There are two conspiracy stories about the alleged November 2009 leadership challenge in the Act Party which is still dogging the party today. The dominant version about the so-called failed leadership coup is that deputy leader Heather Roy and maverick MP Roger Douglas conspired to topple Rodney Hide from the leadership position within Act. A second conspiracy theory that deserves some attention is the idea that the whole story is actually a beat-up, or at least an exaggeration, and that the story has actually been encouraged and exaggerated by Rodney Hide himself. Thus, rather than there being a conspiracy against Hide, there might well have been a conspiracy by Hide. This blog post outlines that possibility. [Read more below]
It’s hard to get to the bottom of exactly what is happening in the Act Party at the moment, to say nothing of what happened in the supposed attempted leadership coup of November 2009. It's very interesting that this saga carries on. It's all been quite odd – the story received very little coverage at first (due to the Xmas season coming quickly after the story broke on 19 December) and has slowly grown over the last month to a peak of the last few days. Despite the fact that nothing new has occurred in the story, it’s being discussed everywhere. For example, here’s a few recent news stories and blog posts relating to leadership splits:
Audrey Young - Leadership woes still plague Act
The Standard - More Act infighting
Red Alert - How long has Rodney got?
Tracey Watkins wrote about Act (amongst other minor parties) in the weekend
Herald - Brash denies Act approaches
Chris Ford - Act Heading For Alliance Style Split
TV3’s Nation’s item on Saturday was the first concrete piece I've seen which actually confronted the MPs about the coup (although Radio New Zealand’s Focus on Politics programme on Act also dealt with it to some degree last month). But there wasn’t a lot of new information uncovered. We still don’t really know that much about what’s been going on in the party. There is however a growing consensus that some sort of conspiracy against Hide and his leadership has been occurring. But is that accurate?
The coup – what we know
As Audrey Young’s original report stated, no vote was taken over the leadership, and Hide stoically faced the plotters down with the help of the prime minister. The story then leaked. It's clear that something went on, but it's not clear exactly what. According to Hide allies, Roy either sought the leadership for herself, or sought to create co-leadership positions for herself and Roger Douglas. Roy apparently believed that the party is capable of winning 12% of the vote in 2011 on the basis of being the only rightwing party with a female leader.
Conspiracy by Hide against Roy and Douglas
But have Heather Roy and Roger Douglas really been conspiring to steal the leadership of the Act Party? Most commentators find the idea of either Roy leading the party – or of Roy and Douglas co-leading the party – to be preposterous. For example The Dominion Post’s Tracey Watkins said in the weekend that leadership by Roy would be ‘ludicrous and improbable’. And when John Key was told by Hide that they were plotting to topple him, Key apparently exclaimed ‘What the fuck are they thinking?’. These are intelligent reactions. Roy is no leader, and Douglas is ‘voter poison’. So it seems incredibly that they would be plotting to get rid of Hide, their lifeline to stay in Parliament if they remain below 5% of the vote.
But perhaps the whole story is all a bit of a beat-up. Perhaps there were a lot of tensions and nastiness growing inside the party and caucus, but that there was nothing like an attempt at rolling Hide. Ex-Act MP Stephen Franks could be quite correct when he said in the Nation story that too much is being read into the leadership challenge stories. And perhaps the person doing the beat-up is actually Hide and his allies within Act. After all, on the Nation programme, it was Hide that was apparently admitting he ‘faces an internal power struggle’. And the reporter Stephen Parker said that ‘Hide acknowledges that he has – and still is – facing leadership questions’. Again, in the Nation’s item, Hide was not downplaying the coup, but kept it alive, by claiming Roy's recent conference speech was ‘unfortunate’ and ‘disappointing’.
In contrast, Roy seemed to be totally denying that there was any sort of leadership dispute. She also denied that anyone from National had approached her to say that she would lose her ministerial warrant if a coup occurred. Surely its possible that she is being entirely truthful and that others in the party have leaked that narrative. Certainly someone in the story isn’t being entirely truthful. We’ve been fed this line that it’s essentially Roy that’s been the conspiracist, but perhaps it’s not her at all.
In different circumstances other party leaders have also sought to rally party activists to shore up their leadership positions in the past – for example, Rowling in the early 1980s, and Mike Moore in 1993 both activated internal party support bases in reactions to leadership threats. It’s an old trick to seek sympathy and present a show of force to bolster the leader's popularity.
Such a Hide-based theory of conspiracy was presented as a fact in the weekend by a commenter on a blog post on Red Alert. Claiming to be an ex-Act Party member with significant inside knowledge, and clearly no fan of Rodney Hide, a person under the pen-name of ‘ALTVIEW’ argued that it is in fact Hide who has been playing the ‘leaks game’, and that now ‘there is apparently a large number of ACT members talking about Hide’s “smear campaign” against the 2 MPs’. According to ‘ALTVIEW’, Hide’s 'smear campaign' has been designed to bolster his own support at a time he’s facing political problems:
he needs a nemesis to distract attention away from the pressure he’s under over those issues and the ‘Super City’. Enter Douglas and Roy. Both have done nothing other than say what they’ve been saying for years….Roy has stated to the Herald and TV3 that no such conversation occurred. Why is no-one challenging the fact gap?
‘ALTVIEW’ says that ‘Hide is too cunning to actively involve himself in trashing Douglas and Roy’, and hence has his allies carrying out a phone calling operation to party activists against Roy and Douglas.
This seems like a bit of a bizarre argument, but yet still plausible. And the anonymous commenter does indeed appear to have some inside knowledge and contacts. And it fits with the questioning of the extent of Roy's involvement by Geoffrey Miller in his blog post on liberation entitled Act’s problem – Roger, not Roy. In this, Miller said that ‘Somehow, the idea of Roy being a coup ringleader doesn’t quite ring true’. Miller said:
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.
Yet, a convincing motive doesn’t seem to have existed for Roy:
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.
Parallels with the Alliance
There’s some parallels with the Alliance’s bitter 2001 meltdown, which involved bizarre similar allegations of attempted leadership coups. As with Act, there were some very real ideological and factional struggles going on in the party, but no leadership challenge was ever on the cards. Matt McCarten and Laila Harre were indeed trying to push the party to the left, and they wanted the Alliance to differentiate itself more from Labour. But they never entertained any ideas of toppling the leader. This didn’t stop Jim Anderton’s parliamentary offsiders – Matt Robson, Andrew Ladley, and John Pagani – pushing a false rumour around the party and the media that the a leadership challenge was being made against Anderton by McCarten and Harre. This was disingenuous on the part of the Robson, Ladley, and Pagani, but probably genuinely paranoid on the part of Anderton. The same might be said of Hide, together with his allies.
Certainly while the ‘Hide conspiracy’ seems unlikely, it’s worth some consideration. If this theory is correct, it doesn’t mean that there was not significant dissatisfaction expressed with Hide back in November, nor does it mean that there is no truth to allegations about Roy and Douglas wanting to push Act to the right or differentiate more from National, but it puts a very different view on what might have happened.
It all suggests a highly Machiavellian Rodney Hide. We all know that he’s cunning, but is he really that cunning?