Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas with ACT

I wish all readers of this blog a very happy Christmas, or happy holidays if you prefer.

It might be Christmas, but ACT news does not stop. The Christmas Eve bulletin of 3 News ran a report on former ACT president Catherine Judd's son Sam Judd, who has been injured in a shark attack on the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. Catherine Judd, safely at home in Wellington, was interviewed for the report and seemed most relieved. The TV3 report was very detailed and appeared to interview everyone but the shark itself. A cynic might say that this could be down to Catherine Judd's professional PR skills, but I think a more credible and charitable explanation is that the silly season of no-news-bulletins is upon us. Today on National Radio I heard a report about the Corrections Department defending the practice of giving prisoners a mince pie with their Christmas dinners. So expect more in-depth examinations from the media of the road toll, Massey University studies and a sudden intense interest in international affairs between now and late January, when John Key will presumably open the real news year with his Burnside speech.

Incidentally, it's not the first time Sam Judd has been in the news: during Catherine Judd's campaign to become president of ACT in 2001, it was mentioned in a report that, then aged 17, he was taking a "gap year" off and helping with his mother's campaign. There's an interesting study waiting to be done of the places visited by people connected to ACT - Roger Douglas was a high flyer as a consultant in the 1990s, visiting everywhere from Norway to Australia dispensing economic advice, while Rodney Hide recounted in his 2007 autobiography tales of his OE spent working on North Sea oil rigs. Now we hear that a Judd has been to the Galapagos Islands, surely one of the remotest places on earth.

What else do other ACT people have planned for the break? I have little idea, but we know that Rodney Hide is holidaying near Queenstown, as reported in the December 2007 issue of Investigate:
INVESTIGATE: Plans for Christmas?
HIDE: For the last five or six years I have always done the same. I head to the Gibbston valley, near Queenstown, and stay in a cabin with my good friend Dave Henderson, and we philosophize and sleep and read.
Again, enjoy your Christmas break!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

ACT's Christmas letter - part 1

I joined ACT in February 2007, at the outset of my research, but on Thursday this week finally received my first piece of conventional mail from the party. Of course, like most parties these days, ACT prefers to save money and use e-mail. Accordingly, it sends out the weekly ACTion! e-mail newsletter to members every Friday. The problem with ACTion! is that there's not a lot in it and most of it is the same each week, having been copied and pasted from the previous edition. It's also not very personalised and I'm sure for many people it's just another newsletter which might warrant a cursory glance, if that.

But it's an ACT tradition to send members a printed update just prior to Christmas. So what may be gleaned from this year's edition? In the letter from party president Garry Mallett, there's a "semi-attack" on National.
...bulk funding [of education], a baby-step, has proven a step too far for National. Maybe National has to move left to capture the centre voters, but in so doing, National can't deliver the bold solutions we need to make New Zealanders more prosperous, productive, free, safe and proud of their nation. National may bring new faces and a new style but their policies will be the same old stale 'Government Knows Best' mix that has plagued New Zealand since Muldoon and before.
I think you can sense there the pent-up frustration within ACT that National is now receiving 50%+ support and is suffocating ACT, despite the latter's attempts to differentiate itself during the year, such as when Rodney Hide said he would be prepared to work with other parties, notably Labour. Admittedly, Mallett does qualify his criticism of National, saying he doesn't "want to be too negative on National - they're better than the social engineering and socialism-lite of the Labour/Progressive/Green/NZ First/United hook-up - but not much better". This is interesting too, given that Hide has made a point of not criticising Labour. But this is president Mallett, not leader Hide, which gives him a certain free reign for criticism.

The remainder of Mallett's letter focuses on Hide's Regulatory Responsibility Bill, which is currently before Select Committee, local authority rates, calls for donations (the real reason for the letter, of course!!) - and a list of characteristics which Mallett believes makes ACT stand out from all other parties. The list is very interesting, as creating a point of difference between itself and National in particular has been ACT's biggest problem since at least 2004. Most of the items on Mallett's list display the usual rhetoric about ACT recognising "hard-work and enterprise" and so on, but there is some substance. First, Mallett specifically mentions health policy:
ACT fights for patients' rights in health. ACT knows patient outcomes are more important than (1) who owns the hospitals (2) the 'cultural safety' of health treatment or (3) whether your health profession is paid by the state or a private employer
When I interviewed Hide in August, he told me that ACT could well fight the election on just two key policies, probably the Taxpayer Rights Bill and a health policy:

Ideally what I'd like to campaign on at the next election is something like say the Taxpayer Rights Bill and something like a health policy, so demanding transparency and accountability, so I like the idea of campaigning hard on an economic policy and a social policy...health is certainly the one that's top of everyone's mind and I've struggled a bit to know what a policy is that we could present. Obviously I believe that the health system fails because it's run like the Soviet empire, but just saying that you're going to privatise the hospitals is not a vote catcher and I've done some work, a little bit of preliminary work only in this area, and I've got this idea of making a transparency sort of bill, so that people, we can actually measure the performance of the health sector, and I can imagine sexing that up in an election campaign, saying look, National and Labour can argue about it, but here's the thing that we need, we actually need to know that when you get on the health waiting list you're going to wait X weeks only, you know, something like that, and I haven't quite formulated that in my mind yet, but I'd love to be campaigning on something like that and that if we could monitor it and assess the performance of the health sector, we could, it would be the first step to achieving contestability, the private sector.

Mallett's highlighting of health policy would appear to strengthen Hide's comments. Remember, campaigning on health as main policy would be new for ACT, which has traditionally promoted a low-tax message. coupled from 1999-2005 with socially conservative views on crime, welfare and Maori issues. As far as altering ACT's image from a party of the hard right (as Hide is attempting to do), this is a shrewd move. As health is a "soft" and "feminine" issue, campaigning on it should make ACT be seen more compassionately than on, say, "Zero Tolerance for Crime". Campaigning on health is obviously also driven by the fact that this is the area in which Heather Roy has expertise (she is a former physiotherapist and has been ACT's health spokesperson since entering Parliament in 2002). Nevertheless, it should be noted that Mallett does still advocate a tough-on-crime message:
ACT stands for strong justice so honest decent New Zealanders are safe from crooks and thugs and those crooks and thugs feel the true consequences of their illegal behaviour
A tough justice policy is probably the only socially conservative policy ACT could still include without this clashing with the "nice guy" image Hide has tried to construct. Hard-line stances on crime have almost become a "valence" driven, i.e. a position on which all parties basically agree, apart from the exact details. New Zealand First, National and even Labour (which passed the Sentencing Act 2002 which toughened sentences) have all pushed hard-line stances on crime. By the same token, however, this means that it is not a unique stance on which ACT will win votes. I don't think ACT will make crime a big part of its election campaign, nor would it be terribly effective if it did. Mallett included a similar message in last year's letter and I think it corresponds with his personal views (he is from socially conservative side of the party) and with a majority of ACT members, who liked the "Zero Tolerance for Crime" message. What isn't included, however is mention of a tough stance on welfare and Maori issues. For years, ACT campaigned on cracking-down on abuse of social welfare, "one law for all" and Treaty of Waitangi time-limits. These simply do not fit with Hide's remoulding of the party into a supposedly friendly and non-extreme-right grouping.

In my next posting, I look at what else came in ACT's Christmas envelope to members, including a letter from Rodney Hide.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Help wanted - solved

UPDATE: as "anonymous" has kindly pointed out, December 5 was the date of Roger Douglas's 70th birthday celebration at Parliament. I had been aware that this was taking place around this time, but I admit that I had forgotten the exact date. I am a "commentator", not an ACT insider. Needless to say, I was not invited (nor did I have a burning desire to attend for that matter) and was not there, although I know someone who did receive an invitation - as I recall there was a cost of about $70 involved. Funny to ask your "guests" for cash payments, but this is user-pays in action I suppose. Deborah Coddington wrote a report on the event and I like this bit especially:
[Political parties are] also like family, albeit in Act's case (and I suspect other political parties are the same) a severely dysfunctional one, something former president Catherine Judd referred to in her speech, diagnosing us as suffering from ADD syndrome and - not looking at anyone in particular - lamenting there always seemed to be someone in Act with their hand poised above the detonate button.
Remember, if there is anything ACT-related you think should be on this blog which isn't, let me know via the comments feature (like anonymous did), or via the e-mail address at left.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Help wanted!

***UPDATED - see above***

I can't find the ACT-related event referred to by "anonymous" which supposedly occurred on December 5, according to a comment placed the following day:
Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you haven't covered the very significant Act event last night.

December 6, 2007 2:43 PM

The ACT website has a press release from Heather Roy issued on December 5, but I'm not sure this is an earth-shattering event:
Independent Trouble-Shooter Needed For CCDHB

ACT New Zealand Health Spokesman and Wellington-based MP Heather Roy today called for Capital & Coast District Health Board members to be stood down, and called for an independent commissioner to be appointed to resolve the terminal crisis at the ailing public health service.

"The commissioner must have a proven record of turning organisations around and be able to think outside the square," Mrs Roy said....
I couldn't find anything of relevance either recorded by the Herald as taking place on December 5.

ACT members - what happened?

Newsflash: ACT overshadowed by the Herald

It's interesting that ACT and Rodney Hide were overshadowed in the New Zealand Herald's coverage of the opposition to the Electoral Finance Bill by other small parties, most notably the Maori Party. In the report space was given only for a comment by Hide in a collection of quotes from MPs opposing the bill. It wasn't a particularly exciting comment - perhaps that's why it came last, even after the Progressives (the 1 MP party).

Indeed, it was Hone Harawira who was allocated much attention by the Herald and it's not hard to see why - he gave an impressive speech in the House stating the reasons why the Maori Party was opposing the EFB. I heard Leighton Smith praising this speech on Newstalk ZB this morning - and when you hear Smith praising something from the Maori Party, you know it must be of exceptional quality!

John Boscawen, the Electoral Finance Act and ACT

There have been a number of letters to the editor in newspapers recently on John Boscawen, who has been leading a campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill (since yesterday the Electoral Finance Act). Take this letter for example, from the Christchurch Press last week:
Is this democracy?
If you or I want to have our say, we can write to the editor. Maximum 150 words, may get published, but odds are it won't, may be edited. John Boscawen (sword and shield of democracy), just writes a fat cheque for another ad campaign. Publication guaranteed. Money talks and he is spending up big to keep it that way. He calls that democracy. Do you?
Tom Taylor
A familiar theme in the letters has been the allusion to Boscawen's wealth. But in some letters (which I unfortunately neglected to cut out), writers have also mentioned Boscawen's connections to ACT. While I don't believe Boscawen is actively seeking to hide his ACT connections, it is true that he hasn't led the opposition under the ACT banner, unlike other right-wing pressure groups which have openly opposed the EFB, such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Family First. In fact, he has generally promoted his opposition as a independent concerned citizen.

Why might this be? I think it is fairly obvious, as the letter writers have pointed out. If Boscawen more clearly pronounced his links with ACT, he might well turn people off. As I found out in research for my dissertation, ACT is still strongly linked with and money. Participants in focus groups I ran for my research felt that ACT was associated with “financial interests” and “business”. These views were mirrored in a projective exercise, in which participants were asked to choose the make of car which most closely represented their view of ACT.1 Participants overwhelmingly favoured the sports utility vehicle (SUV) and sports car, ignoring more ordinary sedan and people-mover models. One participant felt that the SUV was suitable because it “could run anyone over...sort of a bully's car”, while the sports car represented “arrogance” and “aiming for the highlife”. Wealth was clearly a trigger for these perceptions: one participant said that ACT was not interested in “the social side of politics, whereas Labour is about helping people, the lower people, they're [ACT] more about the rich people at the top and aiming for that sort of lifestyle, which is what you associate those cars with, money”.

If people wrote off Boscawen as "just someone from the ACT party", this might reduce the effectiveness of his "impartial" opposition. N.B.: I'm not sure of Boscawen's exact links with ACT today, but I'm fairly sure he is at least a member and quite likely a major financial donor. He was heavily involved in the foundation stages of the party from my recollection, but I would need to research the specifics.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Examiner's commentary; about this blog

I'm technically now back in New Zealand, but have been very preoccupied with other matters (including my graduation) since returning, so limited blogging is still very much in force (as I indicated earlier). But I've found time to upload the examiner's commentary on my dissertation (Adobe PDF format; 142Kb). I've put this online as it offers a useful "roadmap" (this word is very much in fashion nowadays as a synonym for "guide", so I'll join the club) and critical review of my work. It's there for interested parties to download, as a companion to the original dissertation. Note that the commentary is anonymous - even I am not supposed to know who wrote it (although I have my suspicions). The dissertation was marked by one examiner at the Department of Political Studies of the University of Otago, check-marked by another person at that institution and check-marked again by another examiner at the University of Auckland back in October and November.

While still on the subject of reviews: for those of you who don't know, this blog and dissertation were reviewed at the Liberation blog (run by Bryce Edwards); the blog alone was considered by The Standard. Both of these are left-leaning blogs, so I'm pleased that a blog on ACT has been seen to be worthy of noting by the blogs' respective authors - although as I will point out later in this post, Douglas to Dancing is not a partisan blog.

I've also been running some statistics on this blog and last time I checked was heartened to see no fewer than roughly a couple of hundred users had visited the blog, from countries as far away as the Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. I never thought this blog would attract more than a niche audience and at 200 people it is indeed a niche product. But I think it is serving its purpose and I am encouraged by the regular comments placed by readers - my thanks goes to every one of you who has visited the blog and/or has placed a comment. Most views, understandably, were from New Zealand however, and the hostnames indicate that the blog is being led by a variety of people around the country, including at Parliament.

Some, but not all comments, usually anonymously placed, on this blog have been a little hostile towards my commentary. That's fine in itself - I encourage robust and vigorous debate and am quite happy, pleased even, if you disagree with me. It's one reason why I enabled anonymous comments several weeks ago. But let me make this clear: this blog is an independent forum for commentary and debate on ACT and related topics. It is not intended to be a cheerleader for ACT; but neither is it intended to attack ACT at every turn. Indeed, readers may have noticed that critical comments will sometimes take the form of pointing out what I believe is preventing ACT from gaining further support - i.e. "constructive criticism". I think this sort of blog stands in contrast to most partisan efforts, which are fine in themselves but can get quite shrill at times.

Let me conclude with illustrating my point with a couple of comments placed by "anonymous" recently and commenting briefly on them. Although it might not be the case, I suspect that they were placed by the same person:
Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you haven't covered the very significant Act event last night.

December 6, 2007 2:43 PM

Although I try to cover significant ACT related events wherever possible, please allow me some time to do so, as this blog is very much an unpaid and hobby position, as are most blogs. At the time of the above comment I was overseas and had indicated that blogging would be limited. For the record, I will attempt to cover the event indicated by "Anonymous" in the coming week. Note that I covered the announcement of Heather Roy's candidacy in Wellington Central on the same evening it was made public and initially in greater detail than ACT's and Roy's own websites did. But please also note that the aim of this blog is to add some deeper analysis where possible and not just reproduce items from the New Zealand Herald.
Anonymous said...

If you blog what you learn through the media, then you will have a pretty warped sense of events.

December 10, 2007 8:47 AM

This was the second comment placed at one post. Obviously, the media will be a major primary source of material for this blog. But "Anonymous" should consider that I have also written a 133-page dissertation which used an extensive bibliography, drew on three original interviews with figures from within ACT and e-mail correspondence with another, and data gained from three focus groups run by me during the year. Blog readers will also note that I sometimes write posts on original topics to which I can see a connection with ACT: the dual citizenship post last week, which attracted a relatively large amount of debate via the comments function, is but one example of this.

To reiterate: I welcome feedback at any time on the blog, either via the comments feature or by correspondence to my personal e-mail address (details at left). If you are communicating by e-mail, please clearly mark if your comments are not intended for publication.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Dual citizenship restrictions on MPs

This week in Melbourne I attended a lecture at which I learnt that here one is barred from standing for parliament if he or she is a dual citizenship holder. This means that every MP in the Australian House or Senate in Canberra is an Australian citizen only.

As far as I know, no such rule applies in New Zealand, although the Harry Duynhoven case in 2003, in which a special law was passed to allow Duynhoven to continue as an MP despite breaking the Electoral Act by reapplying for his Dutch citizenship, while still an MP. The Christchurch Press reported on 11 August 2003:
Government MP Harry Duynhoven inadvertently breached part of section 55 of
the Electoral Act when he reapplied for his Dutch citizenship -- an action that
has been outlawed for MPs since 1850.

Labour decided that the best way to fix the situation, and to avoid a
potentially messy by-election in New Plymouth, was to change the law
retrospectively so that Mr Duynhoven (and any other MP who may have also applied for a foreign passport but will not own up) was in the clear.

It is the duty of opposition parties to oppose and to make every issue
sound like the veritable death knell of civilisation as we know it. That is a
shame, because it means that when the Government does something genuinely
outrageous, they are left grasping for adjectives -- having already used the
best ones opposing the last round of Budget estimates.

ACT leader Richard Prebble, one of Parliament's most senior MPs, called
the Electoral Vacancies Amendment Bill (or Harry's Law, as it will be forever
known) "a constitutional outrage" and "one of the most disgraceful acts I've
seen in Parliament".
Note that Duynhoven's offence was to reapply for citizenship and not merely hold a foreign passport (which would be illegal in Australia). Note also that ACT was a vociferous critic of passing "Harry's law" which legalised his offence. And finally, note that Labour portrayed the existing law as archaic and worthless and appears to place far less value on citizenship issues than Australia.

My question is this: what if the Australian no-dual-citizenship rule were applied in New Zealand? I can think of several ACT MPs who were born to British parents, for example. Richard Prebble, for one, was born in the United Kingdom unless I am very much mistaken. Deborah Coddington, another prolific former ACT MP, was also of English extraction, while Muriel Newman has talked about how her family emigrated when she was a child to give her a better chance in a supposedly class-less New Zealand. Of course, just because one is of British parentage does not necessarily mean that one holds a British passport, but because of the benefits bestowed (e.g. ease of travel), it is certainly very likely that these former MPs hold a second passport. There may be others in ACT who hold dual citizenship as well, but these names were the ones that came to mind. Outside of ACT, both Helen Clark and John Key may well be eligible for foreign passports, as Key was of European background and Clark has an Irish grandparent, although as I recall she did not want to take this up out of loyalty to New Zealand.

Had the Australian rule applied, this would have excluded Prebble, Coddington and Newman from standing for office, unless they renounced their foreign citizenship. This provides an interesting counter-factual argument. If ACT had lacked the skills of Prebble, would it have entered Parliament at all? Another question is this: should New Zealand have a similar rule to Australia? New Zealand must have the most relaxed attitudes to citizenship in the world. Permanent residents lack few of the benefits held by New Zealand citizens; indeed, they have voting rights, which would be out of the question in most other countries, including Australia. The Howard government in particular used citizenship to foster national identity in a way that New Zealand has not and even altered the name of its Ministry for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, removing the latter two words in favour of "Citizenship".

With the Labour-led government focus on national identity, and New Zealand First's more hard-nosed nationalism, I wonder if citizenship will become a future issue for debate in New Zealand politics?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Another reason why a "Country Party" is not a good idea

Earlier in the year I covered an op-ed piece by former ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff in which he advocated the establishment of a Country Party to better represent rural interests in New Zealand. He used the example of the Nationals in Australia to support his argument. Well, the results of the recent Australian federal election should provide him with some advice. Australians gave the Nationals just 10 seats, its worst ever result. One of the reasons suggested by the Sydney Morning Herald for the party's decline in fortunes was that urban lifestylers have encroached into more traditional rural territory, thus diluting the core support for the Nationals. Although New Zealand has a proportional system and this would therefore be less of an issue, in absolute numbers I suggest that core rural supporters would be limited. Farming is a big part of the economy, but because it is so efficiently run (with large farms and relatively few farmers), the absolute number of potential supporters is small.

Neither would the tactic of targeting one or two electorate seats (as ACT has done) work: I don't think there would be a single electorate in the country which is a truly rural seat. Take Clutha-Southland, for instance: from 2008 it will include the highly urbanised district of Queenstown, hardly fertile ground for down-on-the-farm messages.

The only hope for a new Country Party would be if a large contingent of rural supporters became disgruntled with the New Zealand National Party, thus creating an opening for a new party. But it would have to be more broad-based than the Australian Nationals - perhaps including a rural-recreation faction. In 2002, the Outdoor Recreation party claimed 1.28% of the party vote, a better result than the (admittedly imploding) Alliance.

But as ACT has shown, the problem for small parties is that voters seem prepared to give them their votes in reasonable numbers only when the election is not a close one. In 2005, the collective support for small parties was roughly halved from 2002, in which Labour won in a landslide over a disunited National Party. This contrasts sharply with the German election, a close fought battle also in September 2005. In that case, the major parties were also virtually tied (on 36%) but three small parties still managed to gain over 8% support each - indeed, two of these enjoyed healthy increases. Until party loyalty in New Zealand becomes more cemented, life will continue to remain difficult for small parties in my view.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The real home of ACT - and Derek Quigley

This week I've been in Australia and I can't get over how much stuff in the papers there is on ACT. Much more than the Herald. The "Roger Douglas Fan Club" (as a journalist described ACT in 1996) must have definitely found a home across the Tasman, right? Well, although ACT likes to highlight its "global heritage", I'm afraid this is not the case. For those who did not see through my feeble attempt at humour, I'm referring to the Australian Capital Territory.

But on a more serious note, former ACT (New Zealand!) MP Derek Quigley moved to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra (where I have been for the past week) in 2004 and is currently working at ANU's Strategy and Defence Centre, according to a report in the New Zealand Herald on 21 May 2007 (not online as far as I could ascertain, but available on Factiva):

After trying to establish a multi-party consensus on the future of New Zealand's defence force in 2000, [Quigley]'s just published The War against Defence Restructuring, assuring us it is ``not as dry as you might think''. His next books will be about the politics of Anzus, and speculating on the future relationship between the New Zealand military and other Government agencies.

As a National MP he was a strong advocate of MMP but reckons now he'd oppose it. ``There's potential for a lot of compromise and it's difficult to make the tough decisions.''

According to the report, Quigley is likely to renew his position at the end of 2007. Quigley's biography at the ANU's website (about half-way down the page) is worth a look, turns out that he has Irish citizenship.

Now that the Australian government is changing, I wonder if Quigley will ever find Australia less to his liking and move back to New Zealand, which in all likelihood will drift back to rule by the Right in late 2008.

Who knows, perhaps he could stand for the National Party?!

Stephen Franks to stand for National!

Some very interesting news out today: Stephen Franks is standing for National in Wellington Central. Although this was signalled in the NBR in July 2007, the big surprise for me is that he is standing in Wellington Central, where Heather Roy recently announced she was standing for ACT. This can only be seen as a slap in the face for ACT. Admittedly, it is quite likely that Franks's nomination was already finalized before Roy announced her candidacy. Still, this will make for some interesting campaign meetings.

Although we knew that Franks was being courted by National, I wonder if he really fits in to the renovated National brand that John Key has crafted: seemingly a more centrist and softer party than the Brash-led version. Franks is well known for his tough stance on law and order. While this is hardly anathema to the conservative party, Franks carries a lot of baggage through his involvement with ACT and of late the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

I'll be keeping a watching brief on the Wellington Central race and I'd be particularly keen to get readers' comments on this.