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Dunne Speaks: Can ACT's Dream Run Continue?

By most reckonings the ACT Party has had a very successful political year. Not only has its expanded Parliamentary team settled in well to its work, without controversy or scandal, but its leader has gained in community respect, and the party’s support, at least according to the public opinion polls, has increased sharply.

At last year’s election, the Labour/Green bloc secured 58% of the party vote – more than 25% ahead of the 33.2% that went to the National/ACT bloc. That gap has narrowed since then, to sit now at around a much more realistic 8% (50% to 42%), according to the latest Colmar Brunton poll. More significantly, ACT’s vote share in the same poll has almost doubled from election time to 14% - half that of National, and one-third of the National/ACT bloc’s total. There has been speculation that if ACT’s support continues to grow at this rate, it will soon come close to eclipsing National as the most popular Opposition party.

However, such speculation was made before the change of leadership in the National Party, and the new leader Christopher Luxon’s avowed aim to “bring home” the 413,000 votes National shed at the last election. Many of those votes, but by no means all, went to ACT, and a significant movement of them back to National could severely halt the progress ACT has been making this year.

If Luxon’s strategy is successful, ACT could end up in a situation similar to that of the Greens with Labour. The Greens now seem to be a permanent 7%-9% party vote party, enough to potentially be the difference between a Labour-led Government or not. Having ruled out ever working with National, the Greens now have nowhere else to go, so will be taken for granted by Labour accordingly.

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Should Luxon woo home the votes lost to ACT, ACT will return to its previous 6%-8% standing. ACT has wedded itself to only ever working with National and in such a scenario would end up in precisely the same position as the Greens have with Labour.

Of course, ACT had to welcome Luxon’s selection as leader – and with it the prospect of a stronger National Opposition, the likely impact on its vote notwithstanding. It would have been churlish and not in the interests of future coalition building to do otherwise. Nevertheless, expect ACT to watch closely how the public reacts to the Luxon/Willis “reset” and the risks that might pose to ACT, and to already be working out its response. After all, it will feel with some justification that having made so much progress during 2021 it is not timely to surrender it now, just because of a potentially more voter-friendly National Party.

ACT will have to chart a different yet complementary course, without scaring away too many of its supporters. During this year, ACT has benefitted from taking strong and clear positions on the Covid19 response in particular, whereas National’s approach has often looked ambivalent, or a pale imitation of Labour’s. Luxon’s self-proclaimed moderation may give ACT scope to continue taking strong and defined positions. However, there is the risk, if Luxon gains traction, of ACT looking too rigid and uncompromising to inspire public confidence that the two parties could work together cohesively in a future coalition government.

The immediate challenge for both National and ACT though is growing their combined vote share, without cannibalising each other. It would appear from the polls that most of the movement in votes since the election has been away from Labour – down just under 10% on its election result. The current gap of around 8% the polls are reporting between the Labour/Greens and National/ACT blocs needs to narrow to 5% or less for the 2023 election to start to look competitive.

At present, given the sharp jump the polls are recording in ACT’s support, most of the votes leaving Labour seem to be transferring directly to ACT, much to National’s frustration. They may well be voters who left National for Labour in 2020, but who, while now disillusioned with Labour, still feel disinclined to return to National. Luxon’s pledge to “bring home” those votes will need to be promoted in the context of growing the National/ACT bloc’s total vote share, not just building up National’s vote at ACT’s expense, potentially leaving the bloc still short of the support needed to form a government. His focus needs to be getting traditional National voters back from Labour, not ACT.

ACT’s dream run in 2021 is going to be difficult to sustain. Like all small parties allied to a major party, its support will wax and wane in proportion to the popularity of its major ally. Given that reality, National and ACT now need to focus less on the horse race between them, and more on lifting their combined vote share to at least 48% - the minimum figure needed to form a government under MMP.

No matter the individual party standings, or the rivalry between them, a result that achieves anything less than that figure in 2023 will be a failure for both of them – leading to nothing more than three more frustrating years in Opposition.

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