Early on in Act’s history, commentators were inclined to categorise Act as a new right urban-liberal party – a party that is rightwing on economic issues, but liberal on social ones, and sophisticated rather than traditional. This was certainly an image the party leadership, and in particular Richard Prebble, wished to convey. According to political analyst-satirist Dave Armstrong (writing in 1997): ‘This is the image Act are successfully portraying: they're fun-loving trendy young things with Pajeros and CD Roms. Act is the National Party without all the boring old farts who want compulsory military training, respect for the flag and a drinking age of thirty-three’ (Dave Armstrong, 1997: p.8). But in reality, the party was always somewhat less socially liberal than they might have seemed, and this was concealed only by the fact that they had initially chosen not to market themselves as social conservatives. [Read more below]
Certainly Roger Douglas was never very socially liberal, and in Act he pushed the conservative idea that the ills of modern society, such as crime, were ‘caused by the breakdown of the family and individual responsibility' (Jackson, 7 August 1996: p.1). According to a news report on Douglas’s plans for welfare reform, Act’s solutions would likewise involve this type of old-fashioned conservatism:
Prebble, too, has at times been prone to court the conservative vote. For example, in his 1997 book What Happens Next, Prebble suggests that New Zealand should repeal its anti-nuclear legislation, as the ‘United States Navy has removed its nuclear warheads from its ships’ and because the economic ‘advantages to NZ of such an action are profound' (Prebble, 1997: p.51).
The fact that the party membership had originally only ranked Donna Awatere-Huata at number 37 on the party list is perhaps indicative of the conservative nature of the wider Act membership. Awatere-Huata was seen to represent a more radical and non-mainstream element in the party, and was therefore unpopular.
Act was also said to have a Christian-wing, led by the conservative MP Owen Jennings - a lay preacher, and the chairman of the Christchurch-based Christian Resource Centre. Certainly Act did not mind associating itself with New Right Christians such as David Green, author of the Business Roundtable published book, From Welfare State to Civil Society. Also, at Act’s 1998 annual conference, the keynote speaker was American, Father Robert Sirico, a strong proponent of the view that the church, not the state, should provide a society’s moral guidance.
Part of the reason for Act’s initial decision to market itself as an urban-liberal party, was probably due to the fact that during the 1993-96 re-configuration of the party system, the conservative section of the political marketplace was well supplied with parties. Although the National Party was at that time pushing a less socially-conservative image, the new Right-of-Centre party (later “The Conservatives”) and the Christian parties (later the Christian Coalition) had a better chance of winning conservative voters to their brands than Act did.
In 1997 Act moved to reposition itself once again, this time targeting farmers and the more conservative voters. Owen Jennings had always pushed for Act to identify with the rural sector. His argument was that farmers, being stanch individualists, should be natural Act supporters. In 1996 Jennings had taken a ‘rural roadshow’ around New Zealand, and in 1997 this became his principle activity.
Act’s new desire to win the rural vote was immediately questionable. The strategy obviously did not fit well with their previous ‘progressive-liberal’ image, and it seemed to be a strategy that would undo its relatively successful repositioning of 1996. This intelligent repositioning had left rural and provincial New Zealand to National, while ACT concentrated on urban areas (Trotter, 11 February 1998: p.13). Chris Trotter wrote a column in February 1998 questioning whether Act really wanted ‘to be seen as a dour, morally conservative, collection of "men in suits"?’:
The logic of Act’s redirection therefore seems rather questionable. The explanation, no doubt, lies not in an unanimous and conscious decision by the party leadership, but more likely in the natural unfolding of events and the further ascendancy of the rural wing of the party. So although Prebble, when taking the leadership, pronounced Act as ‘a credible, liberal progressive centre-right party’, it seems to have drifted towards replicating the traditional, socially-conservative strand of the National Party.
Part of the explanation related to the party’s declining ability or desire to push radical economic policies. As it moderated its radical economic positions so as not to be so far outside the ‘new centre’ that was developing in post-reform New Zealand politics, 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.
Next blog post: Further economic moderation