What shape is the Act Party in after six months of being in government? That’s the question asked that was asked this week by Radio New Zealand National’s Focus on Politics programme, for which I was interviewed. You can hear the programme here (or the Morning Report abridged version here). This blog post draws on previous material, elaborates on some of the points I made to the Focus on Politics show, and generally discusses the Act party’s ideological disorientation, social conservatism, and shift towards both the centre and possible irrelevance. [Read more below]
Act’s economic agenda abandoned
The Act party was launched to complete Roger Douglas’ 1980s neoliberal economic project, and therefore it was originally based almost exclusively around economics. In its early days, the Act was known for promoting very low taxes, a minimal state, increased individual responsibility, and a general continuation of the new right “revolution”. Roger Douglas’s book Unfinished Business was essentially the party's founding document. The essence of Act’s philosophy was a strong belief in deregulated markets and a minimal State.
But now the economic element of the party has now essentially been abandoned in favour of a concentration on socially conservative issues. In the recent election in 2008, Act pushed its socially conservative message on law and order – this was in lieu of a concentration on its economic policy. Act’s anti-crime messages has increasingly replaced neoliberalism in Act campaign in every election campaign since 1996. The problem, however, was that so many political parties agree with tough sentences for criminals that it's become almost a dead issue. To make itself stand out against the crowd Act "sidled up" to the Sensible Sentencing Trust and parachuted Sensible Sentencing Trust legal adviser David Garrett into a top list position to show to voters that the party was more serious about law and order than the others.
Those in the party that are still driven by their desire to see economic reform, are likely to see their best chance to do so will come over the next eighteen months, as the National-led Government grapples with economic problems. Yet it's interesting that the first policy that Act is trying to get through in government is the non-economic three-strikes bill. The fact that the party of economic reform is finally in government but not pushing economic reforms in the middle of an economic crisis shows just how unpalatable the party's neoliberal economic agenda is. It’s also an indication of just how out of kilter Act’s economic agenda is with a National Government that is increasingly interventionist rather than laissez faire.
The decline of the economic dimension
Of all the minor parties Act has been the most ideally placed to gain from the centrist transformation of the National Party under John Key. National’s shift into the centre of the political spectrum meant that – unlike when Don Brash led National in 2005 – Act had a large potential market of voters on the right to win. Yet Act was unable to take much advantage of this situation, and although it won 3.7% of the vote, this was considerably short of the 7% that the party won in both the 1999 and 2002 elections.
Act’s decline strongly mirrors the decline of the Alliance. Both parties stood off to the left and right of the major parties and were clearly defined by their programmes towards neoliberalism: the Alliance wanted to roll it back, and Act wanted to roll it out further. Once a 'new centre' essentially formed in favour of the status quo, both programmes became irrelevant. The post-1999 Labour Government effectively killed off both parties by ending the neoliberal debate when they adopted the so-called Third Way of accepting and selling a “kinder” neoliberalism with some minor adjustments - hence Act and the Alliance had nothing more to say, and voters had no great reason to vote for them.
The tide has clearly gone out on neoliberal economic reforms. Neoliberalism has been both cemented in the new policy consensus of Labour and National, but also discredited within the eyes of the public, which means that very few want the Act-type agenda pushed further.
Act is now economically much more moderate
With the continuing decline in the popularity of neo-liberalism and firming support for the centrist Third way approach, Act has been very obviously swimming against the political tide. Rather than being on ‘the side of history’, as the party might have felt when it was formed, Act has been in retreat. It has slowly jettisoned both its original policies and its raison d’etre of implementing Roger Douglas’ ‘unfinished business’. Gone are the days when it unashamedly and fundamentally stood for ‘much more extensive deregulation: very low income tax, more private funding and delivery of health care, personal choice in education, including private providers, low government spending, rapid privatisation of government assets, and extensive dismantling of economic and planning regulations’ (James, 2000: pp.74-75).
Replacing these policies and goals are a pragmatic party that has focused its pitch, according to James, ‘on populist issues aimed at less well-off voters who might normally be expected to lean towards Labour: lower taxes (sold as a populist measure); cuts in welfare (aimed at stirring "downwards envy" towards able-bodied people who were not working); harsher measures against criminals; and the Treaty of Waitangi "sunset" targets’ (ibid pp.74-75).
Is Act a party of social conservativism or liberalism?
The liberal-conservative debate currently within Act is nothing new. There has been a struggle over Act’s internal liberal vs conservative ideological stance from the very beginnings of the party. Early on within the party there were rural tendencies, pragmatists, social conservatives, ex-Labour social liberals, and libertarian ideological purists.
But soon after getting elected to Parliament, Act moved to reposition itself as a more socially-conservative party. The new strategy did not fit well with its previous ‘progressive-liberal’ image. This earlier intelligent repositioning had focused on winning urban-liberal support, leaving National to concentrate on the rural and provincial vote. So although Prebble, when taking the leadership, declared Act ‘a credible, liberal progressive centre-right party’, it soon drifted towards replicating the traditional National Party, in seeking the support of the conservative rural voter.
As it moderated its radical economic positions so as not to be so far outside the ‘new centre’, Act took up an increasingly socially conservative programme as a radical replacement. Pushing populist buttons on issues such as the Treaty and crime meant that Act could moderate its economic message, suiting the new consensus that was developing in this area, but at the same time differentiate itself from National. Since National had adopted many of Labour’s liberal stances on social issues, there was a gap in the political market for these conservative voters. Furthermore, with the pendulum swinging even further away from the hard economic right, Act quickly needed to abandon its more purist messages in order to retain support. Emphasising these populist issues was a way of deemphasising its neoliberal founding polices without having to totally abandon its founding principles.
On issues such as welfare, immigration, crime, environmentalism and minority rights, Act has been adopting populist and conservative positions. The issue of violence and crime in society has also increased in importance in recent years, after a period when crime was not heavily political. In recent elections nearly all the parties have adopted hard-line law and order policies. In particular, it seems all the parties of the centre and centre-right have been attempting to outbid each other in order to differentiate themselves as the party of law and order.
The emergence of contentious social issues since the late-1990s suggests that the socially liberal consensus that had been developing earlier in the 1990s has been breaking down, especially due to a concerted effort by conservative parties to differentiate themselves from the parties inhabiting the centre. It seems that because the new centre is mostly based around the economic, third way consensus, any parties that wish to differentiate themselves must find other non-economic points of difference.
In the past, when polarisation on the main socio-economic spectrum was greater, the parties could afford to move into a consensus on social issues, but once the spread on the socio-economic scale shrunk, polarisation on postmaterialist issues was triggered. Most parties have chosen societal issues and positions on ‘identity politics’ as a way of asserting points of difference. This is especially the case for parties of the right in opposition, as they cannot make any progress by emphasising their centrist economic policies since the parties to their left have already claimed the economic centre as their own. Instead, the parties of the right offer a move to more conservative social stances to complement their orthodox economic orientation.
Can parties and politicians of the right – like the Act party - be socially liberal?
To get an idea of just how socially conservative and middle-of-the-road the Act Party is, a comparison with Bob Jones’ old New Zealand party is apt. This mid-1980s party showed that you can be radically economic rightwing as well as radically social liberal and still get 12% of the vote (even under FPP).
At a time when both the National and Labour parties appeared to still be ideologically bland, the 1983 launch of the New Zealand Party was an exciting development for the New Zealand political system. The party was established and led by wealthy and high profile Wellington property investor Bob Jones who, along with thousands of other National Party members and voters, decided that Muldoon’s National Party could not be broken from its postwar consensus policies, and a more dynamic liberal party was required (Gustafson, 1986: pp.148-149). The new party was therefore made up of a generation of social and market liberals who wished to reinvigorate ‘the political right around the principles of liberal capitalism’ (Aimer, 2001: p.274). The New Zealand Party therefore espoused a radical change of direction for New Zealand society. The party was most well-known for its libertarian and anti-state political platform which condemned the welfare state and preached freedom from economic regulation and taxes.
Significantly, the party also had very liberal and far-reaching policies on social and moral issues – which distinguished it from new right parties in other countries that were more authoritarian or populist (Spoonley, 1987: p.233). The party was remarkably radical on issues of personal freedom, strongly advocating women’s right to abortion, the availability of contraception, and the legalisation of drug use and other behaviour that they labelled ‘victim-less crimes’. The party was also anti-censorship, but generally quite conservative on law and order issues. These mostly libertarian positions on social issues dovetailed with the party’s liberal economic policies. In foreign policy, the New Zealand Party not only endorsed a nuclear-free policy that was more radical than the Labour Party’s, but they advocated a position of unarmed neutrality for New Zealand, effectively disestablishing the defence forces and officially pulling out of ANZUS. The New Zealand Party was also seen as utopian on education issues, expounding that much more money be spent. Likewise, the party was radical in favouring substantial government involvement in the arts. They also emphasised environmental and quality-of-life issues.
How important is Roger Douglas for Act?
Act essentially ran two separate election campaigns in 2008: one for leader Rodney Hide in Epsom, and one for Act nationally. These parallel campaigns reflected the historic schism in the party between the populist, and pragmatic high-visability Hide, and the more ideologically-pure neoliberal party vote campaign represented by the Roger Douglas faction.
Hide has strongly branded himself as Epsom MP and an Auckland MP, but in doing so he has weakened the Act Party brand
Will Act breakup over social conservatism?
No. The internal debate will not be vociferous enough to lead to a break up of Act because, although there will be some disgruntlement with David Garrett within the party, most of the social liberals have already left the party. A clear majority within Act are now social conservatives.
What’s more, the Act leadership knew what it was getting itself into when it accepted Garrett and the granting to him such a high list position
Garrett’s illiberalism over law and order obviously resonates with a large number of voters. The profile and popularity he is bringing to Act will justify his place in the party for some time yet.
But if Garrett goes too far – for example, if he starts to crusade on his former hobbyhorse of reintroducing the death penalty – this might be a step too far for some.
What is the future for Act?
Also, not only has the ideological tide of history moved against both Act and the Alliance (and now New Zealand First, too), but their leaders became obsessed with moderating their programme and moving towards the centre of the political spectrum - effectively destroying their own 'unique points of difference'. I asked Rodney Hide recently what Act stood for and why he thinks no one knows what they stand for, and he couldn’t answer the question. I suggested that the party was no longer radical, and all he could say was 'we’re as radical as hell!' Clearly Hide and Act are not only in decline, disoriented, and desperate, but also self-deluded.
Thus, although it started out as a party reflecting the image of Roger Douglas, and therefore attempted to be ‘the intellectual powerhouse of the right’, Act quickly became a moderate shadow of its former self. The grand vision is gone. Act might have Roger Douglas back in Parliament, but today Act is now essentially “The Roger Douglas Party without the Rogernomics”.
NB: Thanks to Geoffrey Miller and John Moore for their input into some of this material.