Libertarians pushed the newly-formed Act Party to stand on a platform of an unfettered free market society, free from all state interference, except on ‘necessary’ intervention to ensure the maintenance of law and order – in particular the protection of private property. Early in its life, Act presented itself clearly as an overtly ideologically-focused party advocating a minimum state. Roger Douglas was personally opposed to state involvement in everything from health care to fire-fighting. Likewise, even Richard Prebble was on record saying that the state should be limited to a role of minimal regulation of enterprise and that of ensuring law and order – although he also conceded that much of the law and order operations could be contracted out to private firms (Kilroy, 30 April 1996: p.9). [Read more below]
Act’s early economic platform was a relatively radical agenda, and one that reflected the party’s adherence to Hayekian economics. This form of political economy is strongly characterised by a belief in the importance of freedom of choice in the use of resources, and the assertion that the market is the only way to ensure this end. Hayek was most famous for his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, in which he railed against economic planning. He is also notable for his arguments linking economic freedom with political freedom – thereby introducing a strong sense of morality to classical economics. To Hayek, state economic intervention was inherently totalitarian.
Act presented itself as a new political paradigm. The party initially promised measures such as privatising social services, halving the government's bureaucracy, reducing income tax to zero and introducing educational vouchers. The party also promised to privatise all the government's trading activities, abolish all labour market restrictions, and end all Treaty of Waitangi settlements after the mid-1990s round.
Despite its relative boldness, this was already a softer version of Douglas’s long-term vision for society. It omitted the more radical policies of totally withdrawing the State from anything but a minimal role in society. Only its policies on income and company taxation – to be reduced to zero – clearly differentiated itself from the existing parties.
Act also attempted to sell itself as a party of strong principle and conviction. It was determined to show that it was not simply a politician’s party whose ideology would move with the tides of public opinion. From the beginning, the party ran a line that the real contest in an MMP election would be between Act and the Alliance. Later, Prebble even praised the Alliance for at least selling a distinct brand. In contrast, Act criticised the moderation and pragmatism of the Labour and National parties.
Rodney Hide claimed that the major parties had tried to maximise their votes by closing in on their opponent’s territories and thus had caused the differences between the existing parties to be ameliorated. He criticised the major parties for standing for little more than ‘getting it right’ or ‘keeping things ticking’ (Hide, 26 Jan 1996: p.12)
Many individuals in the Act party management had strong backgrounds in marketing and communications positions prior to their involvement in the party. They therefore understood ‘the importance of clarity and brand identity and firm positioning’ for a new ‘product’ like Act (Carr, 1997: pp.90-91). As a result, the launch and marketing of Act was the most thorough and politically sophisticated ever seen in New Zealand. Despite this expertise and effort, the party was still somewhat unsure about how to brand itself during its formation. During the first six months, according to Carr:
the party adopted half a dozen different positions: variously, the Commonsense party, the Anti-Government Waste party, the Free Enterprise party, the Superannuation party, the Tough Love party, the Save You From The Alliance party, and finally, the Future Party' (Carr, 1997: pp.90-91).
Likewise, there was some debate as to whether Act would be better to emphasize a message of ‘more money in the pocket’ or that of Act representing ‘social justice’ and in the end the option of ‘social justice’ won the debate (J Roper, 1996: pp.38-39).
This concentration on ‘commercial-world’ branding was indicative of the professionalised nature of the party, in that they were driven in their development of the party’s image not so much by ideology but by the need for ‘market-share’. Style was arguably being given prominence over substance – as the Act ideology was being bent to fit what the marketers thought would sell in the political marketplace.
Next blog post: Initial strategy and expectation