Thursday, June 19, 2008

ACT website down

The biggest, juiciest pledge card ever has been replaced by the most frustrating, annoying error message ever...(well probably not that bad but certainly a pain when I wanted to check something just now!).

Correct as at 8am on Thursday New Zealand time...

Time warps, Peter Dunne and ACT

This a "well-strained" post (given that it relates to a comment on a Kiwiblog post about an interview at the Scoop website) but I couldn't help chuckling at a particularly sharp reader comment about a party which is faring even worse in the polls than ACT: Peter Dunne's United Future:
United Future – the personality cult without a personality.

The interview is classic Peter Dunn[e] isn’t it. Sounds oh so reasonable but actually the sum is meaningless.

I remember the 1980’s: yes [Sir] Roger [Douglas] was dynamic and exciting. Peter Dunn[e] can never been accused of that….. even then.

I love the first comment - it summarises the United Future "phenomenon" down to a "t"! In my research I found the depth of feeling about ACT (and let me say, usually against ACT) was remarkable for a party polling such a small amount of support, 1-2% at most. In most cases the strong feelings were almost solely generated by reactions to Sir Roger Douglas, sometimes with a sprinkling of distaste for Rodney Hide's "muckraking" thrown in (although this was usually tempered by admiration for his dancing routines).

Douglas is that most polarizing of political figures: you either idolize or despise him and there really isn't much of a middle ground. I did find that some first-year university students were indifferent to him, but this was simply due to lack of first-hand memories of Douglas's actions during the 1980s and an unawareness of history. A former candidate I interviewed put the latter case down to a poor education system (I would agree with this and add the deficiencies of the New Zealand media which knows no context and no history, both of which are usually provided by serious documentary strands).

Dunne's comments in the Scoop interview on ACT were criticised at Kiwiblog by several others apart from the above contributor. According to Dunne:
The problem with Roger and the whole Act Party is that they’re trapped in a time warp, at the point when Roger was sacked. The world has moved on. The implicit mantra is that if we all went back to 1987 and picked up where we left off, things would be different. Its rubbish.
Symbolising the frosty relationship ACT has with the National Party, Kiwiblog owner David Farrar agreed with this view. But while Douglas does much to generate the perception that ACT simply wants to restart the policies of the 1980s (and as Helen Clark would put it, the "dark days of the '90's"), by itself this does not make the policies stupid. Dunne and Farrar would do well to remember that tax cuts, a central policy of the Douglas years in the 1980s (and indeed the plank for which Douglas fell on his sword) are also favourites of the United Future and National parties.

Or let's pick up an analogy from the social democratic side of the equation: should we not dispense with unemployment benefits and the Welfare State, because we don't want to be stuck in the "dark old days of the 1930s" and the Great Depression?

It's easy to come up with slogans ("going back to the '80's", "trapped in a time warp") - but much harder to give a reasoned critique on exactly why the policies promoted by Douglas and ACT are inadequate. Unfortunately for ACT, Sir Roger Douglas is more despised than idolized (once even describing himself as the "devil reincarnated") and makes the easiest target in politics for ad hominem attacks.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Gerry's been up to

The ODT reports today that former ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff yesterday voted against the Otago Regional Council funding Dunedin's new "multipurpose" (read: rugby) stadium to the tune of $37.5 million. This is of course in Eckhoff's capacity as an ORC councillor.
Cr Eckhoff said he could not support the stadium as it would only be used occasionally, with little chance of a financial return for Otago.
Followers of ACT will recall that Rodney Hide was involved in a much higher profile anti-stadium campaign in late 2006, when he joined forces with Green MP Keith Locke to protest against the proposed waterfront stadium in Auckland. So it is not surprising that Eckhoff has been similarly looking out for ratepayers' interests and with ACT-like thriftiness has voted against it. Eckhoff farms in Central Otago (in Coal Creek if I remember rightly) and for ratepayers living so far away from Dunedin (about 3-4 hours' drive) the stadium would generate few benefits.

As I recall, the Auckland Regional Council was given just two weeks to make up its mind over the fate of the stadium - and subsequently rejected it. The Otago Regional Council has been dithering for about two years on the matter and despite Eckhoff's vote, the stadium has been given an extension of life, with seven councillors voting for the funding and only four against. However, opponents say it is unlikely the stadium will be built, as the funding is conditional on the roofed stadium being built for the already costed $165.4 million, a figure which has already been proven to be unrealistic by several local academics.

Returning to ACT: in his position as a local councillor Eckhoff is standing on his name alone, as is usually the case in New Zealand local politics. But I wonder whether a potential future strategy for ACT could be to stand candidates in local elections under the ACT banner, as part of a "local" strategy which the party seems to be pursuing with the increased focus on electorate contests. Hide has repeatedly emphasised his desire to be the best electorate MP Epsom could have and has spent much time since the 2005 election focusing on Auckland issues, such as the stadium. Of course, whether voters would be prepared to vote in candidates marked with the ACT brand, proven to be unpopular, is questionable - but I think Eckhoff might well have won nevertheless, given his popularity in the Central Otago area and in particular with the farming community.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Poll results offer glimmer of hope?

ACT has managed to double its poll results, according to the latest surveys by TVNZ and TV3 out on Sunday.

ACT had been down at around 0.3-0.4% in the One News-Colmar Brunton Poll, but had increased that to 1.2% according to Sunday's figures. On TV3, the party was at 1%, up from 0.5% in the last poll. I think TV3 may round its figures to the nearest whole or half percentge point, so the actual result may have been slightly higher (or lower) than 1%.

These results may be no more than a statistical blip, but could it be the start of a surge in support for small parties as voters decide they would rather keep the big parties "honest"? In 2002, we famously saw support for Labour disintegrate, with voters seeking the "middle ground" in the form of United Future. Television's angle on Sunday night was that New Zealand First was catching up - to 4.4% in one of the polls. Considering that NZF was where ACT still is not so long ago, the idea of ACT itself catching up isn't out of the question.

In 2008, ACT will be hoping for a similar effect to what happened in 2002, only this time with respect to National and with itself as the chief beneficiary.

Some further thoughts on MMP

Unfortunately higher priorities are continuing to prevent me from updating this blog more regularly, so it's time for an overdue catchup. I've had some feedback on my comments on MMP, including a comment on an earlier post suggesting an STV system replace MMP. But these comments reflect the prejudice against MMP:
This I believe would result in a more diverse parliament, with still MP's such as Jeanette Fitzimmons being elected, and the same for Hide, & perhaps 1 or 2 other ACT MP's, and even Winston would be represented, but their power would be limited to how many candidates they can get elected by electorates, rather than quirks of the MMP system.
Let me emphasise: MMP is not a funny money system. Proportional representation, of which is MMP is a form*, is used by most countries in Europe and any "quirks" it may have are far outweighed by the massive "quirk" in FPP which makes it almost impossible for a genuine third party to prosper and have any chance of participating in a coalition government (witness the situation of the Liberal Democrats in the UK). The theory behind proportional representation is simple: add up all the minorities which are split up by electorates and you have a substantial block of voters whose opinions should be represented. I admit that I'm not an expert on STV, but I don't see how it could do things any better than MMP or FPP for that matter. This being the case, I'm happy with MMP.

This doesn't mean that there can't be alterations to the system, however, without a referendum being needed. As I said in my earlier post, I think the waiver of the 5% threshold providing a party's candidate wins an electorate seat has been counterproductive, leading to small parties becoming personality-driven and not carving out substantive, issue-based cleavages. New Zealand's "5% threshold waiver" (for want of a better term) has become a poisoned chalice: the small parties probably wouldn't be there if it weren't for their strong leaders such as Winston Peters, Peter Dunne and indeed Rodney Hide. But conversely, the rule has only encouraged them to build support around the leader, rather than a more durable (in terms of decades), issue-based agenda.

For instance, imagine how long the Greens would have lasted if it had been called the "Anti-GE Party" instead and had acted accordingly. It might have done very well in 2002, when the issue had salience (remember "Corngate"?), but after that the party would have shrunk to a small band of ardent supporters. By promoting itself as the Greens, the party has given itself leverage to pick up on whatever environmental issue is flavour of the month - anti-GE sentiment in 2002, climate change in 2008.

Admittedly, you might say the other small parties have been generic enough too in their names: New Zealand First, for example, not the "Anti-Immigration and Old People's Party". But the connotations are so strong with most of these parties to these issues and usually with the party's foundations in the 1990s that they have engendered a similar fixing in time and space as the fictitional "Anti-GE Party" might have done. ACT will forever be linked with the 1980s and Sir Roger Douglas. It may not want to be anything else, but there will always be a limited amount of supporters for this.

As I said in my post a fortnight ago, it doesn't make rational sense for ACT, a party of MMP, to campaign for a referendum to alter the voting system. I know Douglas and co. are fans of "big change" but you have to be careful of what you wish for. From ACT's perspective, ACT with a 50% majority would be nirvana (this is what Douglas originally predicted on founding the party), but it would never happen. In 2005, many ACT supporters saw National with a majority under Don Brash to be almost as good a deal. But ACT supporters should imagine what a Labour government would do with an absolute majority? It won't happen in 2008, but it could happen a decade or so down the track, once voters' fascination with Key has warn off, especially if FPP came back. In that case, ACT would be left right out in the cold - no representation and no favourable government.

While there has been talk around that we could go to STV or something else other than FPP (I think this is also what Key suggested), in reality supporters of a referendum want to go back to FPP. It would not be worth going through the instability and confusion (not least of all for the foreign investors on whom NZ depends) of changing the system for anything but a direct opposite. The idea of returning to FPP is understandable, to a degree. There is comfort in the familiar and 140 years of FPP system does not go away overnight. Currently small parties have reached a nadir. MMP is probably at its lowest point. So why not knock MMP out while the chance exists? This is clearly what Key would like after the election, especially if he gets the majority for which he is obviously hoping.

But I think MMP has not had anything like a fair test. FPP had 140 years before it was booted out. Now, I'm not saying that MMP deserves 100+ years before a referendum, but it still needs a chance to mature and 10 years is simply not long enough for the party system to mature. To prove this, look at the German model. From the first post-war parliament in 1949 until 1983, the Free Democrats (FDP) were the only third party in the Bundestag, along with the Social Democrats (SPD, equivalent to Labour) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU, equivalent to National). Since 1983 the Greens have also been represented and in recent years a new left-wing party (Die Linke) has emerged, to create a 5 party system. This may change, of course, but after 20 or 50 years in the Bundestag respectively it is hard to imagine (although nothing is impossible) either the Greens or FDP losing representation. In both cases, the parties are indeed fairly secure, with the Greens and FDP achieving 8.1% and 9.8% support respectively at the most recent federal election in 2005.

In NZ currently I think only the Greens could be said to be a stable force in parliament, a party which has carved out a genuine niche - like the FDP did in the early years in Germany. The other parties have not evolved or carved out substantial niches. Obviously New Zealand First and United Future will be out once their leaders go; add to that the Progressives once Anderton retires. ACT has carved out a niche of sorts (mainly Douglas fans) and unlike New Zealand First or United Future has proved longevity with the leadership change to Hide. But it is a precarious niche and at 1.2% or so, not yet a substantive one.

Like the Greens with environmental issues, ACT does have a strong fertile ground with the free market - but its problem is that it is perceived as a "1980s free market" party, which voters do not, on the whole, want to go back to. Who knows, ACT may evolve and become the fourth substantive parliamentary force, especially once United Future and New Zealand First disappear, as they must because of the inevitable retirement of their leaders. But it may be another new party altogether which finds a unique cleavage in society at some stage in the future.

*Correction from the original post - see comments to this post