Thursday, January 31, 2008

Summer speeches 2008: Hide has knives out for Clark - but kid gloves for Key

The reaction from ACT to the speeches given this week by John Key and Helen Clark is extremely interesting. Soon after each leader had given his or her speech, ACT had a press release from Rodney Hideon its website - a rarity in itself these days, when one is more accustomed to seeing a digital stack of issues of Heather Roy's Diary.

First up, Hide commented on Key. It was the traditional "good, but not far enough" argument from ACT. Hide "welcomed" the "good" speech. Key's "youth entitlement" was a "good" policy. The only problem was that the speech was not "bold enough". This is the natural way for ACT to oppose National, a party which is not far enough right as ACT would like, especially under John Key.

On Wednesday, it was time to pass judgment on Helen Clark. If she had thought last year's mateship from Hide and talk of a co-operation agreement - and even of a Labour-ACT coalition - had meant Labour was no-longer the root of all evil, she was sorely mistaken. In the second press release from Hide, he "labelled" Clark "out of touch with the problems that confront New Zealand". Ouch. No praise, no "good, but not good enough" - even though Clark's policy announcement was very similar to Key's. Instead, he attacked the policy, claiming "making [would be school dropouts] stay in school until they're 18 will do nothing to address the problem [youth crime]".

I think the difference in ACT's reception to the two speeches is part of a growing realisation from Hide over the summer that the party needs to find a mutual understanding with National, and that Labour cannot be trusted under any circumstances. The strong disapproval from members to the idea of ACT co-operating with Labour last winter is no doubt also playing a role. His hostility to Labour over the Electoral Finance Bill/Act was the beginning.

A coalition deal with National in November could be the end.

Summer speeches 2008: the ACT oratory advantage

Kathryn Ryan graciously invited her resident political commentators Laila Harre and Matthew Hooton ("from the left, from the right") to appear in a spot on Nine to Noon yesterday morning on National Radio, squeezed in for a few minutes after the customary boring 30 minute medical story. Reviewing the speeches given by John Key and Helen Clark, Hooton said something like "let's be clear, neither of them are a Barack Obama". I couldn't agree more. John Key sounds like he's giving a five minute speech to his Fifth Form English class to get his NCEA credits (frankly, he should try picking up rubbish instead), while Helen Clark does a few of her trademark huh-huh-huh half-laughs and mistakenly thinks she's won her audience over.

I don't think Rodney Hide is a Barack Obama either, and neither would he want to be. His style of oratory isn't the grand, stage style (which Obama employs so effectively), but is rather of the witty, storytelling variety. Hide has an anecdote up his sleeve to explain virtually anything. Spinning a variety of stories (all variations on the same theme) is essential to keep a captive audience from nodding "orf" (as Hide so characteristically says).

With the possible exception of Winston Peters (who is more of the grand, stage style), Rodney Hide is probably the best orator of any of New Zealand's party leaders. And ACT's default deputy leader, Heather Roy, is no slouch either when it comes to giving a speech, although (somewhat mercifully) her style is not nearly as ebullient. If Hide were Paul Henry, Roy would be the Kay Gregory (or Pippa Wetzell, if you prefer).

ACT's biggest challenge is to get voters to listen.

Summer speeches 2008: why it's not the economy, stupid

First, a Dominion-Post/David Farrar-style evaluation of my "predictions" made a few weeks back on the highest trafficked post on this blog to date:

The date was correct

Duncan Garner reported for 3 News

Even Hilary Barry was back from her holiday

But apart from John Key being the man giving the speech, that's about it. The speech was at Ellerslie, not Burnside, and the topic had nothing remotely to do with ACT. Quelle surprise! But Key's speech on Tuesday morning nevertheless held some interesting talking points with regards to ACT. The media have universally reported the speech as being solely about youth crime and, more specifically, "boot camps". This suits the TV folks well, for whom the news is a nightly summary of the day's court news. It makes a good companion for the primetime schedule (on Wednesday, Real Crime on TV1, Street Legal on TVNZ6, Law and Order on TV3). What got omitted from the coverage of Key's speech was the substantial discussion on New Zealand's economic future at the beginning of his speech. Key's poor speechwriters had even put in a specially crafted soundbite, but Duncan just wasn't interested:

When Sir Ed climbed Mt Everest back in 1953, he wasn't the only New Zealander on top of the world. We all were. We were among the five wealthiest countries on earth. Not any more.

Fifty-five years on, we are no longer an Everest nation. We are among the foothill nations at the base of the OECD wealth mountain. Number 22 for income per person, and falling.

How does this affect ACT? It's a portent that its economic policies just won't get covered by the media, no matter how relevant or effective the Taxpayer Rights Bill, Regulatory Responsibility Bill or Service Level Agreements might be. If the leader of the country's most popular party (going by opinion polls) can't get his economic commentary covered, how can ACT expect to get its message, now dominated by economic concerns, communicated to voters?

The ACT position might be something like this: "well, the media have never given us a fair go, why should they now? We'll use good old fashioned campaigning to get the message to voters directly, just like in Epsom in 2005". But as the US Presidential Election primaries are currently showing, paid advertising is limited in its effect. Mitt Romney is worth some $US250 million, yet yesterday failed once again to win (this time in the Florida primary) against John McCain, who has done well out of free coverage in the news media; Rudy Giuliani saved up every penny of his war-chest to spend up large in Florida, yet has unceremoniously tanked. Moreover, in the introduction to my dissertation I highlighted how ACT's substantial financial backing in its early days failed to propel it to a sizeable share of the vote. ACT will need some good free media coverage to get anywhere near its target on election day.

ACT might also argue that economic issues will become more dominant in the lead-up to election day. I think this is possible, and the "tax cut" theme of the last election is proof that economic concerns are important to voters. But 2005 also showed that ACT did not "own" the tax issue. Instead, it was National which moved tax to the forefront of voters' minds. And it was National which picked up the credit, in the form of votes it took from parties such as ACT. But even the primacy of tax cuts to the 2005 election is questionable. Beneath the surface, it was the issue of race (which Brash had brought up in his 2004 Orewa speech) and the general theme of trust which were central in voters' minds - social issues. The promise of tax cuts only reinforced National as a credible choice for many undecided voters.

Clearly, ACT needs a credible social issue to "own" at the election. It might just have found one. Hide's promotion of the anti-smacking petition led by right-wing evangelical lobby group Family First on Radio Live on Monday and its inclusion in the ACTion member newsletter last week hint at the possible introduction of this as a key campaign plank. This could be a sage move for ACT: John Key's National is compromised in any attempt to cash in on any anti-smacking fervour, as it signed up to the bipartisan agreement with Labour last autumn. ACT consistently opposed the bill, so is able to position itself as the only genuine, principled opposition to the bill.

But the fish-hook to this may be the involvement of Family First. If Don Brash were to give Hide some election advice, it might well be to avoid having anything to do with right-wing fringe Christian groups. Before deciding to ally itself with such a group, ACT should recall the proverb timeo Danaos et dona ferentes - "I fear Greeks, even when they bear gifts".

Monday, January 28, 2008

ACT's "harsh feel" - the name change debate

I think ACT has got that harsh feel to it for me, like I find it quite a hard word to say, oh it sounds German, with the greatest respect to the German people. It sounds like “Achtung!”- “okay!”, whereas we want something warm - Rodney Hide, 30 August 2007*
The one major fault I would have if I were one of Hide's advisers with his on-air performance on Radio Live today was that he scarcely mentioned the word "ACT" in his programme. Now, maybe he was trying to be fair and not use the air-time as a campaigning vehicle, but given the tax cut sermon he gave each listener I seriously doubt he had any qualms about talking politics. Hide mentioned Labour and National more than he did ACT. Indeed, at one point he said "vote for me!" to a caller. Great if the caller came from Epsom, but bad if he was from any of the other 60 or so electorates who can only tick "ACT New Zealand". Some people might immediately associate this with Rodney Hide and tick the box (if they like him), but I think for many this will be lost in translation.

Therefore, I think ACT needs to seriously consider changing the formal party name at the March 2008 annual conference to "Rodney Hide's ACT". Of course, this action will be tantamount to admitting ACT has become a personality party, but this is merely what most people think already. Hide has previously said that he doesn't want the party to be renamed after him, but there is already a precedent set for doing this in "Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition". This worked well for Anderton at the 2002 election, but on visiting the Progressive website, I see that "Jim Anderton's" appears to have been dropped from the party name, leaving just "Progressive Party". I'm not sure if this is officially registered with the Electoral Commission, but it gives ACT an option. Quietly add Hide's name to ACT's registered title at the Electoral Commission in time to appear on ballot papers this November. Then next year, rename the party properly, as ACT has been strongly considering since the 2005 election. Who knows, this time next year ACT may have a couple more MPs, which would make it easier to announce a fresh start with a new name and with less of a personality-driven focus.

*In an interview with me for my dissertation, see the transcript on p. 131 of the PDF

Epsom electorate background

Quest for Security has an excellent backgrounder on the history of the Epsom electorate and predicts Hide will win the seat by a landslide in 2008. Barring the unlikely scenario, such as Hide somehow blotting his copy-book in a big way with the "little old ladies" (Hide's words, not mine) prior to the election, I agree 100% with this assessment. I think the voters of Epsom have got their money's worth over the last couple of years, as far as Hide being a "good local MP" is concerned.

It's interesting how individual electorates such as Epsom and Tauranga still fascinate the New Zealand public, despite the much greater significance of the party vote under MMP. Of course, this is because so many of the smaller parties have relied and do rely on winning an electorate seat to get their party into parliament. Interestingly, in Germany, on whose electoral system New Zealand's MMP is based, a small party must win three electorates for the 5% party vote threshold to be waived. Even allowing for the much greater number of electorates in Germany, this has virtually never happened, as it is unlikely that a party will have three stellar candidates who can win an electorate on their own personalities. As a result, small parties there such as the FDP (Free Democrats), Greens and the Left Party (Die Linke) always focus on the party vote. That's how it should be.

Rodney Hide on Radio Live and owning up to being a right-wing party

Today I was fortunate enough to tune into Radio Live just after the 1pm news to hear that Rodney Hide was going to be hosting the afternoon slot (1-4pm) solo. Last week reports to this blog said that he had been paired with Willie Jackson in a left-right battle. I was able to listen until 2 o'clock and I have to say that Radio Live made an inspired choice. It's hard to imagine any other sitting MP being offered the chance to host his own programme for three hours, although having said that I recall Radio Live hired John Tamihere back in 2005 (when he was in the doghouse with Labour over his interview with Investigate magazine in which he called Steve Maharey "smarmy") to host a Sunday morning programme, alternating with Willie Jackson.

It will be interesting to see whether Radio Live continues to give Hide slots as the year progresses, as it would be treading on some interesting ground with regards to balance, especially as this is election year. It wouldn't be a bad thing to invite an MP from the opposite side of the chamber to duel with Hide in the afternoon slot to fill in for Willie Jackson and John Tamihere. Imagine Rodney Hide going head to head with Michael Cullen! It would be much more riveting than Question Time on Parliament TV, which gets bogged down with all the boring patsy questions from Jill Pettis and co.

Today, Hide opened his programme with two unashamedly political topics (as one might expect!). Noting that Key and Clark were to give their opening speeches, Hide proceded to give listeners a visualisation of how much tax they were now giving to the government, which if in $100 notes would tower 72 kilometres into the sky. This was classic Rodney Hide: putting the abstract (tax policy) into colourful analogies, all in his storytelling fashion. This isn't a new story, of course, but gaining an unfettered national radio platform to tell the country so quite possibly is.

The next topic raised by Hide was more interesting from a political tactics point of view: the petition to hold a referendum on the right to smack one's children. The petition is being steered by right-wing evangelical lobby group Family First, so by promoting this Hide is at the very least not trying to distance ACT from this sort of hard-right conservative grouping. Family First seems to be shaking up as this election's version of the Exclusive Brethren, albeit an overt rather than secretive one. A message about the petition was also in last Friday's ACTion newsletter, along with a link to the Family First website.

Coming back from his first ad break, Hide sheepishly admitted that he had forgotten to give out the phone number for listeners to call. As talk radio listeners are famously loyal, this probably did not matter that much, and soon the first call came in from "John". It wasn't John Boscawen, but it was just as much a gift to Hide. Complaining about the level of government spending, the caller asked Hide if he would undertake a review of spending if part of the next government. Of course, at this point a delighted Rodney Hide told him all about his "Taxpayer Rights Bill", which would "go one better" and put a cap on spending. The remainder of the hour continued in a similar vein, with Hide sympathising with a small business person over his tax obligations and amazingly convincing an invalid's beneficiary that she wanted a tax cut.

The significance of promoting the anti-smacking petition, as well as the frequent attacks on Michael Cullen, Labour and its "fascism" via the Electoral Finance Act lies in the fact that last year Hide frustrated some of his core supporters by suggesting ACT could coalesce with Labour. With this sort of vitriol, it's very, very difficult to see ACT going into coalition with Labour now. Conversely, Hide lavishly praised Ruth Richardson's Fiscal Responsibility Act (1994) and even said at one point that he "didn't want to criticise National".

Of course, positioning itself to the right of National is exactly what ACT needs to do to generate votes. I think Hide is rapidly coming to the view that casting ACT as a completely independent party over the last couple of years was a mistake. The feeling that National was responsible for ACT's decimation at the 2005 election fuelled this viewpoint, and at prima facie this perception was understandable. But there is no alternative. With or without National, ACT is a right-wing party. Its positions are naturally right-wing, its supporters are naturally right-wing. For its own survival, ACT needs to find some way of co-exist - and coalesce - with the giant slightly to its left.

The best new story I heard from Hide (and after all my research last year, I thought I must have just about heard them all) concerned a visit he had to parliamentary restaurant Bellamy's just after he entered parliament in 1997. Seeing Labour MP (and later speaker) Jonathan Hunt puffing away on a cigarette with some other Labour MPs, Hide complained to the waitress and pointed out that it was hypocritical as it was illegal everywhere else in the country. The waitress subequently communicated this to Hunt et al. and Hide recalled getting "filthy looks" from Hunt. I don't remember exactly what the analogy was supposed to illuminate apart from "hypocrisy", but it was certainly a good story.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Election year underway for ACT

I may have spoken too soon. Since I wrote my last post, the first ACTion member e-mail newsletter for the year has appeared in my inbox, and the party seems to be well underway with election year preparations. The first item of interest is that Rodney Hide will be giving his "Forward Thinking" speech on February 6, i.e. Waitangi Day, to the Remuera Racquets Club in Epsom. This will be at least the second "Forward Thinking" speech given by Hide and seems to have become his "State of the Nation" address. It's good to see it coming much earlier (six weeks or so) than last year, as it will build on the addresses to be given by John Key and Helen Clark this week. I don't know whether we can read too much into the Waitangi Day date. It's possible that Hide is planning some sort of "nationhood" address, but unless it's got an economic focus it won't really tie in with the party's current aims. February 6 may simply be a convenient day for members to come along, as it is also to be a social event. Readers of Hide's autobiography My Year of Living Dangerously will recall the Remuera Racquets club is where Hide's get-fit programme began. He seems to have built up quite a rapport with the club, which is the sort of thing which can only be good for a local MP. I await the speech with interest.

Elsewhere in ACTion several events are listed involving ACT MP and candidate for the Wellington Central seat in 2008, Heather Roy. Tomorrow, she will be holding a Wellington regional meeting which will presumably set the framework for her candidacy in the Wellington Central seat. In the coming weeks she will also be co-leading two workshops (in Christchurch and Wellington) for "ACTivists", or intending candidates for the election, along with Vince Ashworth, who is based in the Piako electorate. In 2000 and 2001 two editions of campaigning guidebooks written by Ashworth were published by ACT, which were exhaustive "how-to" guides explaining everything a local electorate committee needs to know to run a successful campaign, right down to the laws behind raffle ticket sales. The fact that Ashworth and Roy are running seminars in both islands suggests that ACT is still keen on having a national organisation supporting the party at the election.

The question remains, however, whether there are enough dedicated followers left in the party to do everything needed for the election. Remember, 2008 will be the first election ACT has campaigned in with just 2 MPs, so volunteers will be more crucial than ever.* Yet a local ACT candidate I interviewed for my dissertation felt that local support for ACT had dwindled to a shadow of its former self by the 2005 election, with little sign of improvement since then evident. In the seats Hide and Roy will be contesting, Epsom and Wellington Central, volunteers may be easier to recruit, if the Epsom experience in 2005 is anything to go by. But in seats without a top candidate, but where ACT could be mining the party vote, enthusiasm may be a lot harder for ACT to drum up, especially if an improved poll rating (even to just 3%) is not in sight by mid-year. But you cannot fault the enthusiasm of the likes of Ashworth, who I think must epitomise the term party stalwart.

* Admittedly, ACT was technically worse off when campaigning at the 1996 election, when it had no MPs at all in parliament.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Summer theatre

Bad news. My "prediction" of just a couple of weeks back about John Key announcing a National-ACT deal in his Burnside speech has been dealt a bitter blow (to keep it in TV speak). There won't be any Burnside speech. According to a report in today's Dominion-Post, Key will in fact be giving his New Year speech at Ellerslie, with Helen Clark snapping on his heels the next day.

Now if it had been Epsom, not Ellerslie, we might have been cooking.

But while National and Labour will soon be full of oratory, ACT won't be. As far as I know, Hide is not planning any major speech until later in the year. Last year, he gave a New Year address in March, to the Newmarket Club. [Incidentally, according to a Focus on Politics programme, aired on National Radio some weeks later, the Newmarket Club closed down shortly after the speech owing to a dwindling membership].

Now, that speech, entitled "Forward Thinking" was interesting to a degree, as it revealed Hide's new "High Performance Government" and "Smart Green" policies (actually, Smart Green especially is more of a slogan than a policy, with little detail announced). But it hardly set the political agenda - in fact, I don't recall hearing any mention of it in the news media apart from the Focus on Politics programme later on. Given that I spent last year combing for any material on ACT I could lay my hands on, this probably means that there wasn't any coverage.

This sleepy start to the year which ACT now seems to enjoy stands in stark contrast to the days when Richard Prebble gave much-vaunted "State of the Nation" speeches as early as mid-January. I cited a transcript of a speech (sent to ACT members) in January 2001, at a top Auckland hotel (which I strongly suspect was packed with audience members). Each year, Prebble used to make a point of making a prediction and reminding the audience of his accuracy with the previous year's forecast. To his credit, the predictions did seem prescient to me, although I can't recall the detail of what they were.

Moreover, ACT used to spend the summer putting out press releases, often the product of the party's research unit. I recall one summer listening to the Tim Dower holiday breakfast on Newstalk ZB just after Christmas and hearing about a study put out by ACT which claimed Maori took more in benefits than they paid in tax. Of course, such a polemical study was no doubt scientifically designed to catch the attention of voters, and the talkback lines lit up like the studio Christmas tree if I remember rightly.

This summer, voters have only been able to savour press releases from the likes of National's justice spokesman Simon Power working himself up into a lather about prisons' LCD TVs. Once upon a time, ACT would have jumped to put this sort of material out. Now, it seems that ACT is still on holiday. Currently, the ACT website has but a couple of solitary press releases from Heather Roy on nothing much, plus a two-week old obligatory release from party leader Rodney Hide recording his sorrow at the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Stellar candidate on the way?

It might not be Tim Shadbolt, but it sounds like a "stellar candidate" is in the works for ACT this election. I've had a tip-off from inside the party that a prominent New Zealander has been recruited to stand for ACT at the election. I don't know who it is, but an annoucement is apparently expected soon.

This may come to nothing, of course: last year the rumour was that ACT was targeting the Rakaia electorate and had almost concluded signing up a prominent local person to stand in the seat. There was no announcement, although to be fair to ACT, the electoral boundaries were changed later in the year. The party may have deemed these changes disadvantaged the chances of ACT winning the seat so much that it was pointless to continue (e.g. by altering the demographics in each seat).

I don't know whether the candidate to be announced soon will be an electorate candidate as was planned for Rakaia, or a list candidate. ACT needs to boost its party vote, so it should be the latter. But leader Rodney Hide's favoured strategy appears to be targeting electorates and winning these on local issues. Hide of course will be defending his Epsom electorate, while Heather Roy has been put in to contest the Wellington Central electorate seat.

If there is a stellar candidate planned, I think the announcement will be sooner rather than later. Perhaps he or she will be unveiled at the 2008 conference in March. ACT will want to give the candidate a substantial lead-in to the election so s/he can generate some name recognition and more importantly, a connection with the party.

More when I hear it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why aren't academics quoted more by New Zealand political journalists?

One of the most useful sources for me when I was writing my dissertation last year was an MA thesis written during 1998 (and published in early 1999) by Nicola Reid from the University of Auckland, called ACTing on a vision: an analysis of the ideological and policy developments of ACT New Zealand. In her thesis, Reid offered a superb analysis of how ACT changed its policies from mirroring the ideas put forward by co-founder Roger Douglas in his 1993 book Unfinished Business, such as a zero income tax, to pushing a more neo-conservative agenda by the late 1990s. I've tried to track down Reid to compliment her on her work, even a decade later, but unfortunately thus far without success. Her thesis, together with a 1995 work written by Patrick Hine, which looked at the establishment of ACT as a new political party, represent the only substantive academic works written on ACT I could find to put in my literature review.

I've little doubt that Reid knew practically all there was to know about ACT at that stage of the party's development. Yet in all the dozens of news articles I read which emanated from this timeframe (when ACT was of more interest to the news media), not one journalist quoted her. Perhaps she didn't publicise her work. Whatever the case, instead I found plenty of articles by John Armstrong (who then as now penned a weekly opinion piece for the Weekend Herald) and the usual other suspects from the likes of the Dominion, Press and the Sunday Star-Times. Little has changed in a decade of New Zealand journalism. Jane Clifton (aka Mrs. McCully) still wrote her intended-to-be-but-not-always-especially-witty pieces in the Listener, having graduated from being political editor in the Sunday Star-Times. Ruth Laugesen took over the SST position at a time when politics warranted a whole page in the "Focus" section, rather than being the handmaiden to drink-driving tragedy and house price stories as it is today. Armstrong, Laugesen et al. made the usual cliched criticisms with regards to ACT: it had a bad image, smelt of old white men, had a rift between purists (Douglas) and populists (Hide) etc. etc. Tie this up with a bad pun in the headline ("Time for a new ACT"; "Final ACT?"...) and you have what qualified as an "analysis" piece.

Reading all these superficial "analyses" made me realise just how little depth local political journalism has. Its analysis rarely steps away from looking at the latest poll result. Add in a breathless live cross to Duncan Garner live at Parliament, and you have a story. The problem with this analysis is that it is incredibly myopic: journalists never fail to remind us that a "week is a long time in politics", because that is about the same timespan that they seek to interpret for us. By contrast, academics have a much longer time span, thinking in months rather than weeks, and years instead of months. They look across election cycles, not just within them. Had Armstrong et al. talked to Nicola Reid, they would have acquired some knowledge about exactly the type of shift ACT was making policy-wise. They would have discovered that it was about a drift from neo-liberalism to neo-conservatism, rather than simply purism to pragmatism. And they would have had the benefit of a full comparison table showing how ACT policies had changed over the years.

It's not just about ACT, of course: all local political journalism suffers from this deficit. Why? Because journalists don't want to be upstaged. The political editors of the country's dailies are the experts in all things political, thank you very much, and certainly don't need help from some flaky academics residing in the Ivory Towers dotted up and down the country at roughly 500km intervals. Perhaps it's part of an instinctive anti-intellectualism which Bryce Edwards has recently been discussing in his reviews of the book Speaking Truth to Power. Perhaps journalists just want to bring us the scrapping in Question Time each night and tell us who has been ejected the most number of times from the chamber. Perhaps all we "ordinary Kiwis" just want a blow-by-blow account of how Trevor hit Tau.

Maybe. Yet it's clear that newspapers could do with some expert intelligence. Had Armstrong interviewed an academic familiar with the practices of opinion polling, he might have realised the deficiencies of the TVNZ poll which mistakenly predicted Hide losing the Epsom race in 2005. In fact, TVNZ's own political staff should have done this, if not before the election, then definitely afterwards when it became apparent just how deficient its polling had been.

Interestingly, the one time television does use political academics is when they are arguably least needed: election night. Nigel Roberts has been an election night commentator for TVNZ since 1987, while Therese Arseneau was the academic in residence for TV3's coverage in 2005. Yet as election nights are all about "instapundit", rather than considered commentary, they can hardly do much better than the likes of Hosking and Holmes. The time for academics is in long-format serious news analysis television programmes and in newspapers.

But of course, New Zealand has few, if any, "serious" news programmes. Overseas, academics make substantial contributions to the American Newshour with Jim Lehrer (relayed on Freeview and Sky-carried Stratos TV), while Australia's SBS programme World News Australia has frequent interviews with academics at the Australian National University (ANU). Yet New Zealand's one hope for serious political coverage, Agenda, chooses for its panel only fellow journalists: Tracy Watkins, Fran O'Sullivan and whoever else can be persuaded to get up early on a Sunday morning. So we have journalists interviewing journalists, who do nothing but regurgitate to us what happened in the past week.

My point is this: academics should be making contributions to news programmes not because they want to show off their knowledge, but because they owe it to society. Universities are government funded. New Zealanders pay for them just as they pay for roads, schools and hospitals. If we're paying for academics, we should get some sort of dividend back in return. This should take the form of informed commentary to public affairs television and print media.

It's my wish that in this election year we hear a little less of John, Tracy, Duncan and Guyon and a bit more of Nigel Roberts, Raymond Miller, Stephen Levine and Bryce Edwards.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Tim Shadbolt - a stellar ACT candidate?

I've talked before how ACT could do with a star candidate to help it build a bigger profile, especially in the 2008 election campaign. It was the personality of Rodney Hide who really saved ACT at the 2005 election from complete annihilation. If another MP had been elected ACT leader in 2004 to replace Richard Prebble, I have doubts that the party would have been returned to Parliament (even though this would not have necessarily prevented Hide from standing in Epsom, first passing him over for leader would not have been a good look, at the very least).

In November, after hearing that ACT would be announcing a candidate for Wellington Central, I pontificated over who the candidate might be:
By the sound of the announcement it must be a stellar candidate, who knows, perhaps a former MP or city councillor? Or someone from media or sport? Whoever it is, he or she will have to be well known to Wellingtonians to have any chance of winning the seat.
Well, as we know, the candidate turned out to be Heather Roy. As I said at the time, this was hardly an earth-shattering decision. Bar a miracle, Heather Roy simply does not have the profile nor the personality to win an electorate seat for a minor party polling 1.5% or less of the party vote. The underwhelming nature of the announcement is reflected in the fact that the only mention I found on Roy's candidacy was an NZPA report on the New Zealand Herald's website a day later.

Clearly ACT could do with a real star candidate. But who? Today I opened my e-mail inbox to find that the weekly newsletter issued by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, run by former ACT MP Muriel Newman, had resumed after the summer break. In it, to my surprise, was a guest opinion piece by Tim Shadbolt, mayor of Invercargill. The guest space is normally reserved for such luminaries of the right as libertarian Lindsay Perigo and Centre for Independent Studies (a right-wing Australian headquartered think tank) man Phil Rennie.

In his piece, Shadbolt, whom until recently I had considered to be a mild-mannered (albeit parochial) successful Southlander, gets involved in national politics. Or is that National politics? Of course, it came out over the holiday break that Shadbolt is deeply incensed by the Electoral Finance Act, as it muzzles him from openly opposing the Labour-led government which plans to cut funding at the Southland Institute of Technology (SIT), the fabled income and population generator for Invercargill. Seldom has a local-body politician so vociferously railed against central government - and Shadbolt makes no secret over which party he wants New Zealanders to support at the next election:
My next move, in late January, is to publish the full story on SIT and tertiary funding and then add a ‘Vote National’ recommendation at the end. I intend deliberately breaking the Electoral Finance Act and will fight it out in court with help from Mai Chen and Christine French (Rhodes Scholar in Law from Invercargill who represents SIT).
Now, (in the words of John Campbell) ponder this: Shadbolt is writing in a newsletter run by Muriel Newman, former ACT MP. He is upset about the Electoral Finance Act, opposition to which is an even more natural position for ACT than it is to National, as ACT now stresses its allegedly liberal ideals. ACT needs a star candidate. Shadbolt has been, in his own words, "the longest serving Mayor in New Zealand that’s still in office", yet is expressing in no uncertain terms a hunger for national political involvement - on the right.

Seeing my futuristic piece last week was quite popular, here's another one:

1. A secret approach is made to Shadbolt from ACT party president Garry Mallett and leader Rodney Hide for him to stand on the ACT list in 2008, in order to head a nationwide "anti-fascism freedom campaign". N.B. the ACT constitution allows the selection of one stellar candidate.

2. Shadbolt resigns from the mayoralty, saying he wants to "take Invercargill's success to New Zealand"

3. In a high profile roadtrip in a yellow ACT bus, Shadbolt travels the country opposing the Electoral Finance Act and supporting "Kiwis' right to choose". Hide focuses on retaining the seat of Epsom and maintaining ACT's "lifeline".

4. The appeal of South Island-based Shadbolt and nightly TV coverage of his stunts propel half of Invercargill to give their party vote to ACT, while support for ACT lifts elsewhere in the country as voters look to punish Labour but not reward the slick, smiling but safe John Key.

5. ACT gets 5.5% of the party vote and is the fourth biggest party in Parliament, after National, Labour and the Greens.

6. Shadbolt is made Minister of Education in a National-ACT coalition government.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Open letters to and from Ian Wishart

Readers may like to take another look at an older post, as it has recently sparked up again with a exchange of comments regarding Investigate magazine and specifically about a response from the Auckland-based "Residents' Action Movement" to a story Wishart ran on "firebrand" Imams allegedly visiting New Zealand mosques.

It's not really ACT-related although I would definitely class Ian Wishart as being on the far right, although more of the socially-conservative, evangelical variety. I don't think he's ever been involved in ACT, but correct me if I'm wrong.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

BREAKING NEWS: A winning 2008 election strategy for ACT!

"This is 3 News, with Mike McRoberts and Hilary Barry"

"Kia ora, good evening. National leader John Key kicked off the political year today with his Burnside speech. And he had a shock in store: a coalition deal signed and sealed with Rodney Hide's ACT party, ten months before the election even takes place. For more on this story, political editor Duncan Garner joins us now live from Parliament. Duncan?"

"Yes good evening Hilary, I can tell you that Key's announcement took everyone completely by surprise, his advisers had been telling the media privately that Key would give a speech on education. Well the Burnside speech was certainly on education - a lesson in backroom political dealing.

"Refreshed from his holiday at his $2.8 million home at Omaha Beach, John Key gave his second Burnside speech to a room full of National Party supporters and media. To begin with, it was jovial:

KEY: "Well first of all I want to commiserate with you if you're a closet Labour Party donor and missed out on getting a New Year's Honour. Just let me know if so and I'll send a text to Helen up in Oslo - just hope she's not meeting the Norwegian royal family!" [laughter]

"But then, Key got serious and dropped his bombshell. National's preferred coalition partner for the 2008 election is Rodney Hide's ACT party. In fact, it's more than preferred: National has stitched up a tango deal with the party leader now famous - or is that infamous - for his antics on the dance floor:

"To most voters it will come as little surprise that National would prefer to work with its friends to its right, long supporters of tax cuts and free-market policies born out of the 1980s economic reforms. But National doesn't just want to work with ACT, it's going to actively help it to survive.

"Currently, ACT remains in Parliament thanks to leader Rodney Hide holding the Epsom seat. In 2005, Hide had to fight every inch of the way to take the Epsom seat from National's Richard Worth. This time, National's withdrawing its candidate, giving Hide all but a clear run to victory in Epsom, and guaranteeing his party's survival. In return, ACT's sole other MP, Heather Roy, will withdraw from the Wellington Central electorate race, where she's up against National candidate Stephen Franks - ironically himself a former ACT MP.

"In return for unconditional support of National, Hide will get a guarantee of deep tax cuts to be implemented immediately after the election, set down for November. And there'll be more tax cuts as economic conditions allow. But there's a gimmick: the more party votes Hide gets for ACT, the better a ministerial position Hide will get in a National Government. Key's promising him an "Anti-Red-Tape" role if he remains in Parliament, but gets less than 5%. If he gets between 5 and 10% support, Hide will be Associate Finance Minister, with one other undecided ministerial post also assigned to ACT. If ACT gets over 10%, Rodney Hide will become the country's Finance Minister, with 2 other ACT ministers in a National-led government.

"Funnily enough, Hide's gone to ground this afternoon, saying he doesn't want to spoil John Key's moment. But plenty of others have been willing to comment: Deputy PM Dr. Michael Cullen has called it a "flip-flop" by Hide, who last year had begun to woo Labour.

CULLEN: "Voters don't want to go back to the dark days of the '80s and '90s, in fact they've made it quite clear they want their tax dollars spent on providing quality health and education. They certainly don't want a resurrection of Rogernomics"

"Whether voters agree with Cullen, or are willing to give what Key's calling a "Coalition for Change" a chance, remains to be seen.

"And Hilary it'll be interesting to see whether Labour is able to credibly portray ACT as the right-wing bogeyman as it's done in the past. There's a real generation gap with Key and Hide, compared with say the National leadership of Don Brash and ACT's Richard Prebble. And any Labour talk of doom and gloom is really going to jar with those quite comical dancing shots of Rodney Hide and his new-found image as a slimmed-down weight-loss devotee

BARRY: "ACT's been polling at only 1 or 2 per cent for a long time now, what sort of effect is Key's announcement going to have on the party's support?

GARNER: "Well the key point here is that the deal makes ACT look like a serious player. Hide's going to be a minister of some description, the question is only what. So voters will be more willing to cast their votes for ACT if they know they'll be put to good use. And by not having to wage expensive electorate campaigns in Epsom and Wellington Central, ACT will be able to conserve valuable resources for a nationwide push for the party vote.

"The only question is whether the tactic could backfire for Key, if the deal cuts too much into National's own support-base. But the parties are both on the same side, they're fighting for the same team. Hilary?

BARRY: "Duncan thank you, Duncan Garner, live from Parliament.

"And straight after 3 News, at 7, John Campbell will have exclusive interviews with both John Key and Rodney Hide to explain the National-ACT deal in full

That's tonight on Campbell Live, here on 3."

Friday, January 4, 2008

US election 2008: Mike Huckabee and social conservatism - contrasts with ACT

It's timely to remember that there will probably be two elections interesting New Zealanders this November. Although the election date here has yet to be announced and could be earlier, it seems likely that PM Helen Clark will want to go a full term before calling an election, which if so would come in late November. But one election already has a certain date: on November 4, 2008, US citizens will go to the polls to elect a new president for the first time in eight years.

This week, the focus in the US has been on the Iowa caucuses, which constitutes the first of a string of primaries which will take place over the next couple of months. I've been watching the coverage this afternoon and with 86% of the votes countered so far, on the Republican side it's been Mike Huckabee who has won his party's primary, winning 34% of the vote - a clear margin over second-polling candidate Mitt Romney, who received 25%. The Iowa vote isn't a decisive indicator as to who will be living in the White House from January 20, 2009 (inauguration day), but it's a pretty good head start. And as ACT knows (because it hasn't had any for a long time), momentum does wonders for enthusiasm.

Interestingly, Huckabee's appeal over more highly favoured contenders such as Romney and Rudy Giuliani (although to be fair, the latter did not contest the Iowa caucuses) has been attributed to his "non-politician" image and his empathy with ordinary people. To me, this reminds me of the portrayal of former National leader Don Brash, although he was equally criticised for being "out of touch" on topics such as the "nuclear issue".

To put it mildly, Huckabee comes from the socially conservative side of the "GOP" (as the Republicans are also known). As a commentator on television pointed out this afternoon, Huckabee harnessed the evangelical vote, no small component of a rural and white (just 2% black) US state such as Iowa. Combined with this, of course, Huckabee is "pro-life" (a euphemism for being anti-abortion). And if one believes a 1998 quote which was included on last Sunday's edition of Meet the Press, he's also homophobic:
It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations—from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia [referenced here]
I watched somewhat in disbelief as Huckabee proceeded to explain in what way homosexuality was an "aberration". Of course, one shouldn't be surprised - in the United States social conservatism is almost the sine qua non for Republican presidential nominees now. But frankly, Huckabee makes the current president's socially conservative views seem mild.

In New Zealand, abortion has not featured as an electoral issue for decades and even then, it was only of limited interest. But in my dissertation (p. 18), I discussed how ACT morphed from a purely right-wing economic party to a right-wing, socially conservative grouping:

  • ...[W]hile moderation is evident in the economic sphere, non-economic areas display non-centrist shifts. Justice policies provide a prime example of this. In 1996, although promoting “effective enforcement of the law”, ACT also wanted to rehabilitate offenders and assist them with “community mentors”. But from 1999, the party began to advocate a stricter stance and promised to reduce the availability of parole. In 2002, and 2005, the justice policy became even tougher. Parole was now to be completely abolished under a “Truth in Sentencing” plan and ACT promised stiff penalties for minor offences, such as “graffiti, vandalism, and shoplifting”....

  • [P]olicy on Maori also became much more conservative as time wore on. In 1996, the party had centred on granting Maori independence, including the operation of parallel schools. As with crime, a “mentor” system of assistance would operate for those who required it. But from 1999, ACT ceased to promote these assistance-based ideas, instead emphasising time-limits for the “fair, full and final settlement” of Treaty of Waitangi claims, the abolishment of privileges for Maori and the removal of the reserved Maori seats...

  • In social welfare, ACT proceeded in a similar fashion, moving from promoting a mentoring system in 1996 to advocating time-limits for benefits and work-for-the-dole schemes in 2002 and 2005...

  • In defence, ACT moved from being lukewarm to “bilateral or multilateral arrangements that are inconsistent with the domestic policies in place in New Zealand” in 1996, to advocating a high level of spending on the military and the reinstatement of the ANZUS military alliance with the United States in 2002 and 2005.

While these were clearly socially-conservative shifts, this analysis should be tempered when one looks at someone like Huckabee. ACT never campaigned against issues like abortion: indeed, if it had, it would have alienated most voters. Yet this is a bread-and-butter issue for conservative US politicians. Conversely, tough stances on crime and social welfare are just as likely to be promoted by Democrats in the United States, as former ACT MP Stephen Franks pointed out in a response to my dissertation, published on this blog in November. And as for strong defence policies, well, Democrats might be keen to "get out of Iraq", but they are still big spenders on the military and I don't think they're going to remove the combat wing of the US air force any time soon. By US standards, then, ACT was merely "socially-conservative lite".

As part of my research, I asked focus group participants what sort of party they thought ACT was - the answers were usually "right-wing" or almost as commonly, "far right". Yet when one considers the US comparison, it is wise to bring some perspective. ACT might be far-right for New Zealand, but if the party were transported to the US, Rodney Hide could well be a Democrat.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

ACT's Christmas mailout - part 2

In a pre-Christmas posting, I looked at what ACT president Garry Mallett had to say to members in a December 2007 letter. Today I examine what leader Rodney Hide had to say for himself. Hide's letter is an important document, as it is the closest guide we currently have as to how ACT is planning to campaign in this year's election.

First, Hide talks about a "Taxpayer Rights Campaign". According to Hide, this "campaign will demonstrate what makes ACT fundamentally different...[the] party will advocate for a constitutional limit on the size of the tax take and tax cuts". I'm not too sure how effective this campaign will be, although it's interesting to see that Hide believes ACT needs to make itself seen as "fundamentally different". In the last chapter of my dissertation, I said that ACT needed to carve out is own niche, but the niche has to be something which inspires voters. I don't think a Taxpayer Rights campaign is going to garner votes. For one thing, it's too complicated and vague, despite the claim made in the brochure (this was included with the mailout but I also obtained a copy of it earlier last year):
ACT would start by capping taxation at the per person level it is today. It's easy, add up how much tax the Government takes today, divided it by the number of people in the country and that's it...[i]f politicians wanted to increase tax, they would have to either cut ineffective spending in other areas, or ask Kiwi taxpayers for consent
The Taxpayer Rights Bill is just too airy-fairy and I think Hide knows that. He explained to me that the chief reason why he doesn't just go for, say, a flat tax of 20% instead, is that he wants to keep potential coalition options open - specifically allowing a ACT-Labour coalition:

...when I wrote the book [Hide's autobiography My Year of Living Dangerously], a flat tax was my preferred policy for 2008 and I liked the resonance of 20-10 by 2010. Since finishing that publisher's draft, I got my Regulatory Responsibility Bill through Parliament, first stage, and I thought wow, I might be able to go for a bigger prize, because I think the Taxpayer Rights Bill is a bigger prize and would have a bigger impact. And I also think that the flat tax would speak to our core constituency, but may turn off our potential constituency, because they don't get it. So that was my thinking and then there's a third point that occurred to me was: very, very hard for Helen Clark to consider a flat tax of 20 cents given her statements and her position. Not so hard for her to consider a Taxpayer Rights Bill. So it would give me a greater leverage on both the major parties to have something that both wouldn't rule out, whereas I might be in the election campaign, and then she just rules out 20 cents

At the time, I could see Hide's reasoning. But I am now thinking that it is far more detrimental for ACT to try and position itself as a centre-party which can go with Labour or National at the next election. Almost two years of portraying ACT as a "nice-guy" party by Hide has not gained the party more support; in fact, it has cost it voters. At the 2005 election, ACT polled 1.5% of the party vote, which seemed disastrous enough. This year, the party has been frequently gaining just 0.5% or so of the party vote in opinion polls. Let's put it another way - out of 1000 people polled, that means just five people say they would vote ACT - this compares with up to 80-100 voters at the best times during ACT's modest "golden years" between 1999 and 2004 (even on a bad day ACT would get 4% support - voters that it would do anything to come by now).

No matter how hard Hide tries, voters of the Left will not vote for ACT. The answer - admit to being a right-wing party and promote simple tax cut figures, maybe even a flat tax, while advocating co-operation with National only. This would bring back core supporters. There's nothing nasty about stating a preferred coalition partner.

In the remainder of his letter, Hide has three more bold headings. The first is "Fighting Fascism", under which he notes that ACT opposed the Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill on the basis that it "threatens civil liberties" because the Prime Minister is empowered to decide which terrorist groups should be designated as such. Again, Hide points out that ACT's voting against this bill distinguishes it from Labour and National. This is true, but how much value do voters place on "civil liberties" when casting their ballot? Freedom might well be undervalued in New Zealand, but there is little ACT can do to change this. Again, this comes down to the size of the niche ACT is trying to attract. There might be a constituency for freedom supporters, but it is without doubt a much smaller one than the "tough on crime" fans who would prefer a crackdown on alleged terrorists (e.g. Tame Iti). This stance is much simpler to convey too - freedom can easily be confused with being "soft".

The third heading is on the Regulatory Responsibility Bill. There's nothing much of substance here, apart from a wish from Hide to see the bill passed before the election. This would give ACT a real achievement to communicate to voters, but thus far the RRB has failed to capture the imagination of voters.

The final heading is labelled simply "Election Year" and the paragraph is worth quoting:
...We move into election year strategically focused on doing some core ACT economic and freedom issues very well rather than trying to 'scratch' every political itch! We are very clear about what we stand for and will concentrate on high performance, accountable and transparent Government, smart green policies and taxpayer
Targeting a few issues is a good idea for a party with depleted resources. The question is, does ACT have the right issues?

It's been done, Chester!

National MP (and lest I forget the compulsory prefix, "former police detective") Chester Borrows provided some fodder for a silly season edition of the Dominion-Post last Saturday, with a report on how he lost weight thanks to a stomach-stapling operation, enticingly headlined:

How MP took a massive weight off his shoulders

'One day, I had four teaspoons of yoghurt. The next day I had five teaspoons. It was too much.'

Here is why you are reading about this on this blog: keen ACT followers will recall that disgraced former MP Donna Awatere-Huata also underwent a stomach-stapling operation. This fact did not escape journalist Rebecca Palmer either, who usefully reminds readers of Donna's weight-loss by fraud part-way through the article.

But Palmer neglects to write that another ACT MP, Rodney Hide, lost weight the hard way - by a wholesale lifestyle change and rigorous exercise regime. In fact, I much prefer Rodney's tales over Chester's. This is the experience of Chester losing weight, as printed in the article:

He has vivid recollections of some undercooked rice he ate at a function in Wanganui. On the drive back to Wellington, it slowly swelled up in his stomach. "It got really painful. I ended up throwing that up on the side of the road."

Then there was the unripe nectarine. "It sort of got stuck. When food gets stuck, you have to put your fingers down your throat to clear it. I've had to do that on two or three occasions.

What a trap unripe nectarines can be for the unwary! By contrast, here is Rodney's story, from My Year of Living Dangerously (2007, p. 195):
The to eat 2400 calories a day including 200 grams of protein. A 200 gram lean steak is only 60 grams of protein so I drink protein shakes to supplement my intake and also eat a lot of egg whites, which are a great protein source. I throw away the yolks because they are too fatty and rich in cholesterol, but a six egg omelette using only the whites is a big help with he numbers.
Now, if Chester were on the Rodney Craig programme, instead of taking the surgical easy option, perhaps he would recommend putting "your fingers down your throat" to recover the egg yolks?

Mercifully, since the closure (sorry, "merger") of the Evening Post in 2002, Fairfax's Wellington staff have only one paper a day to fill with such riveting material over the holiday period.