Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gerry Eckhoff and the "Country Party"

Until today, I thought Gerrard (Gerry) Eckhoff was a loyal ACT trooper, even though he lost his seat at the 2005 election. At the 2007 annual ACT conference in March, which I attended as part of my research, Eckhoff loomed large and gave a rather entertaining, if at times confusing speech on "environmental morality".

But it seems that we now have to add Eckhoff to the growing list of former MPs who have expressed misgivings about the new direction of ACT. In today's Otago Daily Times an "op-ed" piece written by Eckhoff appeared, headlined "Time to take a Country Party to Parliament". This being the ODT, the article isn't online (although it may surface electronically in subscriber-only Factiva later on), so I'll type out the important bits:
The National Party once stood attention when Federated Farmers spoke. No longer. The power base has long since shifted to urban New Zealand, which is effectively Auckland and its environs. Naturally enough, the focus of politicians of all persuasions is almost entirely on the problems of that rather consumptive region. It has been observed that the South Island, especially, now has more in common with the east coast of Australia than it has with the North Island.

The answer for rural New Zealand is to have our own representatives in Parliament by way of a Country Party
This is heady stuff given that Eckhoff is a former MP and as far as I am aware, still a member of ACT. Wasn't ACT meant to be great for rural voters? Removing red tape, Gerry? It appears that like Muriel Newman, Stephen Franks and Deborah Coddington, Eckhoff feels alienated by Rodney Hide's "new strategy":
Act New Zealand - well, I am no longer sure what it stands for but it will fight hard to get it, whatever it is
This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of ACT. In fact, the timing of the whole article is remarkable. Here is Eckhoff, having regained a little power to implement ACT-like policies through his election to the Otago Regional Council, arguing that a new national political party is needed.

As for Eckhoff's argument, I'm not sure how much appeal a rural-based party would have. He claims that "most New Zealanders could not name one rural representative in Parliament, let alone three". Err, what about Bill English, deputy leader no less of National and MP for Clutha-Southland? Or Nick Smith? Or indeed Shane Ardern, who championed opposition to the fart tax by driving his tractor on the steps of Parliament (although admittedly, he doesn't seem to do much these days, with his last press releases on the National website from August 2007)? If anything, National seems more aligned with rural interests now than it did under Don Brash, when city MP Gerry Brownlee was deputy. The last geographically-based party that I recall was the South Island Party, which contested the 1999 election but subsequently disappeared virtually without a trace.

I'll look more at Eckhoff in a later post.

Leighton Smith

The preoccupation with medical stories on Nine to Noon means that I sometimes flick on to Newstalk ZB in the mornings, where Leighton Smith reigns supreme. Today I heard Smith advocating school "vouchers", whereby parents take funding to their school of choice. This competitive system has long been a cornerstone of ACT policy, with MPs Donna Awatere-Huata and later Deborah Coddington particularly in favour of it.

I wonder if ACT will bring out schemes like the voucher system once again. The "economisation" of politics over the last couple of years, in which Labour and National have argued about the merits of tax cuts, suggests that voters are more interested in economic issues now. Indeed, Hide has focused on "High Performance Government", i.e. notions of accountability and transparency. Thus far, examples of this such as the Regulatory Responsibility Bill have failed to set the electorate on fire, and I doubt it ever will. ACT needs something more appealing. Could it be a voucher system in some shape or form?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

ACT and Local Body Elections

The Local Body Elections earlier this month provide a number of talking points relevant to ACT. Firstly, former ACT MPs Gerry Eckhoff (now a councillor on the Otago Regional Council) and Penny Webster (Mayor of Rodney District) successfully entered local politics. I'll look at them in more detail later.

The second link to ACT is more oblique, but no less interesting. Since 2006, Rodney Hide has concentrated on changing his aggressive image, as he emphasised to me when I interviewed him in August 2007:

What I've found since 2005, and this was in a response to what members wanted, is I've presented myself as a warm guy, never attacks people, positive, Dancing with the Stars-type guy, I've never said a critical thing about an MP since, for over 12 months.

A chief reason for this is that Hide wants to be seen as a good local MP for Epsom. According to him, Epsom voters do not want a “shitkicker...a negative campaigner” (Critic, 10 September, pp. 44-45).

Two instances in recent local elections seem to support Hide's view that local politicians need to be seen as all-round "nice guys". In Auckland, John Banks stormed back from defeat in 2004 to retake the mayoralty from Dick Hubbard - but only after he demonstratively set out to soften his image from his own previous image as being aggressive and dictatorial. As the New Zealand Herald reported on September 29:
The 60-year-old former National Party cabinet minister with nearly 30 years of bruising politics under his belt, not to mention a cruel talkback tongue, is promising a softer, gentler style and new policies.

You will not hear boastful rhetoric about winning, or see Banks driving a Ferrari or Bentley. Instead, he is portraying a modest image and promising a boost to public transport. He has even been spotted using the Link bus service.

In an unfamiliar soft voice, Banks makes no excuses for the thrashing three years ago.

"I'm not going to sit around for three years under a cold shower and not learn anything. I know what went wrong. I know what needed to change and the only reason people are going to support me this time round is that they perceive there has been a change in policy and in style."
In Dunedin, a grouping called Open Democracy was formed mainly on its opposition to the construction of a new rugby stadium on Dunedin's waterfront. Its leader, Lee Vandervis, had probably been more prominent than any other councillor over the last three years in local media mainly because he vociferously opposed the stadium. Yet not only did Vandervis fail to win the mayoralty (receiving 6,825 votes compared with the 21,412 votes cast for Peter Chin), but he lost his council seat, coming fourth in the Hills ward. Only the top 3 were elected. Although without further research only a speculative conclusion can be made, I suspect that it was Vandervis's aggressive style, more than actually what he said, which cost him support.

If local politicians do have to be nice people to get elected, this bodes well for Hide in 2008 as he seeks to retain the electorate seat of Epsom. The changes he has made since 2005 may be the difference he needs to succeed where Prebble failed in 1999, when he lost the electorate seat of Wellington Central. Back then, Prebble and ACT liked to be hated; now, the mellowing by Hide of the image of ACT and above all himself may just be what Hide needs to win Epsom. And unlike in 1999, Epsom is crucial to ACT, as it needs to hold on to Hide's seat in Epsom if it does not poll above 5% of the party vote in 2008.

All politics is local.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Welcome to Douglas to Dancing!

Welcome to Douglas to Dancing. The aim of this blog is to provide a forum for discussion and analysis of the ACT New Zealand political party, about which I wrote my Honours dissertation during 2007 at the University of Otago. On these pages I will highlight key findings from my research and comment on ACT's 2008 election campaign, as well as simply examining anything relating to ACT. In the coming weeks I plan to look at how ACT is using new technology and what has happened to ACT's MPs, past and present.

For now, I encourage anyone interested in ACT to download the dissertation. To my knowledge it is the first major academic work written on ACT since 1999.