As soon as Act was in Parliament, there was a perceptible shift in the party’s activity. As the Parliamentary caucus sprung into action, the MPs looked less like Roger Douglas protégés, and more like the leader, Richard Prebble. While the Act leadership probably thought that their first year in Parliament was a time to define the party’s brand more clearly, the new MPs ended up being identified with trivia, side-issues and gossip. [Read more below]
The populist side of Act emerged early in Act’s Parliamentary existence, when Rodney Hide launched his anti-perks campaign. Hide’s campaign sought to expose the alleged extravagant use of tax-payers money by politicians. Hide released material that was critical of individual MP’s expenditure on such things as taxi-chits and air travel, and he subsequently became known as the 'Perk buster'.
The main Act campaign of 1997 was its opposition to a proposed Ministerial office building behind the Beehive. There is no doubt that this was a populist campaign. Prebble later spelt out how Act was able to convert what was a logical debate into a simplistic and emotional argument:
According to Prebble, Act had needed a campaign ‘to show that we could be effective’ and to dramatise the Act philosophy. The populist issues were judged by the caucus to be what they were looking for (Prebble, 1997: p.23).
Behind the scenes, however, the campaign had caused considerable unease within the party. Although the opponents of Act’s new populist style within the party did not necessarily disagree with Hide’s campaigns, they saw such issues as peripheral to the deeper policy message that they believed the MPs should be working to promote. Roger Douglas, in particularly, was apparently ‘worried that the easy headlines have come at the expense of real political progress’ (Clifton, 10 May 1997).
Related to this, one of the party’s new parliamentary outputs was The Goss, a gossip sheet put out by fax and email. This represented the new Act style – The Goss was trendy, witty and lightweight. Unsurprisingly, Roger Douglas was said to hate it (Carr, 1997: p.120).
Prebble, who claimed to be against the populist strategy, talked in detail about the range of views within caucus:
The populist strategy made quite an impact on the 1997 political year, as Hide had wanted it to, but in the final instance the campaign did not appear to increase support for Act in the opinion polls. If anything, the strategy has simply further obscured the party’s deeper policy message.
Next blog post: The National-Act relationship