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Opinion:On The Left - The State Of The Opposition.

I thought I would write a column this week on the National ACT opposition both because I am fascinated at the way they are reacting to being out of power, and because I think their reaction goes a long way to explaining why they're going to be out of power for quite a long time.

Depressed? Probably. Worried about the future? Seemingly not. Lacking enthusiasm? Definitely. The National Party is in a state that can't really be compared to anything that's happened before. Never before has a Labour Government come to power with a good chance of governing for two or more terms - without a large scale change to the structure of society being planned. The left has won the intellectual argument too. No longer are the calls for a dramatic shrinking of the state relevant anywhere other than in the closed minds of fundamentalists on the far right.

So what happens to a party when its former ideological underpinning has lost the political battle, and it has been unceremoniously dumped from Government?

The first thing seems to be confusion. This was best illustrated by Jenny Shipley's reaction to the Peter Doone issue. She released a statement congratulating the Government for resolving the issue - and then followed it hours later with another statement attacking the Government's reaction, and criticising the decision to keep the former Commissioner on the payroll to complete important work on reducing Maori crime. Another was the attack on the Prime Minister for not attending the events at the Treaty House at Waitangi on Waitangi day. If the Opposition is going to continue attacking the Prime Minister over decisions which the public sees as eminently sensible, they're going to be in opposition for a very long time.

A second and related issue is the sad fact of not mattering, and the consequent `being ignored' that National MP's will now be suffering. It must be something of a shock for someone like Max Bradford - someone who honestly comes across as a pompous ass most of the time - to suddenly find that his pontificating no longer interests anybody. In fact, only really Simon Upton seems to have adjusted well to this process of becoming opposition. His sharpwitted attacks on the Government are generally well timed, but he is, fortunately, a lone voice.

The problem extends quite a lot further than former Cabinet ministers though. This is just speculation, but I would imagine that National is suffering an outflow of activists in a similar way to the Labour Party's experience of incoming activists over the past two years. When you don't have the trappings and attractions of power, politics somehow becomes much less interesting. A party like National, without any fundamental ideological programme or basis, doesn't have anything to drive it in opposition. It's generally a case of waiting to come back into power, and relaxing while you're out of it.

National though is in a dangerous position if it thinks it can repeat that typical pattern this time around. Labour's bid to construct a new centre in New Zealand politics is a viable, popular and achievable programme for the left to work around. While there are some elements of the `Third Way' in what Labour is doing, it is more a case of filling a void in politics (between a formerly stumbling left and a right that has moved far out of the mainstream) by building a centre ground that can pull support from all around the spectrum, while moving it in a leftwards direction. That project will stand or fall on the extent to which it is based on New Zealanders' concerns and hopes. There is no blueprint we can simply import. As it becomes clearer whether this new centre is being constructed in Labour's favour, we will know if National can afford to sit around and wait, or if doing so will be a simple recipe for perpetual opposition on its part.

ACT is quite a different story. A cheap and nasty populist campaign looked to be working well until Rodney Hide managed to threaten to privatise TVNZ and New Zealand Post, kneecapping ACT's support. A modest 7% election result appears, on the face of it, to be acceptable, but at a deeper level it leaves many questions untouched.

It is clear from the 1999 result that ACT cannot increase its support by baiting red-necks, hard as they tried. A policy focus on extreme neo-liberal ideas does not combine with populist tricks. I would guess that ACT lost nearly as many votes with it's treaty-bashing stance as it gained with it. Losing the key seat of Wellington Central was a further blow to ACT's campaign - without the security of an electorate seat, the party could be wiped out with some clever campaigning in the next general election.

This insecurity exposes one of ACT's two fundamental problems. First: are they a populist, provincial right wing party, or are they a cold machine of the neo-liberal experiment, whose sole aim is to implement an alien ideological programme in New Zealand? How ACT goes about resolving this particular dilemma will resolve the second one for it to some extent; that being, should ACT be content to be a minor party on the right, peripheral to National's politics, or should it cannibalise National's right wing vote to bolster its own support?

It's something of a catch-22 situation for ACT. The party was founded to advance the right wing cause, but it appears they can't do that any more. The natural reaction would be to transform to a populist, right wing party, perhaps focused on the provinces, and cannibalise National's former heartland. Yet there are problems with that idea too. An attempt was made last year, and it didn't succeed too well. Further, any large swing of right wing support from National to ACT lessens the ability of National to pull votes from the centre to push the combined centre right vote up and centre left vote down enough to effect a change of Government.

So, overall, the opposition is not in all that good a state. A National Party which seems to be confined to reacting to the Government's political project, in a fairly inept way, is joined by an ACT party which is in a real sense engaging in a frenetic re-evaluation of its underlying ideological position.

We live, as they say, in interesting times. The resolution of these issues will make the next three years interesting for the Opposition, quite apart from what the Government has in store for them.

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