In the 2002 general election campaign Act was in a defensive mode – attempting to defend its 7% of the party vote. It therefore made a significant effort to rid itself of its extremist image (James, 2002i). This might have been an influence of president Catherine Judd’s Liberal Project within the party. According to Colin James, it tried ‘to present a less rednecked and less radical image than in 1999’ (James, 2002f). [Read more below]
Yet it wasn’t just socially conservative policies that were downplayed – economic policies were further watered-down. Act’s tax statement now pledged to make only minor changes to the income tax – with the top personal rate being dropped to 28%, and the present 19.5% rate being lowered to 18% (McLoughlin, 2002: p.2).
Act was now unsure of its own positioning on the liberal-conservative political spectrum and attempted to display a different identity to various audiences. As Trotter observed, ‘In publications like The Independent, ACT's propaganda reiterated the party's commitment to the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism: individual liberty, private property and the rule of law. But the slogans it put on billboards and the messages it broadcast on radio and television highlighted exactly the same "hot-button" issues as New Zealand First – crime and punishment and the treaty’ (Trotter, 31 Jul 2002).
This strategy was possibly responsible for Act’s survival at the 2002 election, after it was consistently polling below the 5% threshold. After the populist and scandal-mongering campaigns by Act MPs like Hide, the party was forced to drop their ‘Values. Not politics’ slogan for the very reason that it invited ridicule from a public that increasing thought the party actually stood for ‘Politics. Not values’ (James, 15 Jul 2002).
In a post-election analysis, party manager Graham Watson said that Act’s vote-catching ability might have been limited because Act and National had been positioned too close together. Although Watson blamed National for being ‘uncomfortably close’ to Act, his comments indicated that Act had failed to distinguish itself from others on the right of the political spectrum (Mold, 2002c).
With the continuing decline in the popularity of neoliberalism and firming support for the centrist Third way approach, Act was 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 was now in retreat. It had slowly jettisoned both its original policies and its raison d’etre of implementing Roger Douglas’ ‘unfinished business’.
Gone were 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, 2000a: pp.74-75).
Replacing these policies and goals was a pragmatic party that 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). Prebble now even described Douglas’ ideas as ‘utopian’ (Laxon, 1999a).
Even Act’s own president, Catherine Judd, was critical of this shift, and outlined the decline of radicalism in the party:
Although Douglas claimed in 2000, ‘there is no difference between National, Labour, Alliance or New Zealand First, except in matter of degree’, by 2002 it appeared that Act also now only differed from these parties by matters of degree (Prebble, 2000).
[Act Party history] 30: Some conclusions