New Zealand: are ACT grey haired men in sharp suits?

Or genuinely inclusive visionaries with the right plan to "move New Zealand forward"?

Until Dr Don Brash effected his putsch to wrestle the leadership from Rodney Hide of mark-driven ACT last April, the party was viewed as a spent force. Its opinion poll ratings were starting to fall off the scale. Seemingly attracting climate-change deniers and fringe luny rightists, a new broom was deemed needed to sweep away debris from a "damaged brand", as Brash described it. While not even still an MP, Brash had managed to persuade the party's executive that he had the policies, network and access to finance to inject life into a dying beast.

As an ex-Reserve Bank Governor and then Leader of the Opposition and parliamentary leader of the National Party who had only just failed to win the 2005 election, Don Brash had gravitas. If not an election-winning pedigree!

He moved quickly to reshape the team, installing as parliamentary leader John Boscawen, a firey MP. As a minority Coalition party, ACT retained its non-Cabinet ministerial portfolios with Hide in Local Government and Boscawen in Consumer Affairs. 

But Hide agreed to give way to another candidate in his Epsom seat at the upcoming general election on 26 November. Recently incumbent Auckland Mayor, John Banks, assumed that mantle. And other notables were recruited like Don Nicholson, a former Federated Farmers president who agreed to contest the rural South Island seat of Clutha Southland, held by Finance Minister and National MP, Bill English. 

Banks will have support in Auckland and will undoubtedly breeze in at Epsom, especially as National won't fight hard for that seat. (The vaguaries and complexities of the MMP voting system encourage big-tent parties to open doors to small niche teams in the hope of forming a durable post-election Coalition). 

Nicholson hasn't any real chance of snatching Clutha from English, who's majority in 2008 was 46.41% over Labour. ACT trailed fourth there last time, garnering a mere 1.77% of the electorate vote. English is also a farmer, and while Nicholson's stature will surely raise support, his real driver will be to increase the rural element in ACT's nation-wide party vote. (For each voter votes twice, once for a constituency MP and once for a party, and the two may not necessarily be the same.) Nicholson is strongly opposed to the emissions trading scheme, which many rural folk believe will load cost on to farm budgets and so his campaign should spark notoriety.

So, ACT gains access to parliament by winning Epsom, and then the total party vote percentage will determine the number of their MPs. Brash was predicting that nation-wide support could range from 5-15% and, while they languish at around 2% in recent polls, enhanced media coverage in the election run-up could boost their tally.

These well dressed, articulate and experienced men are all in the latter stages of political careers. Brash will be 71 by election day and Banks 65. But grey hairs and sharp-suits apart, the WASP image does little to attract female voters. They need women on their party list. One of their female MPS, Heather Roy, is retiring from parliament. Speculation had surrounded the inclusion of a popular blogger and acerbic wit, Cathy Odgers, but when the party list was published her name was strangely missing. The list looks like this: 

ACT Party List 2011

1.     Dr Don Brash
2.     Hon John Boscawen (see below)
3.     TBC
4.     Don Nicolson
5.     Hon John Banks
6.     David Seymour
7.     Chris Simmons
8.     Stephen Whittington
9.     Kath McCabe
10.   Robyn Stent
11.   John Thompson
12.   John Ormond
13.   Lyn Murphy
14.   Kevin Moratti
15.   Robin Grieve
16.   Pratima Nand
17.   Dominic Costello
18.   Toni Severin
19.   Richard Evans
20.   Ian Cummings
21.   Gareth Veale
22.   Toby Hutton
23.   Dan Stratton
24.   Robert Burnside
25.   Hayden Fitzgerald
26.   Alex Speirs
27.   Peter McCaffrey

A few women have been added, bringing sighs of relief. They don't rank so highy, but with a fair wind and huge popular support on polling day the team might include the occasional female MP. The two highest ranking are:
  • Kath McCabe, an environmental lawyer
  • Robyn Stent, an entrepreneur and owner of a New Zealand gift retail chain.
Younger candidates are men like:
  • David Seymour, a political analyst
  • Chris Simmons, a management consultant
  • Stephen Whittington, a tax lawyer and champion debater.
Brash is aiming high, allegedly coveting Bill English's finance portfolio. There is definitely a gap on the right of New Zealand politics, and apart from the newly-formed Conservatives, there's nothing but ACT to fill it.

As fast as National has shifted to the centre so Labour has found it increasingly difficult to differentiate itself from current government policy. PM John Key has been a canny operator, but lacks vision and is a far from inspirational orator. His Labour counterpart, Phil Goff, is viewed by many as being tainted by senior ministerial responsibility in the previous unpopular Labour administration. National's weakness is a lack of boldness in stretching policy parameters. The party plays safe, flaunts contentious proposals then backs off when they hit hostile public reaction.

There's room for a revitalised ACT prepared to push boundaries, but whether the present leadership has the vitality and youthfullness to embrace the wider electorate is questionable. The party doesn't want to be in the position of the Anglican Church: sadly watching congregations dwindle as old supporters, one-by-one, leave to meet their Maker.

Happily, ACT's top ten includes some youthful faces and a couple of women. If they are given their moment to shine during the campaign then ACT's chances of broader appeal will improve.

The mistery No. 3 on the List - he or she who is yet to be confirmed - will likely be a high profile catch. Classical liberal Catherine Isaacs, a PR professional and past ACT president perhaps, or Cathy Odgers? Or another, far more surprising name?

With Statistics New Zealand revealing that the New Zealand economy almost stalled last quarter, registering a mere 0.1% growth to June 2011, a positive plan for economic growth is required. The government's policies are failing to feed through into the economy, albeit bearing in mind natural distasters thwarting their plans. Bold recovery policies are needed, and ACT will likely reveal the details of their ideas as the election looms. Cutting government waste and freeing up entrepreneurial talent are bound to be central pillars, I suspect.

Concerns about the damage to social cohesion any sharp knife taken to the welfare budget would cause are going to be major points for debate. But that public discussion is sorely needed in a society with record migrant departures, languishing domestic activity and stuttering exports. 

Growing the knowledge economy further, developing novel industries like financial services operational capacity and generating wealth through start-ups which develop into world-beating Kiwi-owned and run ventures, should be some of the policies which are promoted. Whether ACT will engage in such far-reaching ideas will depend on the creativity and capabilities of its team. All will be revealed in coming weeks.

September 27 Update:

John Boscawen has announced that, like all of the rest of the current ACT parliamentary contingent - as it turns out, he too will be retiring from parliament at the November 26 general election. 

Meanwhile, Don Brash has called for marijuana to be legalised, saying ACT believes in maximum personal freedom and criminalising the drug wastes police time. John Banks has retorted that he's always been against drugs. The bloggers have responding by nicking Brash as "Dr Bong". Stuff headlined "Pot shots earned as Brash makes a hash". Well, actually Brash isn't alone in the world amongst the informed to call for low class drugs to be legalised. Many sensible people would agree with his assertions. Certain American states and other countries have pioneered this process.

In July 2010,The Economist wrote:

"Legally, California has also been a pioneer (in the process of liberalising marijuana laws), at least within America. In 1996 it was the first state to allow marijuana to be grown and consumed for medicinal purposes. Since then, 13 states and the District of Columbia have followed, and others are considering it. But this year California may set a more fundamental, and global, precedent. It may become the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise, regulate and tax the consumption, production and distribution of marijuana.

"Other Western countries—from Argentina to Belgium and Portugal—have liberalised their marijuana laws in recent decades. Some places, such as the Netherlands and parts of Australia, have in effect decriminalised the use of cannabis. But no country has yet gone all the way."

However ...

Several things come out of this: 
  • First, the party appears to be in chaos.
  • Secondly, why on earth did a list published as recently as late August contain Boscawen's name, if he (supporting his leadership but neverthless) wanted to retire from active politics? Personally, I'm not so sad to see him go as parliament deserves much higher calbre individuals. 
  • Thirdly, why did Brash announce a party policy which his (effective heir apparent?) senior colleague vehemently disagreed with? Surely, a concerted front would give the appearance of unity even if behind closed doors discussion led to argument.
  • Fourthly, the more Banks speaks the less is apparent inside his head.
  • Fifthly, does Brash really believe that grass-smoking liberals would opt for a right-wing party like ACT? Is this political naiivity? How can appealing to this consituency do anything but enrage and disturb reactionary conservatives? PM John Key was quick to pounce, extolling the merits of existing drug controls and making political capital from Brash's statement.

Check out all commentaries here.    


  1. I know quite a few ACToids... I'd suggest they are a long way from inclusive and I've yet to see much vision, although perhaps it's merely obscured by the ideology.

    They seem to serve the primary purpose of acting as a false compass, allowing National to veer to the right when needed (while still looking moderate), and of course soaking up some of the idealistic young liberal vote.

    I also see them as emerging from the greatest acts of economic and social vandalism that this country has seen, presided over by the almost sociopathic Douglas - so tend to take anything they say with a very large grain of salt.

    As you might guess, they're not getting my vote.

  2. I suspect that if Sir Roger Douglas (when not an ACT but a Labour minister, if I'm correct) were to have realised that he had misappreciated the adverse impact those divestments of state-owned assets would have had on a smallish economy such as NZ's, he would not have followed such a path.

    He at least instigated a global phenomenon which saw divestment become headline policy in the UK and a whole raft of places. Radical privatisation transformed inefficient state-run industry into profitable and competitive enterprise in those big countries.

    In NZ the effect was devastating, as you say, with large corporations snapped up and asset-stripped by foreigners with no thought for the dire effects on NZ consumers or taxpayers. Had NZ been a larger economy a reciprocal acquisition process of international business could have ensued, as was the case in bigger countries. Note the extent of UK acquisitions in the US, for example. But it did not.

    Asset sales are now deemed unpatriotic here, for obvious reasons.

    Had NZ under Douglas followed Singapore's example of a command economy, it would not have dropped so rapidly down OECD rankings.

    Singapore's standard of living is now stellar by comparison. Its stock market huge when compared to the NZX. Its soverign funds and state-run companies aggressively buy international competitors and profit from those purchases. They achieve critical mass insodoing. And foreign business is prevented from competing on a level playing field within Singapore, if they even are awarded a licence to compete, which mostly they are not.

    For NZ to have an open, Anglo-Saxon style capitalist system in place it ought to grow its population to the level of critical mass size, I suspect. But that, too, would be deemed unacceptable to most New Zealanders.

    Singapore remains a country with a similar sized population to that of New Zealand, yet its economic power, IP capacity and industrial resources now far outstrip those of New Zealand.

    Take your pick.

    Are ACT proposing to sell state assets these days? If such a policy exists then divesting less than 50% of them makes sense, and selling only non-voting stock (as I've said before).

    Some hold the view that eventually things came right after Rogernomics:

    Sir Michael Fay said on TV a few days ago that selling state industrial assets was OK so long as new businesses can sprout to compete. He gave a couple of examples. I think he was referring to the likes of Telecom being sold, and 3 Degrees and Orcon being born, for example. Yet as we all know, Telecom is massive by comparison. It would take many decades for those competitors to compete with Telecom on an equal footing. Yet is the consumer still being damaged?

  3. Interesting to see Boscawen's recent announcement. He's clearly not buying the vision. This shows just one of the problems with Act; endless infighting and permanent "renewal", although given they're cycling Banks and Brash in, perhaps that isn't quite the right term...

    Douglas doesn't seem to have any regrets, other than not having gone far enough. Watch some of the footage of him from the time - to my eye he has a clear sociopathic streak, but I'm not an expert. Nasty piece of work.

    As you point out, NZ isn't the kind of country where the policies of Act work: it's not Singapore (geography is a major factor there, too), and doesn't have the population (whether increasing this is a good idea or not is a separate discussion, but it's not something we can do quickly or politically easily). Why so many people continue to endorse and support these policies is beyond me.