There should be no doubt that the appeal of the Act party has been stronger amongst wealthy voters – yet there is evidence that such support has not always been as uneven as many political commentators make out. [Read more below]
Unlike many of the new political parties formed during the 1990s that have been internally-created parties – parties formed by parliamentarians rather than by forces external to Parliament – the Act New Zealand party arrived in part due to the urging of a number of third party organisations, and once in Parliament it has continued to cultivate relationships with civil society organisations [Read more below]
The growing ePolitics phenomenon in NZ is hopefully going to involve a number of academically-rigorous specialist blogs. Possibly the first of this kind has been set up by University of Otago Political Studies student Geoffrey Miller, who has just launched a blog that focuses on the Act party entitled Douglas to Dancing. No doubt this will be an intelligent and dispassionate ‘Act-watch’ website that will add considerably to the local political blogosphere. The site draws and expands on Miller’s Otago honours dissertation From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF) which is usefully downloadable. I’ve read the dissertation, and think it makes an important intellectual contribution to the academic study of party politics in New Zealand – I’ll do another blog post about it in the future.
Lately there’s been a lot of media recognition of the Act party’s ideological disorientation and shift towards both the centre and irrelevance. But this isn’t a recent trend resulting just Rodney Hide’s takeover of leadership. The party effectively set itself upon an increasingly moderate and pragmatic trajectory from its very beginnings - Hide is merely taking Act's intrinsic politics to their logical conclusion. This blog post details the long, slow death of the Act party, concentrating on its first ten years of desperation and ideological disorientation. [Read more below]
Since the introduction of MMP there has only been one new party to enter Parliament - the Act party. Every other minor party established has been established by an existing parliamentarian. No doubt Act's success was aided by its possession of huge amounts of financial resources. But its election to Parliament probably had more to do with the simple fact that its political programme represented the ideological outlook and economic interests of a small but significant minority of voters. Act's steady electoral decline since 1996, however, actually indicates that money can't buy power. The story of Act shows that a well-funded corporate party can spend as much money as it likes, but if the tide is going out on your brand of discredited politics, money can't save you. [Read more below]
The Act party continues its decline as an organisational, electoral and ideological force. It's just had it's annual non-conference in Christchurch, whereby it has avoided the cost of a proper national conference by tacking on a closed-door meeting to a regional conference - see this report by John Armstrong (one of the few journalists to bother reporting on the party).
It seems that the party is a shadow of its former radical and robust self. Like every other party in Parliament it is currently obsessed with moderating itself and being 'more independent'. This means that it stands for little and attracts few voters, despite National moving well towards the centre in recent times. According to some - including those in the party - Act should be flourishing now that it has the rightwing space to itself. And Rodney Hide is still optimistic that it will benefit from National's ideological retreat. The problem is two-fold: 1) Act is also ideologically retreating into blandness and gimmickry, and 2) the tide has clearly gone out on New Right reforms. Neoliberalism has been both cemented in the new policy consensus of Labour and National, but also discredited within the eyes of the public, which means that very few want the Act-type agenda pushed further. So yet another party dies a sad and pathetic slow death with the usual situation of a party leader futilely languishing around for new ideas and a way forward but finding nothing but a focus on media stunts and attempts to keep an electorate seat.
The Act party are obviously set to be the major beneficiaries of National’s recent embrace of the centre of the political spectrum.
Rodney Hide correctly notes that ‘The debate between the two old parties is now about who should be in power not about policy.’ Elsewhere he says: ‘"There's no doubt what we've got now is a National and a Labour party that in policy terms appear identical. I'll certainly be making that point, that while the personnel are different the policies now are very much the same. That's not a criticism, I think it's just a fact.’
But while Hide is correct in his criticisms of the National-Labour consensus, his own party has been moderating its policies towards the centre for years, and increasingly stands for nothing very identifiable. Recently Hide even announced that Act would seek an alliance with the Labour Party amongst others, and that the party was not ‘rightwing’ but ‘classically liberal’, which sounds like quite a rebrand.
Apparently Act leader Rodney Hide has had a political epiphany due to his experiences in Dancing with the Stars, and claims he’s ‘saying goodbye to the finger-wagging and perk-busting that had characterised his career since he bowled into parliament’. According to the Sunday Star-Times he now wants to ‘seek strategic alliances with all-comers, even Labour’, and the party is moving away from a focus on economic rationalism. Like every other party, it seems that Act is moderating heavily and going green. But it’s hard to see what the point of Act will be. At least the old (and much larger) Rodney Hide’ used to provide a bit of humour and spark in Parliament, and it’d be disappointing to see that go. But in the SST article he still has barbs for some Labour politicians, such as Jonathan Hunt’s professed concern for the “working man”: ‘He wouldn't know a working man if he fell over one. I've watched Jonathan around working people ... he looks down on them."
The 2003 scandal over the Act party’s electorate office funding shows that, ironically, Act has become dependent on the state to sell its minimum-state politics. Here I argue that when Act started running out of money, the party buried its principles by turning to the state to run its political operations. But the scheme is not unique to Act, and such state resources are now the primary source of income for all the parties in Parliament.