The defining feature of Act’s first few years was their process of ‘rebranding’ – as the party worked to recreate its public identity again and again. First Act went from being a programmatic ‘party of policy’ to being a ‘party of personalities’, and then again under Richard Prebble it was re-branded as a ‘party of values and virtues’. The new strategy was clearly a lowering of the party’s horizons, and emphasis was now on 'reform rather than revolution' [Read more below]
Becoming a political party had meant that the Act had to actually brand itself in relation to the already existing political parties, which had an immediate moderating effect. To brand a party as truly different to the other contenders would, in today’s political climate, be to reinforce any public perceptions of extremism. This is the trade-off for entering the ‘party system’ – the party must operate in relation to its competitors. Had the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers remained a lobby group, their scope for branding themselves would have remained relatively wide. But once the party entered a marketplace where the large majority of the votes are to be found in the middle of the political spectrum, the chase for votes also meant moderating the organisation’s policies.
During 1996 the main message that Act attempted to impress on the public was the party’s commitment to protecting the economic gains of the last 12 years and the current economic settings and framework. This was not a radical stance, but actually a status quo stance. It did little to differentiate Act from the National Party, nor from the plethora of new conservative parties who were also committed to the reforms.
The new strategy was clearly a lowering of the party’s horizons. After all, Act had originally been a party that saw the current configuration of the economy as representing ‘unfinished business’ – an economy only half reformed. Their raison d’être was had been the extension of the ‘revolution’. Now the party had lowered it horizons to a defence of the unfinished job, and focused much less on the problems of the current system nor on projecting Act’s vision for the future.
As the leadership accepted that Act was  a minor party – one on the right-flank of the bigger and broader National Party, and  failing to win over voters with the logic of their programme, it attempted to shave off voting support from National through convincing such voters to vote for Act for tactical reasons, rather than because the voter necessarily agreed with Act’s policies or philosophy. The strategy was to encourage National supporters to give Act their ‘second’ (party) vote. Their somewhat parasitical message – dressed up as the party being ‘reasonable and co-operative’ – was that Act was the only party that could help National remain in government. Act was National voters’ ‘MMP insurance’, according to the Act advertising.
Prebble was essentially advocating a re-orientation of the party’s message towards the middle-class National voter. This was because Prebble had seen – quite correctly – that the strategy of chasing the disenfranchised and poor had failed to deliver the party the votes in question. After two years of campaigning, lower socio-economic voters were the least likely group in society to support Act (see Bain, 1996: p.2).
Act now fully accepted, despite its earlier objections, that the position it inhabited was to right of the National Party on the political spectrum. Likewise it ceased to emphasise its ‘social justice’ component – which had been a theme that Roger Douglas, in particular, pushed within the party for Act to identify itself with.
In line with Prebble’s general non-policy focus and dislike of detail, the new leader steered the party away from its practice of dispersing detailed policy statements towards that of communicating 'virtues' and 'values'. This strategy was partially in response to the public’s perception of the party as wacky and hair-brained. Douglas’s leadership, in particularly, had given the impression that Act was a party of 'policy wonks' – perhaps selling a modern version of Social Credit’s A+B theorem. Style rather than substance was the new selling point.
The new Act was also seeking to portray itself as ‘above conventional politics’. Under Prebble, the party sought to take advantage of the public’s disenchantment with parliamentary politics, parties and governments by appearing to be an alternative or new-style political party. This was an early entry of the party into populist politics. Prebble constantly conveyed his alleged goal of wanting to get people elected to Parliament, not politicians into office. Apparently ‘these untainted citizens would be ordinary Kiwis - people you would like as your next-door neighbour' (Scott, 21 Sept 1996: pp.16-17).
Next blog post: Softening its image