16 years after being formed, the Act Party has finally become part of the New Zealand Government, joining the John Key National Party administration at the end of last year. The following blog post series seeks to analyse the political nature of this party of government by looking at its initial history during the 1990s. Hopefully this series of postings will complement the excellent research work of Geoffrey Miller, published on his Act Watch blog. This first post looks at the formation of the original Association of Consumers and Taxpayers lobby group and the personnel involved. [Read more below]
Act New Zealand began life, not as a political party, but as a lobby group called the “Association of Consumers and Taxpayers”. Only later, after about a year and a half, did it metamorphose into a parliamentary-focused political party.
The driving force behind the establishment of both the lobby group and the political party was former Labour Finance Minister, Roger Douglas. Douglas had voluntarily left Parliament at the 1990 General Election at the same time as the Fourth Labour Government was thrown out.
Roger Douglas’s political allegiances became uncertain when the Labour Party in opposition pulled back from the extremes of Rogernomics, and promised little more economic reform, while the new National Government continued his neo-liberal economic reform programme. Douglas became a political admirer of Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, while criticising the National Government for not taking her reforms far enough. He began talking about “unfinished business” and detailing prescriptions for completing the Rogernomics revolution.
However, as neither Labour nor National had the confidence of Douglas, he was without a political party to seek influence in. Even the internal Labour Party ginger group, the Backbone Club, had been dissolved in 1990, leaving Douglas without any vehicle for his ideas and agenda.
The initial idea of forming The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers first came about in a mid-1991 meeting between Roger Douglas and a few Backbone Club activists, and by early 1992 the idea had gathered momentum. The actual catalyst for the group’s formation (and the idea for its name) came after Douglas visited and addressed the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (Rudman, 1994: p.C8). Douglas returned to New Zealand determined to start a New Zealand variation on the Canadian group.
The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers was launched as something akin to a ginger group or a think tank. Its main activity was releasing press statements commenting on economic and national politics. Although it did little to promote itself or recruit, it quickly built up a membership and high public profile.
Members of the now defunct Backbone Club played a key role in the organisational core during this early stage. The first office manager for Act, Brian Nicolle, was a former Backbone Club activist. Other prominent Backboners included Bevan Burgess, Margaret Burke, and Glenn Ashton (Campbell, 19 Nov 1994: p.14). However, ACT was not simply a split from the Labour Party. Many other key members came from National Party backgrounds. Indeed, the group’s second most important and well known leader was Derek Quigley, Minister of Works and Services in the Muldoon Government.
Douglas addressed public meetings throughout the country in this period, enticing significant audiences. This played a major part in introducing the “Act idea” to people and promoting Douglas’s new book, Unfinished Business, which detailed his policy prescriptions.
Next blog post: Formation of the party
UPDATE: Bryce Wilkinson was included in the list of founder members that was issued by Roger Douglas when he launched the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers - and hence I originally included Dr Wilkinson's name in the above post in the quote from Herald journalist John Armstrong. However Dr Wilkinson has advised me that he was not a member and was very surprised to see his name on the list. As he recalls, the first he had heard of such an association was earlier in the day of the announcement when he had expressed support in principle for the concept of an association to represent the interests of consumers and taxpayers. But at the time he knew nothing of the specific initiative Sir Roger was about to launch. Dr Wilkinson advises that he does not join political parties. As an economic consultant he is happy to help any party that is genuinely seeking policies likely to improve the future prosperity and liberty of New Zealanders at large. Since it was not clear to him from Sir Roger’s announcement that the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers would be an apolitical association, he called Sir Roger the next day to correct the misunderstanding and to explain that he would not be a member of something that might be a political party. He advises that Sir Roger readily accepted that correction. I, too, have accepted the correction and deleted Dr Wilkinson's name from the list of founding members in the above blog post.