the electorate on 9 September imploring Epsom voters to vote for Richard Worth.

The Labour Party backed National's campaign. Labour Party canvassers worked the Epsom electorate - not on behalf of their candidate Stuart Nash - but to get Labour voters to vote for National's Richard Worth.

Stuart Nash, following the directive from Prime Minister Helen Clark, campaigned for National's Richard Worth and voted for him.

Nonetheless, our polling showed that our tactical voting message achieved a 42-point turn around in 22 days. National's Richard Worth held his support in the last two weeks of the campaign as the campaign reached saturation point.

In the final days of the campaign, Australian polling firm Roy Morgan conducted a poll that backed up our tracking poll. The New Zealand Herald dismissed our polling as "baloney" the day before the election, but in the end, the only demonstrably baloney poll carried out in the campaign was Colmar-Brunton's poll for TV1.

I believe if TV1's poll been conducted professionally, Heather Roy and I would have been joined by at least 3 or 4 more colleagues. Our campaign and our work was overwhelmed by the air time and press space given to one sloppy poll.

3. The Party Vote Campaign

There were two important subsets to ACT's party vote campaign: our Asian and Students/Campus campaigns. In the end their success were predicated on us looking like we could win Epsom.

The Asian Campaign - Stop Peters

"Stop Peters" was the theme of our Asian Campaign led by Kenneth Wang MP.

In 2002 we were the first political party to advertise using the Chinese language on our billboards. In 2005 we had our first Chinese MP and a campaign that incorporated all the techniques we were using in Epsom and across the country.

I believe that the Asian vote contributed both to our victory in Epsom and in returning Heather Roy to Parliament. In electorates like Mt Roskill, Pakuranga and North Shore, our party performance was better than in electorates where there was less of an Asian presence.

Our message to Asian voters was that they could trust only ACT to stand up for them.

ACT on Campus/Young ACT

We had 16 candidates under the age of 30. Those in their teens or early 20s played a key role in supporting and organising the many events that I and other MPs undertook. ACT has a great reservoir of young talent. In Epsom they also played a huge role in the success of taking a seat - against all odds - that National had held for 70 years.

Our Campaign Machinery

The Call Centres

This election we invested heavily in phone technology to directly communicate with voters. While telephone campaigning is not new to New Zealand, the infrastructure we developed was innovative.

The system allowed us to direct calls into the households identified as "best" from our highly developed model of the electorate. The "distributed" call centre allowed us to maximise the usefulness of our volunteers across the country.

Once the "back end" of our system was set up, the technology was easy to roll out. To set up a call centre, all that was required was a computer, a Jetstream internet connection and a telephone. "Smart" call centres of between 4 and 16 seats were set up around the country. Local candidates or activists could log on for a few hours at night, or a team could come together on a weekend, at the candidate's home or workplace. By the last week of the campaign we had 56 seats in operation.

The system also included the use of predictive dialling. Operators were spending up to 85% of their time talking to real voters. Any answer phone we encountered received a recorded message from me. All phone calls were recorded to aid with training - and to deal with any complaints. The system also had a coaching facility, allowing experienced operators to hear the conversations of new staff and coach them, without the interviewee hearing. This was especially useful when we had volunteers logged in from dispersed locations.

Broadcast messaging

Broadcast telephone messaging has been used with some success in overseas elections, particularly in the US and Australia. This technology allows recorded messages to be played automatically when someone answers the phone.

Broadcast messaging was used successfully to promote rural meetings in trials earlier this year. In the days before the election, we sent out 400,000 broadcast messages.

GIS

Maps have always been used in election campaigns. Computer mapping, especially when combined with a database, allows for precise targeting of campaign resources and visualisation of information to aid decision-making.

ACT used the MapInfo package. We combined data from the census, down to meshblock level, with road information, electorate boundaries and the precise delivery routes of our mail distribution providers. This information was linked to our database so we could quickly extract a list of all people who had contacted the party in the previous three years who lived within 30 km of an upcoming public meeting, or all members who lived on main roads so we could ask them to put up an ACT sign. MapInfo also allowed us to choose meshblocks for targeted campaigning based on the constituents' demographic profiles from our electorate model.

Website

Our website was rebuilt for the campaign and served as a major piece of infrastructure for keeping our supporters up to date, as well as providing voters with a "one stop shop" on why they should vote ACT and how they could help.

Where the website in previous campaigns was only used as an online billboard, we worked to turn it into a recruitment tool. The ACT site is now an online community, where people can post comments on every press release, subscribe to news by email or RSS, put themselves forward as a "Kiwi For ACT", or download material to help our campaigns - from anywhere in the world - without needing permission or supervision from our party's staff.

In this campaign, technology played an even larger role than usual, because we had a fantastic "in house" team of creative boffins.

Our People

Only those of us who have been through a truly tough campaign know the importance of people - your candidates, your volunteers, your campaign team, your supporters. They overshadow everything.

I remember gathering my Epsom team around to tell them the bad news about TV1's Epsom poll. I fully expected them to walk out. They were all volunteers. I pictured myself left in our campaign HQ all on my own.

I told everyone TV1 would be reporting that night that we were 14 points behind and finished. They didn't miss a beat. They declared the poll rubbish and went back to work. I'll never forget that moment. I got straight back to work too.

I learnt a lot about ACT people that moment. They don't give up. They were hugely supportive. They kept me going.

Our 62 candidates continued to campaign despite 1% polls right up until election day. They were truly inspiring. Our two yellow buses travelled the country. It was their efforts, and those of our volunteers, that kept the ACT vision of a more free and prosperous New Zealand alive in our Parliament.

Our campaign director, Ian Kortlang, veteran director of the 1996 campaign that delivered ACT into Parliament for the first time, managed our war room throughout the campaign. He was superbly assisted by Brian Nicolle.

Everyone mucked in. I remember Ian Kortlang helping stuff envelopes late at night when our stuffing machine expired. He hadn't done that job for years. Our President Catherine Judd and former ACT leader Richard Prebble doorknocked Epsom.

Our Epsom campaign made history. It was made possible by my campaign manager, John Boscawen, and his awesome team who thoroughly canvassed Epsom by phone and by foot.

It was a truly monumental effort.

But most of all it was the voters. It was a tough campaign. And through its toughness I learnt who ultimately determines the make-up of our Parliament.

We had some whizzbang technology and research techniques. But ACT succeeded door by door, phone call by phone call, voter by voter. Nothing beats getting out amongst voters and asking them personally to vote for you.

It was a great and humbling experience. I will never forget it.

4. Some final thoughts

We failed to retain the level of support ACT achieved at the 2002 election. But ACT made it, against all the odds, and all predictions, to keep the cause of liberty alive in our Parliament.

Epsom voters by voting for me got National's Richard Worth, plus me, plus two extra MPs to support National. If Epsom voters had followed National President Judy Kirk's advice, they would have had just Richard Worth, the Greens would have had one extra MP, and Jim Anderton's caucus would have doubled in size.

The Epsom voters came close to delivering a National-led government. They understood MMP far better than the National Party. They were thwarted only by National's two nominated coalition partners - New Zealand First and United - choosing to support Helen Clark.

But ACT lives. And so too does the hope for better government, for less government and for more freedom.

As Winston Churchill once said, "In military combat you can die only once. In politics you can die many times". Those who thought ACT had died got it wrong.

ACT is back.

ENDS

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