Throughout 1997 a substantial divide developed within the Act party caucus over the general direction that the party had been taking within Parliament. The substance of the division was mainly to do with two general strategic issues:  the question of Act’s strategic orientation towards National and,  Act’s populist campaigns. In the debate over the populism, Rodney Hide and Richard Prebble appeared at one pole of the caucus, while Derek Quigley and Patricia Schnauer were at the opposite policy-orientated pole. The divide was so great, that speculation grew about Quigley looking to leave Act for National. [Read more below]
Outside of the caucus, Roger Douglas – who still had a strong role in the party – certainly had concerns about Act's direction, and in particular its populist campaigns. Diplomatically, Douglas explained his disapproval to the media by saying that ‘sometimes their message is so strong in other areas that it crowds out the message in areas I prefer to see them concentrate on' (quoted in Laugesen, 2 Nov 1997: p.C1).
Interestingly, the divide over the correct orientation to National involved a very similar configuration of caucus members – with the policy-orientated group being more inclined towards a friendly relationship with the National Party and pushing for Act to focus their energy on combating the leftwing parties.
Throughout 1996 and 1997 there were also internal problems or differences involving individuals in the caucus. Derek Quigley had previously shown himself to be somewhat of a party maverick. He was certainly well known for being so during his time in the Muldoon Government. But even in Act he had always tended to do his own thing. For example, according to Simon Carr:
As a result, there was some speculation that Quigley was about to leave Act for National. Prebble says that he ‘poured cold water on the notion that Derek was going to do an Alamein Kopu and said to the media that Derek would only join if the Coalition agreement was ripped up and the government adopted a different policy. Derek obligingly provided a list of fourteen points - basically the Act manifesto - as a negotiating tool' (Prebble, 1997: pp.21-22).
Donna Awatere-Huata was another Act MP with an individualistic and independent style. Her background was neither Labour nor National, but in Maori nationalism and activism. Awatere Huata’s position in the caucus become uncomfortable as ‘race relations’ issues also played a part in Act’s factious party caucus. Very early in the caucus’s existence, according to Prebble, differences arose over ethnicity issues:
The issue became more intense in late 1997 when the issue of Maori-leased land in Taranaki arose and Act emphasised its sympathy and support for the farmers. Tensions increased amongst the MPs to the point of physical violence breaking out at one caucus meeting. Donna Awatere-Huata obviously found herself in an uncomfortable position, and throughout 1997 she considered leaving the party.
Leading such a diverse and factious caucus was no easy job for Prebble. One way of dealing with the diversity was to make good use of team retreats. A second device was Prebble’s insistence on following the party list order in allocating any parliamentary and party resources. Prebble’s reasoning for this was the belief that internal competition creates an inefficient party, due to the counter-productive and divisive politicking that occurs in order to gain advantages (Prebble, 1997: p.23).
Next blog post: Act’s second term