A new strategic focus by the Act Party on leadership image coincided with the announcement in December 1995 by Roger Douglas of his decision to stand down as leader. Douglas had always maintained that he was only a transitional leader, but he now also announced that he would not even stand for Parliament. This decision could only improve Act’s public standing. Douglas, after all, had actually been a liability for Act because of the public’s association of Douglas with the pain of the Fourth Labour Government’s economic reforms. However, Douglas was also not a strong leader – lacking leadership drive and charisma. [Read more below]
Douglas was not leaving the party, or downgrading himself to a minor role; instead he moved sideways, taking on the role of party president (a position held, until this time, by Rodney Hide). Douglas had always been more comfortable in a back-seat role with strong influence rather than an actual up-front leader. As president he would continue to push to keep the party on track as a radical party of principle.
At the time of Douglas’s announcement there was no obvious successor to the leadership. There was some public speculation, and Ken Shirley and the United party’s Bruce Cliffe both indicated an interest in the position. At this stage Richard Prebble was still in close contact with Douglas, but was not publicly identified with Act.
In February 1996 Prebble launched his book I've Been Thinking. The book was a collection of stories and home-spun philosophies that sought to sell the basic Act idea. It played on the notion of common sense and moderation – a hint of the more moderate direction and marketing style that Prebble would take the party in after he eventually became leader. The book concentrated mainly on Prebble’s experience as a Minister in the Fourth Labour Government. Particularly notable for its use of stories that exposed the alleged absurdities of the state sector prior to the Rogernomics reforms, it was very well received.
I’ve Been Thinking was a significant success for the party. Through being a best seller (with 20,000 units shifted in bookshops) Prebble had managed to get the ‘Act idea’ and brand out to a significant number of potential supporters. The book was also later used specifically as party propaganda in the 1996 general election; Act sent thousands of copies out to Wellington Central voters (with the request for payment, if the recipient wished to keep the book) and a further 70,000 copies of a slim digest version of the book to rural voters (Fraser and Zangouropoulos, 1998: p.52).
The book helped Prebble develop and consolidate his position as the favoured candidate to take over from Douglas as Act leader. By touring the country promoting his book, Prebble was essentially able to promote himself as a politician on the way back into politics.
I’ve Been Thinking was also part of a thoroughgoing transformation of Prebble’s personal image – one that would mirror a similar transformation of the party. The book helped reposition Prebble from 'Mad Dog' to philosophical pragmatist.
Before agreeing to take the leadership of Act I wrote to the members - all 7,000. I said, "ACT has been perceived as a radical right wing party, the party of North Shore millionaires. Act must change its image to become a progressive, stable party of the centre right and drop some of its very clever but too radical policies such as zero income tax” (Prebble, 1996).
The transfer of the leadership position to Prebble also produced a change in the party’s vision for how it might implement its ideas once in government. Prebble was undoubtedly a more pragmatic and realistic leader than Douglas, and the ‘new Richard Prebble’ was keen on portraying a consensual image – rather than the more ‘tough no-nonsense leader’ he had been in the Fourth Labour Government. Prebble himself, located this quality as being the key difference between himself and Douglas:
This is where I differ from Roger Douglas, okay? Roger says the way to govern a country is to crash on through, and look what we managed in 1984. I say no, 1984 was only possible because we were in a crisis and it was legitimate in a crisis and we had a mandate to do it. But I don't believe you should govern a country on a crisis basis (quoted in Campbell, 9 Nov 96: p.18).
Prebble offered Act a quite different style of leadership to that of Douglas. Unlike Douglas who has always been more of a policy developer than a politician, Prebble is more politically savvy, populist, and more keen to partake in the day-to-day political battle of parliamentary politics.
Next blog post: Moderation of image