Saturday, March 22, 2008

Attacks on ACT from left and right - an Easter bonus for the party?

ACT can be well satisfied with itself this Easter, having caused not one but two attacks on it before the break. To me it sounds like a return to the old days, when ACT caused loathing from both the left and the so-called centre right. During the 1999 election campaign, Bill English called ACT's policies "unrealistic". On Thursday he was forced to do much the same, while John Key was scrambling to find a coherent answer to the idea of Douglas becoming a Cabinet minister.

The kerfuffle started when Douglas outlined policies he wants to implement should he get the chance to once again become a Cabinet minister. On its own, I'm amazed at the speed with which Rodney Hide has set aside the "new strategy" of being a "nice guy", in favour of bringing out the policies that had been stuck in the bottom drawer, not just since 2005 but since 1996. Privatisation of hospitals, education vouchers, radically reduced tax rates... While these are Douglas's ideas rather than official ACT policy, they are certainly a higher gear than the Regulatory Responsibility Bill or Taxpayer Rights Bill which has been Hide's political dance-step since the 2005 election

What Douglas said actually matters very little. It was much the same as what he advocated at the conference, indeed, it was much the same as he's always advocated. The boon for ACT was the attack subsequently levelled at the party by National leader John Key:
...I'll be buggered if I am going to go out there and a policy agenda which is moderate, considered and pragmatic and then turn around and try and sell New Zealanders down the river. I am not doing that... I understand why they are doing it but let's get real. They are polling 0.7 per cent. There is no room for any equivocation. We are running a moderate, pragmatic sensible centre-right Government.
Labour Minister of Finance Michael Cullen also took a swipe at Douglas:
Just when everybody thought it might be safe to vote National out of the box, like something out of an old horror film, comes Roger Douglas.
Why is this a net gain for ACT? The answer lies in a 2005 study by Bonnie Meguid which I used in my research for my dissertation.* Meguid looked at mainstream-niche party competition and in a nutshell proved (by trawling through decades of examples in Western European party politics) that if a big party attacks a niche party, it will only increase voter support for the latter. This is because by addressing Douglas's statements, National and Labour are giving them credibility, because they are worthy of comment. [For those readers who have access to online databases via academic or Parliamentary libraries, I can strongly recommend scanning Meguid's article - cut and paste the reference below into Google Scholar]

If Key and Cullen had ignored ACT on Thursday, the story would have garnered little publicity and the voters who did notice would think it was just Douglas peddling the same old ideas. As it stands, we saw a nice piece from Duncan Garner on Thursday's 3 News bulletin showing National at sixes and sevens, as well as a battery of articles on the New Zealand Herald website and print edition. The Herald even started up a talkback-in-print "Your Views" section on Douglas - a section which runs to 18 online pages of Douglas's raving fans and ardent haters, in roughly equal measure.

The adage "any publicity is good publicity" is not necessarily true, but there is no question that ACT has in the last week been put closer to the forefront of voters' minds. Even if only a few thousand agree with Douglas, this will be a win for ACT. The key point is that ACT is beginning to build momentum - coverage of the conference is followed by coverage of Douglas's press conference is followed by the ACT on Campus party pills stunt. This stunt too was a great achievement for ACT, because it connects with younger voters in a way that Douglas's musings never can (after all, you have to be aged at least 30 to remember Douglas's role in the 1980s). Moreover, the attack by Jim Anderton on ACT's youth wing giving away pills gave the story news credibility. I suspect many people who saw the story would have laughed at the audacity of the stunt, rather than tut-tutting as Anderton inevitably had to do.

Of course, John Armstrong thinks differently. In his column in today's Weekend Herald he said:
...it was sloppy tactical thinking on Act's [sic] part. If parading Sir Roger was supposed to help Act by pushing its brand, it was never going to help National. And Act needs to help National so there is a centre-right Government that Act can be part of.
I disagree. It's certainly true that ACT will want to end up working with National and needs to hold back from completely ridiculing its "friend". Going too far on the attack was one problem I identified in my dissertation. But niche parties have to stand out from the crowd. New Zealand First never holds back from attacking Labour during an election campaign and its leader is now New Zealand's Foreign Minister. No politician gets anywhere from blending into the debating chamber, as Hide is now starting to realise. And remember, in 1999, a core ACT tactic was to attack National - and it was the only time the parliamentary party has ever increased its number of seats (from 8 to 9).

And Armstrong should note that he has now devoted two consecutive Saturday columns to ACT. Not bad for a party polling 0.9%.

*Meguid, B. (2005) “Competition Between Unequals: The Role of Mainstream Party Strategy in Niche Party Success”, American Political Science Review, vol. 99, no. 3, pp. 347-359

Analysing ACT from afar

I'm now working in Europe and therefore will be analysing ACT from something of a distance for the remainder of election year. However, since I was previously based in Dunedin, much of the time I was commenting on events from a computer screen in any case, although I always enjoyed the chance to do some field research such as at the conference.

My new position does mean that updates may become more irregular, although I will try to write a post about once a week. At this point the blog may also expand a little in terms of scope to take in a comparative aspect with the German Free Democrats (FDP), which ACT believes is a like-minded party. In the coming weeks I will look at an interview with FDP chief Guido Westerwelle in the excellent German newsmagazine Der Spiegel (the link goes to the English section of the magazine's site, which focuses on international events), in which many of the same problems currently facing ACT (especially coalition partners) crop up. The FDP has been traditionally far more successful than ACT - it's the 9%, not 0.9% party - and it was also the original topic for my dissertation before I realised the paucity of material on ACT meant that I should just focus on the New Zealand party.

However, with the return of party co-founder Sir Roger Douglas to ACT, the party itself has just got a lot more interesting and may be more than enough for me to cover in the time I have available!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Conference 2008: Unfinished Business 2.0

It seems fitting (was it deliberate?) that Douglas used the theme of the 1984 cult film Ghostbusters for his soundbite moment in his PowerPoint presentation to delegates yesterday afternoon. 1984, of course, was the year the Fourth Labour Government began its programme of neo-liberal economic reform. Yesterday, "Growthbusters" was what Douglas termed the current government led by the Labour Party since 1999. But not actual economic growth - this would be difficult to justify, given that New Zealand has enjoyed uninterrupted growth since the brief 1998 recession. Instead, he used the decline in productivity by half since 2000 as evidence that New Zealand was heading down the wrong path. Poor productivity is a serious issue for New Zealand and is a valid concern. However, the causes of low TFP are unclear: even the Treasury is unsure of its origin, according to a report in today's Sunday Star-Times which quoted an official as saying "[w]e do scratch our heads over that one". The contemporaneous rise in employment and absorption of less productive workers has been suggested as one reason for this decline.

But what did he say beyond the soundbite piece, meant to be picked up by the news media? In keeping with the Zeitgeist and in line with statements frequently made by John Key, Douglas emphasised the gap in income and living standards with Australia. It wouldn't be Douglas, however, if it were straightforward - a 10-20 year vision is required, of course. Douglas believes that New Zealand should aim to beat Australia in various economic standards (except the most important statistic, of per capita income) by 2020.

That was the new bit. But otherwise, it was pretty much Unfinished Business (1993) reformulated. Recalling his work in abolishing monopolies in the 1980s, such as in telecommunications, Douglas said that the priority has to be on dismantling what he called the four last monopolies - health, education, social welfare and superannuation. Prefacing his pontifications with a disclaimer that it was not ACT policy and was just an idea, he suggested that New Zealanders should earn $30,000 tax free, but buy their their own health and unemployment insurance, putting the balance towards superannuation. This was pure Unfinished Business. But as we have to come to expect from Douglas, it is an FPP idea and not suited to the realities of a party polling at 1%. Yet despite putting out yet another revised target for ACT - this time 6% of the party vote - a long way off predictions of 30-50% he made at ACT's inception - Douglas cannot bring himself to dispense with the "big picture".

At the end of the speech, Douglas requested that "all of us support Rodney...[and] give him our full support". When Hide sets aside Douglas's PowerPoint, 2008 edition of Unfinished Business in favour of more manageable goals, this is exactly what Douglas will have to do.

Expect limited blogging over the coming weeks as I am in the process of moving abroad.

Conference 2008: Douglas number three on the list?

The main news to come out of the conference was that Sir Roger Douglas is to stand in a constituency seat, probably south of Auckland. The Herald on Sunday suggests Hunua, which is the renamed Port Waikato electorate with slightly altered boundaries. However, I think it possible that ACT will put Douglas in the entirely new south Auckland electorate of Botany - which is without an incumbent MP. But remember, this is an MMP parliament. Constituencies might be important, especially as the "lifeline" for a small party, but it's the party list which matters. Indeed, even if Douglas goes into the Botany electorate, I am doubtful that he would win.

History shows us that only "good local MPs", such as Peter Dunne, Jim Anderton and possibly now Rodney Hide can win and hold electorate seats. Winston Peters and Richard Prebble both lost their electorates, arguably because they polarised their constitutents. Douglas would also fall into this category, to put it mildly. Bearing this in mind, however, it is interesting Hide told delegates that he wanted to bring "Roger back to Parliament" by the end of this year. The tone in which Hide said this suggested to me that Douglas won't just be a "figurehead", as I had previously suspected. If it is seriously intended for Douglas to come back to Parliament, he must be going to be given the number three list placing, traditionally reserved for a "stellar" candidate.

Conference 2008: Fairfax missing in ACTion

I bought the Sunday Star-Times today in the hope of finding an article, even a small one on the conference. The front page was filled with yet another house price "investigation", but I thought ACT might make page 3 or 5. In fact, it made page 2, but with only a tiny six-line report which seeemed a total non sequitur. "The Act party must aim for 8% of the party vote during this year's election, list MP Heather Roy told delegates at the party conference". Hello?! At a conference where Douglas announces he is standing in an electorate seat, this is the news hook?

ACT isn't the biggest party in parliament, but with Douglas's return I would have thought it warranted the SST sending at least a reporter along. What does SST political editor Ruth Laugesen actually do? In the paper today all I could find from her were a couple of articles on the Hawkes Bay District Health Board. Of course, this is important, but at the same time they couldn't have taken more than one or two days to put together.

When I was researching my dissertation, articles from the Sunday Star-Times of a decade or so ago were some of the most useful sources of material. But unless ACT renames itself the House Price Party, it's not going to get covered by New Zealand's only national "broadsheet".

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Conference 2008: a tale of two Aucklands

I didn't stay for lunch at the conference, as it would have cost me another $27 (on top of the $30 registration fee), so at 12.45pm I left the conference room and strolled down Waipuna Road to the Mt. Wellington Shopping Centre.

It was hard for me not to notice the contrasts. At the Waipuna Lodge: an airconditioned conference room mostly full of men aged over 50 (and a good deal aged 70+), plus a few Asian supporters and a sprinkling of ACT on Campus members. At Mt. Wellington Shopping Centre: Saturday shoppers, of whom I was probably the only one of European descent, milling around in the heat purchasing taro from the local greengrocer. At the Waipuna Lodge: ACT supporters tucked into their canapes and crudites. Outside DG's Bakery (and lunch bar), where I purchased a modest lunch (total cost $3.70), two Polynesian boys discussed how much they had to spend on food ("ten bucks" - "that's good, eh?"). And after leaving the conference centre, I couldn't help but notice that there were just two non-white faces, of about 15 or so people on the bus at the time.

Let me make this clear: I don't make these observations out of any sort of racial prejudice. In fact, to the contrary. As we have heard many times before, Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world. And after all, on the very day the ACT conference was taking place, across in Manukau the "Polyfest" cultural festival was being held. The ethnic makeup I observed in the shopping precinct and on the bus is reflective of Auckland, not an exception to it.

In fact, it's the audience at the conference centre which is out of place. I didn't see a single Maori or Polynesian face at the conference. A few Asian supporters of former Chinese ACT MP Kenneth Wang sat near me, but even they were thin on the ground. If any proof was needed that ACT is a party of white men, a glance at the conference room today would suffice. Are they rich white men? ACT would beg to differ - indeed today again we were told that "ACT isn't the party of the rich like the media portray us". Yet there can be no doubt that many of the attendees were high net-worth individuals - people such as property developer Dave Henderson and Business Roundtable head Roger Kerr. During the day it was announced that a raffle on Friday evening - on the fringe of the main conference day and surely with a much lower attendance - raised $1900. You don't raise that sort of money by selling tickets at $1 each (or if you do, each person needs to buy a lot of tickets!).

ACT might say that this is fine. The party doesn't have to appeal to everybody. And that is true, to a point. Even if 94% of voters hated ACT, 6% could still vote for the party, and Sir Roger Douglas's 2008 goal (as stated at the conference today) would be met. As an analogy, Ferrari does well out of selling to luxury consumers. I don't know how many people worldwide own a Ferrari, but I suspect it would be at most 1% - and probably much less. But Ferrari is a successful company, because its customers pay a lot for their cars. The profit margin is far greater than for, say, a Honda Civic (or whatever). Ferrari is a niche product.

But this luxury car analogy has a flaw when applied to politics. A consumer might pay $1 million for a Ferrari, but only $10,000 for a Honda Civic. That is to say, a Ferrari purchaser is worth 100 Honda Civic buyers. Yet unless we're talking about pre-1893 days, in New Zealand no voter is worth more than any other. Politics is the great leveller - the problem for ACT is that there are far, far fewer wealthy voters open to its goals than it needs.

Let's say 1% of voters are the über-wealthy. Even if ACT gets 90% of these people to vote for it - this represents just 0.9% of the total voting population (assume the other 10% vote National or are Owen Glenn types). Now broaden it out a bit and use the 15% figure of voters Douglas quoted today as paying the top marginal tax rate of 39%. Nine-tenths of the 15% can't be voting for ACT, otherwise the party would be polling at around 10% - or higher. These voters might grumble at being overtaxed, but these days they might well be tradesmen who have done well out of the building boom, or simply people who have seen bracket creep move them into the top tax-paying category. They don't see themselves as rich - indeed, if they are the sole breadwinners for their families, they probably aren't all that rich either. Even if a third of these people voted for ACT, the party would still only get to 5% of the party vote (remember, the 1% should be included in the 15% of top taxpayers, unless they are practising shrewd tax avoidance). Most of this group probably are National voters - or even traditional Labour supporters, the fabled "chardonnay socialists".

ACT's dilemma, is that it is only attracting a small slice of a very wealthy, but small pie. The pie might be filled with the most prime cuts of steak available, 100% beef, the best money can buy - but it's still small. Now let's imagine that it could attract some working class voters - perhaps people like I saw outside the greengrocer or the bakery. Don't assume this is a laughable objective for ACT: from 1999-2004 I believe a sizeable number of blue collar, but socially conservative supporters of messages such as "Zero Tolerance for Crime" supplemented the relatively small number of free marketeers.* Why? As I said in my dissertation, ACT's vote dropped away immediately after Don Brash's first "Orewa speech" on race, never to return.

What if ACT could win back some of these voters? Assume 40-50% of New Zealanders are in the lower-middle class. This includes beneficiaries, shiftworkers, factory workers - voters without tertiary qualifications. This is a much larger pie than the wealthy can muster. It's probably a $0.99, Pak 'n Save mince pie, packed with fillers and preservatives. But under a democracy, what is in the pie is irrelevant. As the Mitre 10 Mega man says - "Big Is Good". Working class votes are worth just as much as those of the predominantly well-off white men I saw at Waipuna on Saturday. If ACT can win just 10% of this number, it would have Douglas's 6% goal, once you add in ACT's core support which has hovered at 1% ever since the party's inception.

Trying to access some of this mass block of voters is one reason why Rodney Hide embarked on his personal "transformation", although I accept it was also a personal ambition of his. Appearing on Dancing with the Stars, he was trying to be "one of them" - the clown who isn't afraid to have a go. The possible alienation of these voters is why bringing back Douglas is such a risk. ACT's niche of wealthy supporters has been surprisingly loyal to the party. ACT polled around 1% in 1995; today it usually polls just under. Perhaps Douglas can bring back the 0.1% of the wealthy niche who had drifted to National as their "hero" himself drifted away from ACT, and solidify support at 1%. But Douglas does not have cross-over appeal to voters in the much larger working-class "pie" - of which ACT needs but a small slice.

* Admittedly, this is imprecise - in crime-affected Auckland the Zero Tolerance for Crime policy might be colour-blind, but I suspect the catch-cry of "One Law for All" and Treaty time-limits tended to attract more rural, white voters. But as ACT no longer wishes to be seen as an anti-Maori grouping and is indeed actively working with the Maori Party, there is no reason why the party cannot successfully appeal to non-white, working-class voters.

Conference 2008: initial impressions

Welcome to Douglas to Dancing's extended Conference 2008 coverage. I aim to provide a series of posts over the remainder of the weekend examining the outcomes of the election year conference, held at the Waipuna Lodge in Auckland.

I arrived at ACT's 2008 Annual Conference shortly after 8am to find that my name-badge was endorsed "media". I was a bit put out by this, after all, I had (truthfully) ticked the box member/supporter on the registration form and dutifully paid up my $30. But it seems that being a member for "research purposes", as was printed at the bottom of my Herald article, amounts to the same as not being a member. This meant I was excluded from the breakout workshops on branding and campaigning, which I would have loved to have attended. If anyone who attended either of these sessions wishes to provide details of the content, I will of course guarantee anonymity. My e-mail address is at left.

Attendance was modest to begin with but steadily built during the morning. Held in a banquet room, probably only around 80-90 were there to hear party president Garry Mallett open the conference at 9am. This figure built throughout the morning, however, and by the time Sir Roger Douglas gave his speech shortly after midday, I estimated closer to 200 people were there. NZPA estimated the attendance at about 150. It's clear, however, that some of the delegates only wanted to hear Douglas - after lunch the crowd had thinned out by around 10-20%, even though Rodney Hide was giving his leader's address. Attendance dropped throughout the afternoon but was still over 100 by my estimates.

Other than myself (!), several media representatives were in attendance. All three TV networks (TVNZ, TV3 and Prime/Sky) had sent their junior reporters (Jessica Mutch for TVNZ, Sea Ashton for TV3 and Caitlin McGee for Prime) - the event clearly not warranting the weekend attendance of stations' political editors. Newstalk ZB also sent a correspondent, as did NZPA. Like some of the delegates, though, it became obvious that the media were only interested in Douglas - only TVNZ seemed to stay after lunch for Hide's address and even its crew appeared to pack up mid-way through the speech. There can be no doubt that Douglas's appearance was responsible for both the reasonable attendance by delegates and significant media coverage for a party polling just 1% of the party vote.

As I spend much of my research time combing through electronic databases and other online sources, it's always good to get amongst practitioners at a conference like this. This was the second ACT conference I have attended and was quite a contrast in size from the small event the party held in Christchurch this time last year, when it merged the annual meeting with its Southern Regional Conference. It was also good to be able to chat both to the party figures who assisted me with my dissertation and discuss ACT with supporters I had not previously met in person.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Conference 2008: Still more coverage on Douglas

I've just caught up with another couple of recent stories on ACT. Former ACT MP Deborah Coddington used her column in this week's Herald on Sunday to discuss Douglas's return to ACT. There's too much worth reading in there for me to extract bits here, so do take a look. Also this week, the Dominion-Post carried a report by its political editor Tracy Watkins on the Douglas-Hide reconciliation and whether Douglas would stand for the party. NZPA also summarised and expanded on this report later. So we still don't know whether Douglas will be on the list, but it sounds like it will be just a symbolic placing. But could he also symbolically contest an electorate seat - perhaps in the new Auckland constituency of Botany?

While there's not a lot new in the second two articles (and the first is an opinion piece), please note that my own opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald was written before any of these reports appeared and therefore could not take into account any new information presented in the above stories.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Conference 2008: ACT gets high-tech

The front page of the ACT website has recently been updated for the conference this weekend, with two videos on display. Both are slickly produced (mostly) and are welcome additions to the site - let's hope we see plenty more multimedia during the year. The right-hand video is an invitation from Hide to attend the conference, short but to the point.

On the left, the first video features a conversation between Sir Roger Douglas and Rodney Hide about why he's coming back to the party. Douglas believes that ACT can get 6-8% of the party vote this election. Obviously we've come a way from the days when he thought ACT could get 30-50%!

I think the video speaks for itself, but one thing I did notice was that Douglas talks about ACT going into coalition with National led by John Key as a fait accompli, instead of being open to working with Labour, as Hide has been stressing since the 2005 election. He says that ACT could get two or three Cabinet ministers in a National government. It's hardly surprising that Douglas is expressing this view - but what did interest me was that Hide didn't seek to clarify this at any stage.

Does this means he agrees - or just doesn't want to disagree?!

Conference 2008: The end of "The Liberal Party"?

Conference information posted to members in February featured what appears to be a new, slimline ACT logo. While it is true that little has actually changed, but what has gone is the bottom strip featuring the appendage "The Liberal Party". This moniker was introduced by ACT party president Catherine Judd in 2003 as part of the "Liberal Project", the aim of which was to rebrand ACT and tackle the party's ongoing image problem. However, this was an alteration of the logo only and not a full name change, which would have required the approval of members.

In ACT's first two logos, which the party used from its founding in 1994 until Judd's changes, the logo included the words "New Zealand", thus representing the party's name, as registered with the Electoral Commission to this day. The omission of any tagline means that ACT probably has the least cluttered logo of any New Zealand parliamentary party (just three letters!).

Judd once said that the Liberal Project "never ends". But the omission of the tagline may be heralding the end of the use of the confusing word "liberal" in ACT publicity. However, the logo used on the party website has yet to be altered.

Kenneth Wang - a dream candidate?

The results of the Douglas to Dancing online poll are in. Of course, I don't claim that the poll results are in any way scientific. The fact is that 13 people responded. While this is by no means a high number, this is a niche blog! So let's look at the results as an indication of the people most interested in ACT - they might not be ACT voters (although I'm sure many will have been), but they're keen enough to vote in an online poll.

It seems that Kenneth Wang is the preferred dream candidate of respondents. Wang is probably the (former) ACT MP about which I know the least. He entered parliament in 2004 to replace Donna Awatere-Huata, whom ACT had expelled - first from caucus and later, after a year of wrangling between Awatere-Huata and the party, from parliament. Wang was thus an MP for about two-thirds of a year, until the 17 September 2005 general election. The only thing I recall I hearing about Wang at the time he was an MP was that journalists found his accent difficult to understand. But by ACT's accounts, he was a diligent MP and was dedicated to serving the Chinese and Asian communities in Auckland. This was not a bad idea at all. As I have previously noted, New Zealand has extremely generous voting laws (which enfranchise permanent residents). And as Winston Peters never ceases to remind us at election time, New Zealand has a sizeable and growing Asian population, especially in Auckland. Add in the fact the entrepreneurial qualities of Asian New Zealanders (apologies for any perceived generalisation) and ACT's traditional message of free enterprise and personal responsibility could have struck a chord with Asian voters.

Wang proved particularly adept at using Chinese and Korean advertising to attempt to attract voters, although native-language advertising is still a novelty in New Zealand elections. Wang also operated an attractive-looking website (unfortunately I can't comment on the content as I don't read Chinese or Korean), which despite not being updated in three years still compares favourably with ACT's official online offering. After some digging around I found the latest mention of Wang in the news media referred to him as honorary president of the New Zealand-Beijing Fellowship Society. The next latest mention of him was back in November 2005, when he was cleared of sexual harassment allegations. As I recall, Wang has already been confirmed as an ACT candidate for 2008 and during 2007 ACT's member-only e-mail newsletters referred to him as heading the party's "Asian Chapter".

But let's get back to the topic - is Wang really a dream candidate? I did raise my eyebrows when I saw his name leading (with 9 votes). Just behind him were Ruth Richardson, Catherine Judd and Don Brash (all on 8 votes). Wouldn't any of those be a better fit for ACT? All three are experienced: Richardson, of course, presented the "mother of all budgets" and still pops up in New Zealand's political discourse, such as when Helen Clark mentioning her in a speech she gave in February. Judd served as ACT party president from 2001-2006, in which time she attempted to give ACT's image a makeover - an earlier version of the makeover Hide has been trying to give the party in more recent years. Finally, Don Brash, as we all know, brought an ACT-aligned view to his leadership of the National Party from 2003-2006.

First, let's look as what's feasible. Would Richardson, Judd or Brash want to stand as a candidate for ACT. Ruth Richardson has been out of politics for a long time -but just in the last couple of years I think she's become more vocal. In August 2007, she rapped the government on the knuckles when she told The Press that it should be more tightly controlling fiscal spending: "Even the Reserve Bank, which has to be very circumspect, is now being quite explicit. You can't run credible monetary policy if your fiscal policy is at odds". The same August 9 article told readers that Richardson had been working in the consultant in the US. Earlier, in June 2007, the Sunday-Star Times profiled Richardson in its "Steve Braunias interview". From the article:
She now runs Ruth Richardson NZ, hiring herself out as an governmental and corporate consultant: "I'm an example of a politician privatised." Business is good. Recently, she was in San Francisco; this month, Brazil; after that, Paris. She also has clients in Jordan, El Salvador, Macedonia, Pakistan, Mauritius, the Caymans... the list goes on. And she also has directorships in firms including British Telecom, Marlborough's Oyster Bay vineyard, and Jade Software in Christchurch: "Our latest contract is to build the port IT system in Gdansk. I remember saying in parliament, `New Zealand's economy is like a Polish shipyard!' And now here I am in the business of supplying the IT to a Polish shipyard."
While she sounds busy, in reality this is a similar kind of work to what Douglas took on in the early 1990s. Yet he still found time to start up ACT, supported in this by other figures such as co-founder Derek Quigley and Rodney Hide himself. So it is conceivable that Richardson could cut down on her consulting to help out in ACT - and possibly as a candidate. And while she holds her cards close to her chest, it's clear that she has the desire to come back. Witness the politically charged comments, as printed in the Sunday Star-Times of June 10, 2007:
We've just seen writ large in the latest Budget the fatal conceit that this government has the answer to every economic and social ill, that somehow it will dictate how we live happy and fulfilled and successful and risk-free lives. Yeah, isn't that great?
The one fishhook to all this is that Richardson is anti-MMP. Still, most of ACT's founders were against reforming the electoral system and this irony (or is it hypocrisy?!) never stopped them from coming to terms with and becoming part of new political reality.

So Ruth Richardson, a dream candidate? Actually, I think not. Richardson appeals to the same sort of supporters that Douglas does - the traditional group of ACT voters. The 1%, if you like. But if the party has already brought back Douglas to shore up this support base, what sense would it make to add Richardson? This would only decrease the opportunity to appeal to broader groups who detest the reforms of the 1980s. Bringing Richardson would turn off the new group of voters that ACT has begun to access - the people who have admired Rodney Hide's personal transformation and who watched him on Dancing with the Stars. Of course, bringing Douglas back may have this effect anyway. But why rub it in?

Next, we can dispense with Judd and Brash pretty quickly as genuine potential candidates. Even Rodney Hide admitted to me that Judd's attempted rebranding of ACT's image (notably with "The Liberal Party" moniker) was a "total failure". Judd has clearly had her turn - she may have even tried her best (although as I discussed in my dissertation, her Liberal Project had many flaws). Not being part of the original "1980s team", she wouldn't bring back former ACT voters. And she has already been shown as unable to convert new ones. While as a public relations consultant she might be worth having on board to assist new ACT helper John Ansell (the National Party billboard man from the 2005 election, to be covered in another post) in selling ACT's message, she's not a dream candidate.

For his part, it would be very, very unlikely for Don Brash to stand for ACT, just three years after leading the National Party to a close defeat, but defeat nonetheless. He would be an easy figure for opposition parties to demonise. The more interesting aspect to me of his selection by participants in the online poll is the lack of animosity towards Brash for ACT's own predicament. As I discussed in my dissertation, following the 2005 election, ACT supporters held Brash's National in no small part responsible for its own electoral decimation. But I think the prevailing view is that Brash did as could have been expected and had National won, the economic right would have been back in charge of the country. ACT supporters don't hate Brash - they admire him for having come so close to taking the reigns of power in 2005.

This brings us back to Wang. An expanding ethnic demographic, easily and affordably targetable in niche, Chinese-language Auckland media and an enthusiastic former MP willing to dedicate his time to an election campaign? If Wang can get 30,000 Asian votes (a fraction of the total population) and help double ACT's party vote, at the very least it sounds like a dream combination - if not a dream candidate.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Conference 2008: Opinion piece in the Herald

I have an opinion piece ("Act's dilemma - what's in a name?") in today's New Zealand Herald, on the return of Sir Roger Douglas to the ACT fold. In the print edition it's on page A19. Understandably, the piece in the Herald was edited for length and other reasons (and for some reason "perkbuster" was changed to "perkmaster"), so for reference the full piece as I submitted it appears below:
It came as a surprise to those who follow the fortunes of ACT New Zealand to hear recently that Sir Roger Douglas has apparently made his peace with the party. Last week, it was made public that Douglas is to speak at ACT's election year conference, to be held in Auckland on March 14 and 15. Douglas co-founded the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers with former National MP Derek Quigley in 1993, transforming it into a political party in 1994. But after relinquishing the leadership to another former Cabinet minister from the Fourth Labour Government, Richard Prebble, Douglas became disenchanted with the party's apparent drift from promoting his prescription of low tax and personal insurance based funding models (set out in his 1993 book and initial ACT party Bible "Unfinished Business") to more soundbite-friendly scandal-mongering. He resigned as party president in 2001 and severed all formal links with the party three years later, after Rodney Hide, the "perkbuster", won the leadership in a US-style party primary, following Richard Prebble's retirement.

It is not yet clear whether Douglas will once again take on a formal position within ACT, although he has suggested he would be happy with a symbolic placing lower down the party list. Instead, just as he turned down the opportunity to re-enter parliament with ACT in 1996, it seems likely that Douglas will be content to occupy a figurehead role, away from the day to day minutiae of politics. Still, at age 70, Douglas is a year younger than presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The chief benefit Douglas can offer ACT is his name. During the start-up phase of ACT, Douglas possessed an extraordinary capability to unify supporters of the neo-liberal economic reforms which he introduced, but did not complete during his time as Minister of Finance from 1984-1988. Dubbed the "Roger Douglas fan club" by one journalist, the reputation of Douglas quickly drew together high profile advocates of economic reform, including former Labour ministers like Prebble and Trevor de Cleene, businessmen Craig Heatley and Alan Gibbs, and thousands of other enthusiastic rank-and-file members who were frequently new to politics. By the time Douglas gave up the leadership in early 1996, ACT had recruited 7,000 members and supporters, a number which has since dwindled to just 1,500, according to figures released by Rodney Hide in his 2007 autobiography. Of course, as memories of the Fourth Labour Government fade, it is quite possible that Douglas's pulling power has itself diminished over the years, but if Douglas's return could convince even a fraction of his former fans to take his cue and return to ACT, the party would be off to a good start.

Moreover, Douglas's reunification with ACT should encourage some of the party's more wealthy benefactors to provide a much needed cash injection for the election campaign. In 2005, donors deserted ACT for the then near ideologically identical National Party, led by Don Brash - a much safer bet considering the uncertainty of whether a single ACT MP would even be returned to Parliament. Donations plunged from $1.6m in 2002 to $960,000 three years later. A correlation between money and electoral success does not necessarily exist: ACT received an even lower level of donations ($650,000) in 1999, yet managed to increase its number of MPs from eight to nine. However, the party has already announced that list MP Heather Roy will contest the Wellington Central electorate seat, in addition to attempting to have Rodney Hide re-elected in Epsom, ACT's saviour in 2005. Electorate contests are notoriously resource intensive and as long as ACT polls below the five per cent MMP threshold, the party will want to secure at least one constituency lifeline to ensure its survival.

However, bringing Sir Roger back to the fold carries a host of potential pitfalls. Foremost of these is the very real possibility that Douglas will repel far more voters than he is able to attract. Douglas's name is responsible in no small part for ACT's perennial "image problem". Here, the experience of the party during Douglas's leadership in the mid-1990s is instructive. Inextricably linked with the moniker "Rogernomics", even Douglas himself admitted that for many people he was the "devil reincarnated". Moreover, despite establishing what seemed like a dedicated army of followers, support for ACT in opinion polls dwindled from 3.3 per cent to just 1.2 percent during 1995 - the level the party polls today. The strength of Douglas's unpopularity amongst voters is illustrated by the fact that especially older participants in discussion groups I conducted on ACT during 2007 cited him as a major reason for disliking the party associated with his name.

Furthermore, by bringing Douglas back inside the ACT tent, Rodney Hide runs the risk of "cancelling out" his efforts since 2005 to give the party a more human public face. His appearance on the immensely popular television programme "Dancing with the Stars" and subsequent fitness regime, together with Roy joining the territorial army in 2006, constituted an attempt to rid the party of its image as a group of "rich white men". Coupled with Prebble's retirement and Douglas's withdrawal, the decimation of support for ACT at the 2005 election and the associated clean-out of most of its MPs severed the remaining formal links with the 1980s. Although Hide's rebranding attempts have not yet borne fruit in the form of higher opinion poll figures for ACT, this seems more likely because the focus on extra-parliamentary activities has been at the cost of the party promoting some new, saleable policy ideas. The reassociation of Douglas with ACT now means that as far as image building is concerned, Hide might as well not have bothered trying to give his party a makeover since the last election.

The final risk for ACT is that Douglas is his own man. It had been intended that Douglas's reconciliation with ACT would be announced at the party conference later this month; he was, after all, supposed to be the "mystery speaker". Yet instead of waiting to be unveiled at a stage-managed party conference, Douglas suddenly confirmed his conference appearance to media last week, along with musing about whether or not he would be on the party list, catching Hide unawares. While the extra publicity for the upcoming conference may well prove to help, rather than hinder ACT, the risk is that a dispute over a more substantive policy issue, such as tax rates, may break out between the now reunited Douglas and Hide, later in the year. Douglas has broken with the party before. He is quite capable of doing it again.
My apologies that the blog is being updated irregularly at present, this is due to impending overseas travel. However, I hope to write a couple of posts before the conference, which I will be attending on Saturday, in Auckland.

I'm also planning to post a conference report here on Saturday evening.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

ACT's new Wellington office


(Image courtesy of Primeproperty Group)

This is intended as a news rather than commentary post.

I recently checked with ACT on what the story is with Heather Roy's Wellington Office which was opened in October 2007. The main function of the office is obviously to give Heather Roy a more visible presence in her Wellington Central electorate campaign. The party tells me that Roy is using her entitlement to open an Out of Parliament office with a support staffer funded by Parliamentary Services. At the moment the office shares a staffer with Heather Roy's Parliamentary office. From ACT:
The office is located on the corner of Lambton Quay and Woodward St, in PrimeProperty House. It is open Mondays and Fridays for appointments and i'm also here for several hours during the week. The office was opened in about October of last year, and has since been advertised in the Wellington region with a large (ongoing) drop of fridge magnets and a letter.
UPDATED 13/3/08 @ 11.30pm (photo added)

Conference 2008: More coverage on Douglas and can Hide turn into a "fire-breathing dragon"?!

Just proving that Douglas brings headlines, I've found two other stories discussing his return to ACT.* An NZPA report out on Sunday handily re-wrote ACT's press release for it (as is typical with NZPA), while a more interesting opinion piece by libertarian Lindsay Perigo (whose views always makes ACT look mild) offered some typically blunt advice for the party:
It's fine for Rodney [Hide] to be fashionably gaunt and try to impersonate models, but it's hard to resist the conclusion that his last-remaining convictions melted away with his adipose. In any event, fashion and fitness shouldn't be his focus. He should step away from the mirror and back onto a soapbox. He should rediscover the libertarian convictions that once meant something to him. He should become a fire-breathing dragon of liberty. He should fair frighten the bejeezus out of the horses! He should finally stop meandering this way and that, stop obsessing about being loved and man up for what he knows to be right.

Some part of him must know this, since he's asked a conviction politician to save him. Sir Roger Douglas, as it happens, doesn't give a tinker's cuss about freedom as such, but many of his nostrums are freedom-friendly ... and he's single-minded about them. No vanity sideshows for Roger. If Rodney can emulate this facet of Roger and become a conviction politician on stilts, he'll not only be unique but might just also keep his seat on account of it.

* 4/3/08 @ 8.30pm - In the original post I had added: "This is no mean achievement, as nowadays it's common for months to pass without ACT being mentioned in the news." However, on reflection, and after a comment from ACT that the party in fact routinely gets 6-10 mentions daily in newspapers up and down the country (and up to 30 on some days), I've decided this was too sweeping a generalisation and hereby withdraw it.

Who's in the "dream team"?

A reader suggested that I run a poll on who else will join Sir Roger Douglas in ACT's "dream team", as announced by Rodney Hide in a press release/e-mail to members on Sunday:

As Minister of Finance, Sir Roger transformed the New Zealand economy from an antiquated bureaucracy to an open market. He alone has contributed more to New Zealand’s wealth and prosperity than any other living New Zealander.

Sir Roger will now bring to bear the same skills he used then on the 2008 election. He is the first of many "dream team 2008" contributors that I will be announcing over the coming 3 months.

Vote now in the sidebar at left!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Muriel Newman in New York

Former ACT MP Muriel Newman, who now runs her New Zealand Centre for Political Research, was on the Leighton Smith show on Newstalk ZB last Thursday talking about her impending trip to a climate change denial conference run by right-wing thinktank the Heartland Institute. In her chat with Smith, Newman advocated the usual anti-climate change argument that the world is actually cooling. Then she name-dropped, noting that people such as David Bellamy do not agree with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus that global warming is happening. Finally, she added that a cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere proved that global warming was clearly a nonsense.

Not so. Check the New York Times article out today, which mentions the Heartland Institute conference:

According to a host of climate experts, including some who question the extent and risks of global warming, it is mostly good old-fashioned weather, along with a cold kick from the tropical Pacific Ocean, which is in its La Niña phase for a few more months, a year after it was in the opposite warm El Niño pattern.

If anything else is afoot — like some cooling related to sunspot cycles or slow shifts in ocean and atmospheric patterns that can influence temperatures — an array of scientists who have staked out differing positions on the overall threat from global warming agree that there is no way to pinpoint whether such a new force is at work.

Many scientists also say that the cool spell in no way undermines the enormous body of evidence pointing to a warming world with disrupted weather patterns, less ice and rising seas should heat-trapping greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and forests continue to accumulate in the air.

“The current downturn is not very unusual,” said Carl Mears, a scientist at Remote Sensing Systems, a private research group in Santa Rosa, Calif., that has been using satellite data to track global temperature and whose findings have been held out as reliable by a variety of climate experts. He pointed to similar drops in 1988, 1991-92, and 1998, but with a long-term warming trend clear nonetheless.

What is ACT's policy on global warming? Under its "Smart Green" policy, released last year, it believes that "Climate change is a justifiable concern. By the same token, we need to recognise the significant scientific uncertainties that still exist." This is fairly non-committal, but green issues, whatever the persuasion, are never going to be a vote-winner for ACT. Climate change believers will go elsewhere, while committed deniers are still few and far between, partly because it's hard to deny climate change "competently" without having a decent grasp of the scientific complexities involved. In short, even if the natural position for ACT is to deny climate change, there are few votes in it, especially compared with more digestible issues such as law and order.

By the way, Muriel Newman is not a scientist, but holds a PhD in Mathematics Education* from Rutgers University in the United States.

*3/3/08 @ 7pm: in the original post I said Newman had a doctorate in Mathematics, but have since been alerted by a reader that she actually has a PhD in Mathematics Education, see http://www.nzcpr.com/About.htm.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Probably not welcomed with open arms

One person ACT probably doesn't want to see return to the party in a Roger Douglas-style rise from the ashes is Donna Awatere-Huata, disgraced in a fraud scandal which cost ACT valuable time, energy and money from 2002 to 2005. From December 2002, ACT became embroiled in a drawn-out process to remove Awatere-Huata from Parliament, after fraud allegations against her surfaced. Finding that Awatere-Huata had deceived it, the caucus expelled Awatere-Huata in early 2003 and initiated a process to expel her from parliament altogether.

Not only did Awatere-Huata's fraud (she was convicted in August 2005) represent a severe breach of trust within the caucus, the internal division was accentuated by two years' of media headlines such as “Prebble and Huata to face off in courtroom” (Dominion-Post, in 2003). Moreover, the efforts to cut Awatere-Huata adrift took up valuable party time and energy, with Prebble reportedly becoming consumed by the case (see Rodney Hide, My Year of Living Dangerously (2007), pp. 175-176). Indeed, the Awatere-Huata case appeared to precipitate dissatisfaction with Prebble's leadership, which broke out openly in early 2004.

The Herald on Sunday recently reported that Awatere-Huata was returning to the Waipareira Trust to work, but would not handle money. Perhaps ACT would be prepared to take her back, if she did not handle politics?!