Pity Heather Roy. Suddenly the low-profile deputy leader of the Act Party has become the party’s she-devil – a subtle and manipulative plotter out to destroy everything she has helped the party to gain. This is a commonly-held analysis in the New Zealand political world at the moment. But guest blogger and Act-watcher Geoffrey Miller puts forward another interpretation. He argues below that the party’s real difficulty is the 72-year old backbencher – Roger Douglas – who has, Rodney Hide told Miller in 2007, ‘always bagged his own team, he's done that his entire life in politics, and so he's continued’. Roy, by contrast is merely rational, rather than radical, and unlikely to have been a ringleader in the 2009 failed Act leadership coup. [Read more below]
The case against Heather Roy
The Heather Roy conspiracy supposedly climaxed with her speech to Act’s annual conference in Wellington at the end of last month where supposedly the knives were still out for party leader Rodney Hide. The political commentator at the New Zealand Herald, John Armstrong, told readers that Roy had hidden ‘numerous, if subtle, digs at Hide personally’ throughout her speech. To Armstrong, Roy’s statement that ‘Holding an electorate seat and a couple of percentage points of party vote is not good enough’ is evidently not a blindingly obvious observation about the state in which Act has found itself since 2005, but an attempt to bury a metaphorical hatchet ‘deep in Hide's back’.
Armstrong’s commentary spurred on further incredible claims. Always keen to stick the knife in, Deborah Coddington, a disgruntled former Act MP, claimed in her latest Herald on Sunday column that Roy ‘certainly has the capacity to destroy Act, and she has some backing within the party. Hopefully they'll find her a job back in physiotherapy if that tragic day eventuates’. (Flashback: in 2007, Coddington was criticizing Hide for being ‘rapt in his own dancing, flash suits, swimming and catwalk modelling’.)
On Saturday, it was Michele Hewitson’s turn:
I'd asked whether, at any stage in the future, she and Roger would try to roll Rodney. She said that Rodney could get run over by a bus tomorrow. Yes, and if he did, people would speculate that she and Roger had been driving the bus. "Well, they might. But they'd be wrong."
Or take columnist Jane Clifton, who acidly wrote that Roy’s speech was encoded with a message reading ‘Rodney is a big, fat dork!’ and, topping Coddington, adding that ‘those who have now worked with her in Government have failed to detect any modestly concealed quotients of charisma or superior intellect’. (quoted by Cactus Kate).
To be fair to Clifton, Sir Roger Douglas comes in for some criticism as well in her column, although it is hardly as vociferous. And therein lies the problem. Suddenly, Heather Roy is being blamed for all Act’s problems. Yet, the party’s real difficulty is the 72-year old backbencher who has ‘always bagged his own team, he's done that his entire life in politics, and so he's continued’ – as Rodney Hide told me in 2007.
The failed coup in 2009
What happened within Act at the end of 2009? According to Audrey Young, who broke the story on December 19, it was a failed coup plot:
Act founder Sir Roger Douglas, with deputy leader and Consumer Affairs Minister Heather Roy, is understood to have led moves in the party against Mr Hide during the controversy over the international travel costs of his partner
The other piece of information of significance in Young’s report was the fact that, according to Young, Prime Minister John Key ‘told Mrs Roy that if Mr Hide were removed from the leadership, her own ministerial position would be in jeopardy’. That’s it. As the report states, no vote was taken over the leadership. All of the persons concerned have, naturally, denied that any coup attempt took place, or that there is any rift. It's clear that something went on, but it's not clear exactly what.
Perhaps Roy was involved. Perhaps she weighed up the possibilities. Perhaps the news about the plot was overstated, and was maliciously spread by a National source so as to destabilize a troublesome partner in government. Whatever the case, Roy had little to gain and everything to lose from such a plot. If the ‘plot’ had gone through, she would at best have remained deputy leader, but this time under a volatile Douglas, with a divided caucus and a humiliated Hide. At best.
Moreover, it’s possible to find comments in the past from Roy that are no less ‘devious’ as the remarks Armstrong found in her 2010 conference speech. In 2007, for example, Roy said on Radio New Zealand’s Focus on Politics (13 April 2007):
Well if we didn't have Epsom we wouldn't be here, I wouldn't have a job, so we work within that, the party places a big emphasis on Epsom because it is very important to us and we all acknowledge that. But we have MMP as a political system and that's very different to FPP and Act wouldn't exist as a party if it wasn't for MMP either, as many of the other small parties wouldn't. So you work within the system that you've got and you just get on and work to the strengths you've got. And Epsom is very much our core strength.
Therefore it’s clear that Roy has a track record of not being satisfied with Act’s status quo. And with a handful of MPs and minimal impact to date on decision making, this should hardly be surprising. But at the same time, she is rational, rather than radical. At the Act conference in 2008, I watched as she moderated a health policy ‘workshop’. Faced with some unpalatable Douglas-like proposals from the aging delegates, she skillfully moderated them into the more realistic policies already part of her policy programme.
Roger Douglas’ part in the coup
The idea of Douglas mounting a coup, on the other hand, is not only plausible, it’s predictable. After failing to attract any meaningful support for Act with himself as leader, Douglas instilled Richard Prebble as party leader in 1996. Time and time again he has attacked his own party, with little regard for the consequences. But Sir Roger was never content with leaving the party to its new leadership. He repeatedly attacked Act for ‘short-term politicking’ and revealing scandal, instead of concentrating on Act's purist economic message (‘Douglas reads Prebble the riot act’, Sunday Star-Times, 12 November 2000). Hide was always a key Douglas target, a fact which became abundantly clear with Douglas's resignation as party ‘patron’ in December 2004, just months after Hide had won the party's leadership contest – a veritable slap in the face.
The reunification of Douglas in early 2008 with the party he co-founded (with former National MP Derek Quigley) always seemed to be too good to be true. And it was. By the end of 2009, Douglas had clearly become impatient. For him, reforms needed to be radical and they needed to be fast. The incremental changes – like the Auckland Super City – which had become possible with Act’s five MPs were not enough for him. Douglas wanted his ‘20 point plan’ – full of Douglas’s favourite ideas like personal health and unemployment insurance, backed up with asset sales and substantial tax cuts – to be implemented as soon as possible. Instead, the ‘2025 taskforce’ report, the product of Douglas’s ideas after having been curated by the Act-friendly former National leader Don Brash, was shortly to be rubbished by the Prime Minister, before it was even published.
Looking for someone to blame for the lack of progress, Douglas pounced, as he always does. There’s only ever one right way – Roger’s way. And like he always does, Douglas walked away from the mess he created, leaving others to pick up the pieces – and to take the fall.
Geoffrey Miller is an occasional guest blogger at liberation. He wrote a political science dissertation on the Act Party, and established a blog about at the party – Douglas to Dancing (which is currently in hiatus, but contains a wealth of archives). Geoffrey currently lives and teaches in Mainz, Germany.