The radicalism of the early Act party was matched by the leadership’s strong confidence in its future. Roger Douglas, for instance, expressed the belief that Act would win at least 50% of the vote in general elections. This prediction went against all available evidence that political scientists could offer. Such research showed that the New Zealand electorate was only ever likely to yield a maximum of 5-15% support for a radical free-market party (see Hubbard, 19 March 1994: p.30). The leadership quickly downplayed the 50% figure and the prediction was later downgraded to the smaller number of 30%. Many in the party continued to fret over whether to sell Act as an ideological party of blue or red [Read more below]
Douglas’s optimism was, no doubt, based on his great faith in the party’s ability to illustrate to the public the ‘common-sense’ of his policies. He believed that the policies would be judged to be so innovative and miraculous in their forecast results that Act would win support from across the political spectrum, rather than merely from the rich or the right-end of the National Party’s support base. Douglas appeared to genuinely believe his new party was not rightwing.
Douglas’s expectations were also underpinned by his experience and perceptions about the performance of the Fourth Labour Government. He had maintained that it was because of his economic reforms that the then Government had at times been extremely popular; and that the slide in the polls after 1987 and the eventual electoral defeat in 1990 were brought about largely by David Lange’s undoing of the reform programme. This logic followed through to the belief that any party that would resurrect the Rogernomics programme would reclaim those previous high levels of support that Labour enjoyed in the mid-1980s.
An interesting element of Act’s identity, therefore, has been an ambiguity as to where the party fits on the left-right political spectrum. From the beginning, the party – and in particular Roger Douglas – maintained that Act was not a rightwing party. In line with this, Act marketed its neo-liberal economic policies in the name of ‘social justice’. Douglas insisted that his party was on the side of those who had not yet got a cut out of the economic reforms. He actually maintained that he was basically still a socialist (in the Labour Party tradition) and that his reform programme had been prematurely suspended in the 1980s, before the problems of inequality and welfare were able to be addressed. Therefore Act’s programme for the 1990s represented the pay-back for the poor, hence the claim to be left-wing.
This belief was not the only reason that Act purposefully deflected the rightwing label and sold the party vision to the poor. More importantly, Act’s leadership and strategists clearly knew that the rightwing label would be a constant negative for the party. Their desire to trade in the political mainstream meant that they had to shuck off labels such as ‘rightwing’ and ‘extremist’.
Few were fooled by the ambiguity of Act. Commentators continued to call them a rightwing party, as if this was not in dispute. National MP Simon Upton commented that, ‘whether ACT likes it or not, it is a vehicle for ideas whose roots are, by any common understanding of the term, right-wing' (Upton, 2 May 1994: p.8). After all, Act was a party promoting low tax, a minimal state, and increased individual responsibility – all standard demands found on the right of the political spectrum. Furthermore, the party’s political orientation was made plain by the political history of the personnel involved in Act’s leadership. These people – with few exceptions, such as Donna Awatere Huata – had come from the free-market rightwings of Labour and National.
There was, of course, a sense in which Act was not a typical rightwing party. It did – at this early stage – focus much of their propaganda at Maori and lower socio-economic groups. And furthermore, a central concern of Act’s was the reform – or overhaul – of how individuals receive social services. Richard Prebble later used this fact as evidence of their moderate nature:
if we were a real right-wing party we wouldn't care. Real right-wing parties (like you find on the fringes of American politics) believe that the imprudent should actually starve, that courts are a waste of time and that capital punishment is the basis of a civilised society (Prebble, 1997: p.48).
Such logic did not however necessarily extend to a refutation of the rightwing label. There is nothing necessarily contradictory about being both concerned for the poor and being rightwing. Religious figures like Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II are good examples of this phenomenon.
As time went on and Act clearly lost the battle to chuck off its rightwing label, and the party stopped pretending to be of the left (Prebble: 'ACT is now a credible, liberal progressive centre-right party’) and concentrated instead on proving its moderation.
Next blog post: Party structure and organisation