The most recent scandalous revelation about MP David Garrett reflects just how dysfunctional and divided the Act Party has become. In a more healthy political party these type of ‘skeletons in the closet’ might exist, but they don’t normally come out, and if they do, they don’t normally reflect the level of deceit and irony that they do in this particular case. Currently the party is leaking like a kitchen sieve, and further revelations are likely to keep appearing, ensuring that the death spiral continues. Partly that’s because there is essentially a ‘cold war’ going on in the Act Party at the moment. I was interviewed about this yesterday on RNZ Checkpoint (audio here) and TVNZ News at 8 (story here). The blog post below is an elaboration on the points that I made. [Read more below]
All political parties have skeletons in the closet. After all, politicians are human and should be expected to have all sorts of negative histories, and it’s the very nature of politics to keep your negatives and bad stories buried. The interesting question is about why and how these skeletons are discovered by the public? How do the secrets get out?
Usually in New Zealand politics it happens because a party insider lets the secret out. They usually do so for some sort of political gain to maneuver against an internal opponent or else just to get some sort of revenge on a party opponent. Of course in a healthy political party this just doesn’t happen – all party activists and leaders are basically united in pursuit of some ideological goal, and they don’t want to see their own party damaged by these skeletons being revealed.
With the ongoing scandals about David Garrett it’s obvious that such internal factors are at play. I think most observers or voters will suspect that these revelations relate to the recent major schisms in the party. So it wouldn’t be outlandish to consider whether some Act Party people have leaked the information about Garrett’s assault conviction and his fake identity past. There are obliviously a number of individuals that have a motive to either maneuver against Garrett or take revenge on him and the leadership in this way. So while TV One and TV3 deserve credit for uncovering these latest stories, in reality the scoop has involved a leak from within the party.
Dysfunctionality in the Act Party
The likelihood that the Garrett scandals have been leaked reflect the deep divisions and dysfunctionality within the Act Party. Although Heather Roy has returned to Parliament and to the Act Party caucus with the official line that she is moving forward and happy, it’s very clear that all is not well within the Act Party. What we’re seeing is a bit like a “cold war” whereby all the protagonists are on the face of it pretending to get on, while underneath there is huge bitterness, maneuverings, and undeclared war amongst the key players. And all of this essentially amounts to a party self-combusting (as conveyed in the cartoon below).
Let’s not forget just how significant the recent internal schism has been: the party leader has essentially sacked his deputy leader and labeled her incompetent, this deputy leader (now deposed) has put together an-80-page dossier outlining the problems of her leader and his campaign against her (including the allegation of him bullying her), the dossier has been deliberately leaked by one of her staff, allegations have been made of drug use, the number seven candidate on the Act Party list has declared that he will seek to roll the leader as the party candidate in his crucial Epsom electorate, a number of party staffers have been made unemployed, and various other rumours and allegations have been spread. This is all incredibly toxic stuff, and so although Act’s leadership problems have fallen off the daily news, the basic divisions are in no way resolved.
Who has a motive?
Surely there’s a long list of Act Party members that have it in for David Garrett and/or the party leadership. After all, there’s thousands of unhappy Act Party ex-members. The party’s membership has plummeted from something like 5,000 members to apparently somewhat less than a 1000 members. The bottom of the party has fallen out, and many of those on the way out of the party, will have left in a somewhat bitter and disillusioned manner.
These members and activists have departed for all sorts of reasons – but often due to the fact that the party has always had a number of different schisms and differences, leading to all sorts of bitterness. The most bitterly fought over questions of recent years have been about how much the party should concentrate on economic neoliberal reform or whether the party should go down a more socially conservative and populist path. In the end, the pragmatic populists won the debate, as evidenced by the fact that David Garrett was elevated into the party’s number 5 list position, after coming to prominence through the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and having no background in Act.
It was this victory of the pragmatic populists that marginalized and forced out the social liberals in the party and many of those from the more economically-rightwing and ideologically-pure wing of the party. These people became involved with Act because they wanted to further Roger Douglas’ economic neoliberal revolution – not to be socially conservative populists. There are many people that have left the party because they feel it’s been hijacked by a new concentration on law and order, on anti-immigration, and on all sorts of other so-called redneck issues.
Who would known about the Garrett information?
It is clear that David Garrett disclosed the information about his previous convictions and arrests to the Act Party when he was put on the Act Party list in 2008. This personal information is likely to have been revealed to only a very limited number of Act leaders – such as the president, the then two members of caucus (Rodney Hide and Heather Roy) and perhaps the party board of directors. Who knows how many party activists the information might have subsequently spread to, but you can be fairly clear that those in the socially-liberal and economically-liberal traditions of the party would have been more likely to leak the information to the media. People aligned to the dumped deputy leader Heather Roy have already admitted to leaking the sensitive and incredibly damaging 80-page dossier to the media, so some people will be wondering if this leak has once again come from the Roy camp.
Can David Garrett continue as an MP?
Ultimately these scandals have killed off Garrett’s credibility and any future career as a politician. He’s unlikely to resign – especially given all the other instability in the party at the moment. The people further down the Act Party list are equally as problematic as Garrett, and the leadership will be avoiding the instability of a resignation.
But this scandal is likely to finish off Garrett’s reputation amongst his own key support base. The fact that he has essentially stolen the identity of a dead baby will damage his credibility beyond repair – not just amongst social liberal voters but especially amongst socially conservative ones.
What does this mean now for Act?
The level of dysfunction in the Act Party now means that it is almost certainly finished. A healthy political party might be able to move beyond the type of setbacks and scandals we’ve recently seen in the Act Party, but clearly this party is politically rather sick. The level of bitterness and division is obviously very toxic, and it’s hard to imagine that the party will be able to pull together in the necessary way to make itself appear credible. Instead, the cold war will continue. It’s more of a question of how much longer this can continue as a cold war before it turns into a full declared civil war, or ultimately the party splits into two. It is clear that there is no longer ‘one Act Party’ – there are two versions of the party that have been squeezed into one parliamentary caucus – and the contradictions of this are now being slowly resolved. It’s likely that more negative and sensitive internal Act Party information will surface in the near future, and every time it does, it’s just one more nail in the coffin.