It was obvious that the futures of the National and Act parties were always going to be closely linked. However there had been division within the Act over how to orientate towards the National Party, with the main question being: should Act treat National as a political ally (and therefore work with it) or as an enemy (and therefore seek to displace it)? This debate was not easily resolved and in 1996 the new Act caucus had to consider if it would be willing to play a role in a coalition government with National. [Read more below]
The creation of a New Zealand First-National coalition government in 1996 boded well for Act’s medium-term future, as Act was now well positioned to pick up National voters alienated by National’s involvement with New Zealand First and its spending policies. As one political commentator pointed out: ‘By pulling National to the centre. NZF will clear the entire right of the spectrum for Act to occupy' (Campbell, 9 Nov 1996: p.18).
Although in 1996 Act campaigned as a coalition partner or political ally of the National Party, in 1997 Act changed tact training its guns back onto National and New Zealand First, instead of concentrating on Labour and the Alliance. While this strategy of merely redividing votes on the right appeared to make little long-term sense, it was, as Jane Clifton pointed out, akin to the previous battle on the left between Labour and the Alliance and there appeared ‘to be a genuine ideological clash at work here' (Clifton, 10 May 1997: p.28).
The Labour-Alliance ruction should have provided Act and National with a warning of the dangers of a hard fight on the right between the two. After all, the Labour-Alliance rift had been partly responsible for the two parties’ long time in opposition. Commenting on this, Chris Trotter suggested that National and Act would be wise to avoid such a scenario and instead identify their mutual interests and ‘carve up their constituency intelligently’ (Trotter, 11 Feb 1998: p.13).
Debate over the National-Act relationship largely occurred along historical lines within Act. Those who came from National Party backgrounds were naturally sympathetic to a closer relationship with that party, whereas those from a Labour Party background were more inclined to keep a distance.
Derek Quigley argued that although ‘Act's long-term potential is to supersede National’, ‘the whole point of the democratic process is to make a difference. And the only way to do that is to be part of the Coalition and supply a couple of Ministers’ (Prebble, 1997: pp.21-22). In contrast, Prebble’s view was: ‘If Act were to join a NZ First-National Coalition I believe we would have had very little effect and we would simply disappear in the same way the United Party did’ (Prebble, 1997: pp.21-22).
The 1996 Act strategy had aimed to ‘grow the right-wing vote’ and was therefore friendly in its orientation towards National. But in 1997 the party thought differently. One party activist, Mike Stenevald, was quoted in a Jane Clifton column as saying: ‘It's not our job to grow the right, anyway’; ‘We once thought so, but now we're about growing our party by competing directly with National. National's voters will realise that National left them some years ago, by trying to be all things to all people’ (quoted in Clifton, 10 May 1997: p.28).
The campaign against the ‘Parliamentary Palace’ was one of Act’s most damaging public attacks on National, but Act also frequently voted against the Government in the House. Act also continued to antagonise National by moving in on National’s traditional support when Act re-orientated towards the farming sector in 1996.
Later in 1997, internal party events saw Act ‘quietly move into a more supportive role in relation to National, after a decision that the party's job was not to bring this government down (Laugesen, 2 Nov 1997: p.C1). Attention was then more focused on combating Labour.
Next blog post: Socially conservative repositioning