A central part of Act’s strategy for 1996 was to recruit some Members of Parliament to the party. The lack of any representation in Parliament prior to the 1996 election had proved a significant disadvantage to Act. Still low in the opinion poll ratings, a sense of desperation developed in the party. In early 1996 the party leadership therefore set about to recruit a number of MPs from other parties, hoping this would rectify Act’s problems. Serious prospects included Maurice Williamson, Phil Goff, Peter Dunne, Bruce Cliffe and the whole United party. [Read more below]
Act had secret negotiations with MPs from National, Labour, Future New Zealand, and the United New Zealand party as a whole. According to party insider Simon Carr, ‘It seemed almost certain to some of us that Act would attract half a dozen MPs and a cabinet minister – two even – to form a parliamentary party well before the last election’ (Carr, 1997: pp.96). Despite this optimism, not a single MP was recruited.
According to Carr, ‘the cabinet minister Maurice Williamson had come to the very point of declaring publicly he was going to lead Act into the election. He came up for the final meeting and made it clear that he was off to see Bolger on Saturday morning to break the news to him' (Carr, 1997: p.96). But in the end Bolger was able to persuade Williamson to stay with National. It was reported that Williamson’s flirtation with Act was based on his concern ‘about the lack of a prospective coalition partner for National’ (Scott, 16 March 1996: pp.16-17).
Negotiations with the United New Zealand party had a real marriage of convenience nature about them, as both parties had been performing very poorly in the polls. A union always looked unlikely, as United was marketing itself as a party of moderation and the Act option was obviously repugnant to some of the key United people. As negotiations went on, the United leader claimed: ‘I'm not closing the door on it, but there are significant differences between us and we hold quite different positions in the political spectrum’ (quoted in Bell, 9 January 1996: p.2). John Robertson was also reported as saying that both parties had ‘some common ground – both parties believed in the free market and the importance of small business’ (Bell, 9 January 1996: p.2).
Eventually it became apparent that the United MPs had been divided over the possible merger with Act, with the ex-Labourites opposing any association with Act. Ex-National MP Bruce Cliffe made public comments about the need for the two parties to work together, and it was rumoured that the Act leadership was willing to accept Cliffe as their party leader (Bell, 10 January 1996: p.2). Finally United decided Act was too extreme.
Before United’s formation, Act had invited Peter Dunne and his Future New Zealand Party to join their party. Certainly there were some policy agreements between the two parties. However, Dunne had no interest in joining Act, as he conveyed in an interview with David McLoughlin:
"Douglas has this mindset where I'm pigeonholed as a junior minister in the late 1980s. He sees me as some minor figure, whereas I've come a long way since then. I have a reputation of my own now." Dunne also doesn't like some of ACT's policies. "They think the world stopped in January 1988 [when David Lange torpedoed Douglas's flat-tax package] and they think they can pick up everything from there. Well, they can't. The world has moved on and so have I."’ (David McLoughlin, Dec 1994: p.52-55).
Act later went public about the failed talks with United, and ‘accused United of stealing its idea of forming a coalition with National. It also claimed the much of United's recently announced policy was stolen from Act' (Scott, 16 March 1996: pp.16-17). Act also 'revealed that it had held talks with Labour's Phil Goff about his joining Act’ (Scott, 16 March 1996: pp.16-17).
In April 1996, after failing to recruit any MPs, Act released a statement of its new policy on recruitment that amounted to a reversal of its previous attitude. It was reported that Act would not welcome MPs from other parties who wanted to join it before the election (NZPA, 9 April 1996: p.5). Act now regarded itself above accepting just any MP, and stated it did not want opportunist MPs who had missed out on selection in their own party.
Despite all its re-branding and new found moderation, support for Act remained low – and constantly below the 5% MMP threshold. If there was any one explanation for this failure, it was that the policies and right-wing image of Act was still holding the party back.
The group of management consultants hired was, according to Simon Carr, given the job to explore the possibility of ‘redefining success’ for the party. In other words, the party was failing at its original goal, and so consultants were asked to find Act a new goal. ‘The idea was to say Act would have achieved its goals if it could get it policies and principles accepted rather than politicians into Parliament' (Carr, 1997: p.91). Likewise, an advertising agency was hired to conceptualise new slogans for the party. The best they came up with, in Carr’s opinion, was: ‘If you’re mad, vote Act’ (Carr, 1997).
Next blog post: Factions in Act