Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Critic-al view of ACT - part 2

The main event in Critic this week was an interview with Rodney Hide, on page 39. Despite John Ansell saying this week that with the exception of Hide, ACT's electorate candidates had "bugger all chance of winning", Hide still expresses confidence in the ability of Sir Roger Douglas to win the seat of Hunua:
Well, the key thing is the party vote but you have to say, the um … [laughs] I’m sure more people know and respect Roger Douglas than have ever heard of [National candidate in Hunua] Paul Hutchison.
If Ansell is to be believed (and he has had a front seat in ACT's campaign for the first half of 2008), Douglas's campaign in Hunua is a waste of time. On this note, I've been critical in the past of ACT concentrating too much on electorates, rather than the all-important party vote. However, on reflection I've come to appreciate more the rationale for standing constitutency candidates is that it boosts ACT's profile in the electorates in which it fields contenders. This relies on ensuring ACT voters are savvy enough to know that they must give ACT both votes (or at least the party vote), rather than, say, giving Douglas just the constituency vote (which will be wholly wasted if Douglas does lose) and National the party vote.

Party opinion has shifted dramatically over recent years on this point: in 2002 ACT ran a "party vote only" campaign, preferring to conserve campaign resources by not standing any electorate candidates. It is fair to say, though, that the strategic environment has changed just as much in the same period: small parties currently have only a slender chance of retaining representation in Parliament without an electorate seat.

But even more intriguing comments from Hide lie ahead. Later in the interview, he is asked about the merits of MMP. I was surprised at how eager and direct his response was to a very vague and open question:
So you said that ACT is an MMP party; does that mean that ACT is happy with the way MMP runs?
We definitely believe that there should be a referendum. We support a referendum
ahead of the 2011 election.
I'm on record as saying ACT supporting a referendum on MMP simply does not make sense. If it were not for MMP, it would not have Heather Roy in Parliament - and ACT would have never gained the strength it did in the 1990s. According to Hide, "MMP has the plus that it allows for greater diversity in our Parliament, but it has a minus that it lessens accountability and transparency". Huh? Surely not. By its very nature MMP removes the ability of one big party to cook up changes behind close doors and pass them into law the next morning using its clear governing majority.

Indeed, it was this not exactly transparent feature of the FPP system which allowed Sir Roger to implement his economic reforms during the 1980s. I disagree with Hide's example to show why MMP is not transparent or accountable:
Well, take the emissions trading scheme that is currently winding its way through Parliament. It was presented to Parliament, people gave submissions on it, it then had a thousand changes made to it. It’s now being changed again as the Government tries to negotiate with New Zealand First, the Maori party and the Greens to get it through Parliament. At the end of the day no one party is going to be responsible or accountable for what comes out because it’s been hatched behind closed doors.
Of course "no one party" will be responsible for this law being passed. That is the nature of a coalition (or cooperative, seeing Labour is not in a formal coalition with any of the above mentioned parties) government. Voters will hold the parties which pass a law accountable for it, just as Hide and others have held Labour, New Zealand First and other parties responsible for the passing of the Electoral Finance Act (EFA) and the "Section 59" amendment (the so-called "anti-smacking" legislation) to the Crimes Act.

I have discussed ACT's desire for a referendum on MMP before on these pages. But here is a recap. The reasons why ACT would support a MMP referendum are three-fold.
  • Firstly, there is the usually stated rationale given by ACT for having a referendum - "giving people a say". Yet this is disingenious - voters were already given a choice to change their electoral system just over a decade ago, which is a tiny length of time in historical terms. Changing the voting system is not something to be taken lightly. The United States has not fundamentally changed its system in 250 years; why should New Zealand change its system twice in less than a decade and a half? MMP must be given a long-term trial run, I suggest at least 50 years. If you think that's unreasonable, consider the fac that FPP had close to 150 years to prove itself in New Zealand and plenty more prior to that in its English home. MMP is yet to be given a fair chance.

  • Secondly, if ACT becomes a one-MP "Jim Anderton" party after the election (with only Rodney Hide keeping the party in Parliament through his electorate seat), ACT will turn into a de facto FPP party anyway. The party vote becomes irrelevant because ACT simply cannot get enough of it to make it worthwhile. Getting rid of MMP would then eliminate parties rivalling ACT for votes in the future which are unable to capture an electorate seat, such as the Greens or New Zealand First. By doing so, ACT could become the only "third party" and paradoxically enjoy more support than it does today, because it could become an outlet for "protest votes" - the disaffected who are looking for another option to Labour and National. (N.B.: exactly this phenomenon is what led to the introduction of MMP in the first place!) This could be called the "last man standing" rationale.

  • Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, the return of Sir Roger to the party has generated a longing within ACT for the "good old days" of the 1980s, when, as Minister of Finance, Douglas had carte blanche to remake the New Zealand economy. This rationale is irrational: Douglas is 1) not in a 50%+ position with ACT, 2) never will be and 3) is not in either of the big two parties which could possibly be. The only plausible explanation for the delusion could be that ACT is hoping with a little pressure from itself, National could use a return to MMP to implement some of the radical changes Douglas never had a chance to do himself, such as introducing a flat tax.
Yet none of the three reasons is a compelling reason for ACT to support a referendum on MMP. If ACT really is an "MMP party", as Hide says in the same Critic interview, he should surely be calling to support the system by taking a closer look at what parties sother than National have to offer - such as ACT.

Put it this way: I didn't hear Hide calling for a referendum in 2002, when ACT had 9 MPs - all thanks to the party vote.

A Critic-al view of ACT - part 1

I must have felt nostalgic for my alma mater tonight when I entered the URL of Critic, the student magazine of the Otago University Students' Association (OUSA), into my browser's address bar. Fortunately, as a free on campus weekly, Critic sees no need to fumble about with clunky "E-Paper" technology and posts each week's edition as a freely downloadable PDF, including this week's paper.

This week, Critic featured (on page 22) an interview with Warren Jones, the organiser of the Dunedin chapter of ACT on Campus. Jones's name featured in the acknowledgements of my dissertation, as he was most helpful at the outset of my research and particularly with introducing me to figures in the party. According to Jones, the Otago branch of ACT on Campus currently has "12-15 activists and a wider group of registered supporters". This isn't a huge number, but it respectable considering ACT's overall relatively low profile, general student political apathy and the fact that Jones was given the task of restarting a virtually moribund group when he moved to Dunedin to study in 2007.

Still, the modest grouping today at Otago pales in comparison to what it once was, mirroring the decline of ACT itself. In my dissertation, I found out that a decade ago Otago had one of the larger and more active ACT youth branches. In those days, it was called "Prebble's Rebels". Former ACT candidate Willie Martin recalled in an interview with me (the transcript begins on page 99 of the dissertation) how the Otago campus buzzed with activity with "big house meetings all the time...policy days where we go and talk about policy and one of our members managed a hotel so we were allowed to have our monthly constituency meetings in like a hotel conference room and they were really quite busy". As Martin explains, the forerunner of ACT on Campus in Dunedin had a core group of fervent supporters:
When I joined in '97 there were heaps of young people and we picked up quite a few around the '99 election and had quite a vibrant sort of, it was called Prebble's Rebels at that stage, had quite a vibrant sort of grouping, and yeah there were probably easily 10, 15 of us who'd regularly do stuff, and part of the reason for that was there was a guy called Clint Heine who ran it at that stage, who's now in the UK, but he basically spent far more time devoting, devoting time to Prebble's Rebels stuff than he did to his university studies and right up to the '99 election he was basically just working for ACT full-time and it sort of became a social thing as well, sort of like Clint was organising sort of going putting posters up and that sort of stuff and a lot of them were doing that and then organising heaps of sort of, drinks on the weekend and that sort of thing, so it was a social thing as well as a political thing, back then and certainly ACT on Campus in Dunedin has never quite reached that since
Martin does credit the personality of Heine for much of the seemingly unlikely early success of the Dunedin grouping (Dunedin North being a Labour stronghold). But he also notes that the youth wing's fortunes were interwoven with ACT's: "the party as a whole at that stage had a lot more members and a lot more buzz was sort of Richard Prebble trying to do something new and innovative and certainly once we got more used to it I think that slowed down as well".

I understand Heine remains a loyal ACT supporter. He now runs a group blog on New Zealand politics which offers some good, partisan commentary on ACT's fortunes, including some comments this week over the departure of John Ansell from the ACT campaign.

Illustrating the vitality of Prebble's Rebels in the 1990s, I've been told that Prebble's Rebels enjoyed making trouble in lectures by the likes of Dr. Brian Roper, a left-wing academic whose beliefs could probably be summarised as being the antithesis of ACT's. ACT supporters sitting towards the back of the lecture theatre used to heckle Roper during his lectures on New Zealand politics. With much reduced numbers, it's hard to imagine ACT supporters attempting a similar endeavour now.

Coincidentally, an interview with Roper (whom Critic describes as the "[u]niversity’s self-proclaimed resident left-wing activist") also features in this week's Critic, on page 13. I was somewhat surprised by his prediction of the outcome of this year's election, which could be described as resigned acceptance of a National-led victory:
I think that National will win the next election comfortably, at least in terms of being the party with the largest share of the popular vote. The only reason I hesitate in terms of predicting a National victory is that National, since the introduction of MMP, has struggled to a greater extent than Labour to find coalition partners. But I actually think it will find some coalition partners for the next election, particularly when John Key is going to present the National Party as being a moderate, sort of centrist kind of party.
This is not exactly fighting talk - but it becomes even defeatist in the next paragraph, when Roper says "it’s a good election for Labour to lose – we’re looking at the most severe recession in the world’s economy since the 1970s and some political economists are predicting a global recession on the scale of the depression of the 1920’s". Whatever the circumstances, it would seem to be a bold call to essentially wish defeat on the party which is in the best position of representing something remotely close to your political beliefs in Parliament. In a year's time I wonder whether Roper will still believe it was an election worth losing for Labour - assuming, of course, that it does lose, which is still by no means certain.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Why did Ansell leave?

A little less of my day job at the moment leaves a little more time for Douglas to Dancing. And there are plenty of things to comment on. Easily the most significant is the departure this week of John Ansell, essentially a marketing expert who was brought in earlier this year with the aim of sprucing up ACT's appeal and packaging the party's policies in more voter-friendly ways. As many will recall, Ansell was responsible for the ideas behind much of National's advertising (and notably the half/half Labour-National comparison billboards) during the 2005 campaign. Let's begin with Ansell's words of frustration, published in the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday:
"I wanted a mandate to do my job properly but I think I'm regarded as a bit of a troublemaker. In political parties you get 60-odd candidates creating their own personality cults rather than branding the party in a unified way...Yet other than Rodney [Hide, the party leader] they've got bugger all chance of winning their electorates. It's nuts and I said as much but couldn't get any traction. So I was trying to lay down the law that it was not about them, it was about the party vote."
My first instincts when I saw Ansell had left was that he and Sir Roger Douglas did not get along. Yet surely this should not have happened: Ansell was, after all, brought in at the same time as Douglas - at the March 2008 annual conference. Ansell would surely have never been brought in to the ACT team, had he and Douglas had not seen eye to eye. But here is the key: even though I understand Douglas invited Ansell on to the team, Douglas may not have accepted that it would mean delegating a fair amount of the control over ACT's "message" to the marketing men.*

Had it been Hide who had invited Ansell to help out ACT and Douglas never returned to ACT, I am sure there would have been no such problems. After all, it was Hide who understood the importance of image. This was, of course, seen in his desire to give ACT a more positive and warm exterior in 2006 and 2007, when he participated in Dancing with the Stars, took up a fitness regime and released a snazzy-looking autobiography, the cover of which had more in common with a sportsman than a politician. Hide - and Ansell - appreciated the importance of good looks.*

To put it another way, if Hide and Ansell were like hand and glove, Douglas and Ansell would be more like chalk and cheese.
  • Douglas: the principled politician, who would rather see ACT at 1% but with the most pure, undiluted and potent bottle of policy-medicine from the pages of Unfinished Business and its offspring.

  • Ansell: the pragmatic salesman, who would rather see ACT at 10%, with the copies of Unfinished Business stacked in the ACT office cellar and at best only an edited highlights package of policies remaining - but with some more appealing 21st century policies sprinkled on top.
This does not have to mean Douglas was completely hostile to Ansell; on a personal level they may have even got on well. Douglas's invitation to Ansell must have been driven by the realisation that ACT needed a dramatic refresh in its branding. But as far as Douglas was concerned, these efforts would have to be in parallel with his own plans. On no account was Douglas going to clear his ideas with Ansell before publishing them, even Douglas's method of presentation for these ideas was incompatible with the forward-looking and streamlined party Ansell was trying to create.

This clash was encapsulated by the release on Douglas's campaign website of Further reading to ACT‘s 20 Point Plan to bring our children home. Tellingly, this collection of readings from the likes of Roger Kerr (Business Roundtable) and Phil Rennie (Centre of Independent (=neo-liberal) Studies) - was uploaded on to Douglas's website only. Download the PDF and you will find page upon page of closely printed text, with a few graphs and tables added in for good measure. Definitely no slogans, no colour (with the exception of the ACT logo on page one) and no simplified campaign messages.

While we cannot say for certain that Douglas himself put the package together, the pseudo-intellectual (pseudo-intellectual not in a derogatory sense, but because it is a campaign document), statistical nature of the document does lead me to that suspicion. There are more than a few parallels with Unfinished Business (1993) and other publications issued by Douglas over the years, such as a regional conference presentation he put together after the 2002 election.*

Douglas (or possibly a volunteer staffer) put a fair amount of time into putting this package together - but for what purpose? I am certain the only people who would bother reading the report would be either some of the loyal ACT supporters (1% of New Zealand voters) who will be giving the party their vote in November anyway, or political watchers such as myself (and even then I should hasten to admit that I have by no means read every word in the PDF). The report would not convince any voters wavering between voting for National or ACT (the voters ACT needs to attract), simply because there is no chance they would ever read the report.

In summary, the report was a waste of time, convincing no new voters and wasting precious campaign time that Douglas, or whoever was responsible for the "further reading" brick, could have spent on working the ACT mail stuffer. If a rift developed between Douglas and Ansell it may well have been partly due to Douglas's insistence on publishing the report. Indeed, it is intriguing that Further reading... appeared on Douglas's personally controlled campaign website, rather than at the official home of ACT, despite bearing the official party logo and not just being related to Douglas's Hunua campaign. Originally, I was told by an ACT insider that the report would soon also be available at the main ACT website; yet when trying to verify this today, I could not find any trace of it.

In light of Douglas's report, it is clear that the 20 point "pledge card" unveiled on the ACT website some time earlier was an Ansell inspired compromise with Douglas to boil down the essence of his masterplan into a more manageable (but still hardly bedtime reading) list of policies which ACT believed would "get you an extra $500 a week, beat Australia, and bring our children home". Some colour and more personal language made this infinitely easier to comprehend than the Douglas PDF-doorstop, but it was still a wad of detail that I imagine few recipients could be bothered reading.

Indeed, I suspect Ansell was frustrated by a desire by Douglas to include nearly every possible policy area. Ansell would have known that ACT needed a 3 point plan, not a 20 point one. A reply by Douglas to an interview by Salient this week suggests that Ansell's creative abilities were constricted by Douglas's desire to micro-manage:
I think John probably from his point of view found there were frustrations, he wanted to control from woe to go.
Douglas's quest for control indicates why even the slimmed down pledge card was still a mass of closely printed text, instead of a few bold "bottom lines". ACT is not going to win votes on climate change, whatever it says, so why include it on a mailout to voters? Why is ACT the only political party which sees the need to compare its policies with those of Trinidad and Tobago and Belize?

Above all, the pledge card - even though it could have been much worse had Ansell not been around - illustrated a return to the age-old, ACT-old tendency of putting up a policy tsunami as if it would win 50% of the vote in the election. After he took over the leadership in 2004, Hide took steps to tackle this flaw and in 2005 ACT did not even issue a full policy manifesto as it had done in the past (as seen by the lengthy summaries from manifestos summarised in the appendix of my dissertation). In 2007, Hide told me the party would campaign this year on just a few bottom lines, a stance which would have been completely in sync with the tactics used by Ansell. But Douglas's return brought back the idea of presenting an all-encompassing "masterplan". Yet a party on 1% - or even 10% - will never be in the position of being a political master, or even a political mistress.

It was a former New York state Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo, who once said politicians "campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose". Douglas campaigns in prose - and at this rate will never have to worry about the governing.

Seeing his "poetry" corrupted by his paymasters, Ansell has unsurprisingly set off for pastures new.

Portions of this post have been edited to reflect feedback supplied to me by a contact

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Douglas publishes "further reading" to 20 point plan

Sir Roger Douglas has published a 129 page document giving "further reading to ACT's 20 Point Plan to bring our children home". See also the pages by Douglas at his campaign website, I'm told the file will soon appear at the official ACT website.

Commentary to follow.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Is it Worth trying to face up to Hide online?

A few weeks ago an e-mail came across my inbox from Facebook. This is not remarkable in itself - even fellow occasional social networkers like me will be aware that the form e-mails advising that person XYZ "has added you as a friend" come along as regularly as the sun rises and sets.

But this time the person adding me as a friend was no-one other than Richard Worth, National's candidate (and former Member of Parliament) in Epsom who is again standing, this time to try and unseat Rodney Hide as the local MP. My first concern was to wonder how on earth Worth came to the idea of adding me to his friends list. I soon realised that he had gone through and added anyone with connections to ACT listed on Facebook. Over the last year a number of ACT members or people linked with ACT have added me as their "friend", so it is not hard to see how Worth came across a handy reservoir of names. It's a good bet that a fair number of them are Epsom voters. Of course, I'm sure many people refused the invitation to be Worth's "friend", but seeing he is listed as now having 316 friends, I suspect many clicked accept without a second thought. (Naturally, I accepted Worth's invitation, for research purposes mind...).

Overseas, social networking has become popular with politicans trying to get in touch with the so-called YouTube generation. Anyone who has not heard about how many Facebook friends Barack Obama has acquired, for instance, just hasn't been listening properly. While the United States inevitably leads in such innovations, we also saw social networking play a role in the election of Kevin Rudd as Australian Prime Minister last year. Political operatives see the opportunity of reaching more "young voters" - who may consume relatively little television and print media, both of which are traditional outlets for political advertising. Doubtlessly the "two-way" potential of online networking via sites such as Facebook is also seen as an advantage (although whether it is harnessed properly is another question altogether).

Inevitably, New Zealand's politicans have attempted to follow suit. Late last year, Rodney Hide founded his "supporters'" page on Facebook, which to this day has changed little from the brief bio and photo piece established on launch. Hide does not provide regular updates to his page and indeed he does not really seem to appreciate the nature of online networking. To note just one flaw, the third-person biography should surely be written in the first-person if the page is to avoid looking like a mere electronic brochure written by a party staffer. Given Hide's devotion to technology (he is an addicted BlackBerry user and has been one of the few NZ politicans to regularly maintain an self-written blog, although this has been silent of late), I wonder if he intends to rectify his Facebook presence closer to the election. At the moment, it looks like his heart is not in it.

So what about Worth? His page has a number of advantages over Hide's: it is updated regularly (seems to be daily at the moment), has a filled-out profile with Worth's personal interests (including mountain climbing in Africa and elsewhere - I wonder if he has ever met Helen Clark along the way - who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 1999?) and moreover, all of this would appear to be written by Worth himself, as it is in the first person and doesn't sound polished enough to be written by a staffer.

What is more, Worth's profile is a fully-fledged one, meaning users can post messages on his "wall" and use all the classic Facebook features - i.e. you can "poke Richard". Rodney Hide's profile, by contrast, is a limited "fan" version which severely restricts the amount of possible user interaction. Worth's openness on Facebook is to be commended.

However, while all this sounds fine in theory, in practice Richard Worth on Facebook is well, a little dull. The profile photograph is hardly "Yes We Can" material; clicking through to see the other Flickr photographs Worth has uploaded is an effort not fully rewarded. Moreover, Worth's daily updates resemble the programme This Week in Parliament (alas, absent from the airwaves for several years now because Radio New Zealand decided to cut its funding)

Yesterday, for instance, Worth's "friends" could read some scintillating new information:
Business in the House this week will be the remaining stages of the Land Transport Management Amendment Bill, the Births, Deaths, Marriages, the Relationships Registration Amendment Bill and the first readings of the Judicial Matters Bill and the Public Lending Right Bill.
A little more interesting was an update from last week. Now, political parties are not normally keen to admit they are influenced by "lobbyists". Which lobbyists were you referring to, Richard? Did the invitation to celebrate also extend to PR companies - Crosby Textor, by any chance? And what ever happened to supposed journalistic objectivity?
Last night the National Party Caucus hosted its annual party for media representatives and lobbyists. It was a long running night and doubtless some this morning will be feeling the pace of a splendid party.

I spoke in the House on changes to the law which would permit union and employer association lawyers to give advice to their members. That is controversial because it does not reflect the lawyer/client relationship.
There is some mirth provided by Worth's lack of choosiness over his "friends", illustrated by these comments posted on his wall:

Of course, we should not get carried away with evaluating politicans by their Facebook pages or anything else of the virtual manner. Certainly, it's an easy (everything needed accessible by pressing a few keys) and reasonably fun exercise to carry out. This is probably one reason that for years, political scientists and other commentators have carried out evaluations of political party websites. For example, in April 2007, the MainlyPolitics blog (run by Chris Hipkins, now the 2008 Labour candidate for the Rimutaka electorate) carried out a survey of New Zealand political party websites and from memory gave high marks to the Greens. Unfortunately the blog has now been taken down, which probably has something to do with Hipkins's candidacy.

In these, it has been far from clear that a good website translates into higher polling results. In New Zealand, one of the most striking examples of this might well be the website of the Labour Party. For years, it put forward an offering which would make Russell Brown despair, yet it was the party in government with 40% or more support. For two years following the 2005 election the site still invited supporters to contribute to the election campaign. Now, its website gleams with bright and breezy graphics with regularly updated news brought on by a wholesale overhaul - yet as we know support for Labour has substantially declined.

Above all, we shouldn't take a party website, blog or Facebook page to be a proxy for the actual party. A poor online presence need not necessarily mean a party has a poor offline presence. Indeed, it seems to be the case that a party will invest more time and money online when the party is performing poorly in terms of polling. To the Labour example above we can add ACT's own site, which underwent a complete overhaul (although I'm not sure entirely for the better) in 2007.

With this in mind, perhaps ACT has decided that while a certain online committment is important, it is not worth spending money on virtual efforts which could be spent on campaigning on the ground.

After all, when all is said and done, Richard Worth's provision of a daily mini-Hansard is unlikely to to power him to victory against Rodney Hide in Epsom.