The new professionalism of the early Act party was represented most starkly by its organisational structure. The party did not just have a ‘leadership’, but also a ‘management’. The leadership obviously consisted of the public figures of Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley et al., while the management included the higher echelons of the party activists and paid organisers. The founders were attempting to create a modern highly-professionalised political party with a structure very different to the traditional ones. [Read more below]
This was particularly the case for Roger Douglas and the other ex-Labourites, who had had such a bad experience in the 1980s battling against the extra-parliamentary Labour Party organisation. They were keen therefore for the party management and organisation to work closely with their parliamentary team.
As a consequence, the new party was run by a board of trustees, rather than by an extra-parliamentary party. This board was initially made up of Derek Quigley, Roger Douglas, Craig Heatley, Rodney Hide and Patricia Schnauer. Eventually this provisional board was replaced by a permanent and elected one. The 17-member board was to include one representative from each of Act’s six regions and other the 11 members elected by postal ballot (Small, 11 Nov 1994: p.24).
Significantly, the early party made the decision to have an unconventional leadership selection procedure whereby the party leadership would be elected, not by the membership at large, nor by the parliamentary caucus, but by the Board of Trustees (Small, 11 Nov 1994: p.24). Although this procedure would have the effect of keeping power outside of the elected MPs it placed the power not into the party democracy as a whole, but in the hands of a select party elite.
Act established an elaborate four-level party structure. The Board of Trustees was at the top level and below it was, firstly the regional level, then the ‘advocates’ level, and at the bottom level was the Joint Action Groups (JAGs). According to the party’s original plans, the advocates level ‘would have responsibility for about 1200 households and would provide the principle point of contact for the organisation’ (Small, 11 Nov 1994: p.24). The advocates would essentially be ‘Act's missionaries out in the field’; Act ‘aims to recruit 700 advocates’ (Small, 11 Nov 1994: p.24). While the Board appointed the initial 170-180 advocates, in time they were expected to be elected.
Each advocate was made responsible for establishing six or seven Joint Action Groups (JAGs) at the level below them in the party structure: ‘The Jags will hold house meetings, run raffles and do the other minutiae of politicking' (Campbell, 19 Nov 1994: p.15). Each JAG was supposed to cover 200 houses in their electorate.
Not surprisingly, Act’s organisational structure and operation have been compared with that of the Amway corporation (See Campbell, 19 Nov 1994: p.15). The Act advocates are certainly akin to door-to-door salesmen – with their recruitment and fund raising targets. The official Act Advocates' Manual details how each sector is responsible for raising $5000 per annum (through a pyramid of monthly pledges) and recruiting 60 members each (Campbell, 19 Nov 1994: p.15). There are other similarities with the multi-level marketing company:
Initially, after becoming a new party, Act’s organisational rules allowed its members to be members of other political parties. Because Act was a new party it hoped to recruit members from other parties, especially from National. However, these rules were also an acknowledgement of the fact that Act had begun life as a lobby group with members belonging to other parties.
Early in its existence, Act also spelt out the basic procedure for the creation of its MMP party list: 'The names of prospective party list candidates would be sent to members who would be asked to choose the top 20. The board would then order the top 30 on the list from that exercise and rank the remainder too’ (Small, 11 Nov 1994: p.24). However, the board would retain the right to add to or adjust the original list. This right was eventually used by the board to shift Donna Awatere Huata into the number 4 position on the list, after the membership had only voted her to number 37 (?) on the list.
The structure of the party organisation was also one that clearly represented the new political age of technological communication. Act sought to make the most of technology and up-to-date commercial organisational philosophy. For example, each JAG was required to have a leader and a systems operator connected by computer to the party management. Act also set up an online internet bulletin board for the purpose of internal communication between party members (Malcolm, 10 Dec 1994). Additionally, in 1995 the party spent $10,000 on a computer database listing every voter (Booker and Evans, 21 Jul 1995: p.12).
Act’s use of computers illustrates just how technology has been changing the core nature and operations of political parties. As Brian Arps, of Act’s management says: ‘It will be much quicker than mail and easier than calling public meetings. The old branch meeting in draughty halls on the first Monday of the month - that has got to go’ (quoted in Malcolm, 10 Dec 1994). The Act management claimed that the aim of this philosophy was to avoid draining the enthusiasm of its activists (Small, 11 Nov 1994: p.24).
Despite the supposed professionalism of the organisational structure there was, a lot of organisational turmoil in the first two or three years of Act’s existence. For example, the party went through nine chief executives in three years (Corbett, 31 May 1996: p.14). One of these was high-profile marketing guru David Walden previously of Saatchi and Saatchi (Booker and Evans, 21 Jul 1995: p.12).
Despite the supposed expertise and enthusiasm of Act’s staff and activists, the early period of Act’s activity was in fact defined by incompetence and failure. According to Carr, the ‘surprising characteristic of all the activity was that nothing much ever happened. Advertisements never got tested, campaigns never ran, computer programmes never got finished, teams never got formed, letters never got written’ (Carr, 1997: p.93). Throughout his 1997 book, The Dark Art of Politics, Simon Carr paints a picture of party in never ending turmoil and confusion: ‘nobody knows what's going on, and the maul thunders on’ (Carr, 1997: p.88).
Despite the professionalised nature of Act, never-the-less it recruited a membership that, in the modern New Zealand context, was not insignificant. By 1996, the new leader, Richard Prebble was claiming that Act had ‘the second largest political party [membership] in the country' (Prebble, 1996). This was no small achievement, as these two goals – a professionalised party and large membership – are usually mutually exclusively achievements.
The extent of internal-party democracy in Act was however questionable. Certainly the party structure indicated this: A board of trustees with a lot of power; a policy formation process which appears to be very much top-down; a party hierarchy controlling the party list; and a board of trustees that appoints both the leader and deputy leader. Clearly Act had achieved its goal of a modern professionalised political party.
Next blog post: Initial failure