ACT and Local Body Elections

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

The Local Body Elections earlier this month provide a number of talking points relevant to ACT. Firstly, former ACT MPs Gerry Eckhoff (now a councillor on the Otago Regional Council) and Penny Webster (Mayor of Rodney District) successfully entered local politics. I’ll look at them in more detail later.

The second link to ACT is more oblique, but no less interesting. Since 2006, Rodney Hide has concentrated on changing his aggressive image, as he emphasised to me when I interviewed him in August 2007:

What I’ve found since 2005, and this was in a response to what members wanted, is I’ve presented myself as a warm guy, never attacks people, positive, Dancing with the Stars-type guy, I’ve never said a critical thing about an MP since, for over 12 months.

A chief reason for this is that Hide wants to be seen as a good local MP for Epsom. According to him, Epsom voters do not want a “shitkicker…a negative campaigner” (Critic, 10 September, pp. 44-45).

Two instances in recent local elections seem to support Hide’s view that local politicians need to be seen as all-round “nice guys”. In Auckland, John Banks stormed back from defeat in 2004 to retake the mayoralty from Dick Hubbard – but only after he demonstratively set out to soften his image from his own previous image as being aggressive and dictatorial. As the New Zealand Herald reported on September 29:

The 60-year-old former National Party cabinet minister with nearly 30 years of bruising politics under his belt, not to mention a cruel talkback tongue, is promising a softer, gentler style and new policies.

You will not hear boastful rhetoric about winning, or see Banks driving a Ferrari or Bentley. Instead, he is portraying a modest image and promising a boost to public transport. He has even been spotted using the Link bus service.

In an unfamiliar soft voice, Banks makes no excuses for the thrashing three years ago.

“I’m not going to sit around for three years under a cold shower and not learn anything. I know what went wrong. I know what needed to change and the only reason people are going to support me this time round is that they perceive there has been a change in policy and in style.”

In Dunedin, a grouping called Open Democracy was formed mainly on its opposition to the construction of a new rugby stadium on Dunedin’s waterfront. Its leader, Lee Vandervis, had probably been more prominent than any other councillor over the last three years in local media mainly because he vociferously opposed the stadium. Yet not only did Vandervis fail to win the mayoralty (receiving 6,825 votes compared with the 21,412 votes cast for Peter Chin), but he lost his council seat, coming fourth in the Hills ward. Only the top 3 were elected. Although without further research only a speculative conclusion can be made, I suspect that it was Vandervis’s aggressive style, more than actually what he said, which cost him support.

If local politicians do have to be nice people to get elected, this bodes well for Hide in 2008 as he seeks to retain the electorate seat of Epsom. The changes he has made since 2005 may be the difference he needs to succeed where Prebble failed in 1999, when he lost the electorate seat of Wellington Central. Back then, Prebble and ACT liked to be hated; now, the mellowing by Hide of the image of ACT and above all himself may just be what Hide needs to win Epsom. And unlike in 1999, Epsom is crucial to ACT, as it needs to hold on to Hide’s seat in Epsom if it does not poll above 5% of the party vote in 2008.

All politics is local.

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3 Responses

  1. More importantly than showing a change of image, Banks also demonstrated that he was more in tune with issues of concern to Aucklanders. While Hubbard spoke of sustainability and fluffy issues, Banks spoke of rates rises and leaky homes.

    The promise to tone down the rhetoric was not key to Banks’ win, but did play a role in nixing some of the questions that would have been posed had he not done so. Either way, had Banks still been identified with the issues of importance to voters, he probably would have still won.

    Question- what issues are ACT identified with now of importance to voters?

  2. Thanks Aaron for making the first comment on this blog, and a perceptive one too. I’m still not sure how much of a role “substance” plays in Local Body Elections, simply because I don’t think voters pay enough attention to the campaign. But you’re right, it helped that Banks did take vote-winning positions on issues, but I think it was his crisp presentation which won it for him more than anything. This compared with the rather bumbling Hubbard.

    In my dissertation on ACT (chapter 4), I did examine the priority of issues promoted by the party in the minds of voters and I believe that its economic focus (when voters were generally no longer interested in radical reform) was one factor for its lack of success. I’ll summarise this argument in a later post.

  3. Trust me, as Banks’ strategist in the 2007 campaign, I can say with some certainty that the change ofimage was a far lesser motivator for voters than the big issues.

    Also of interest is that Hubbard lost 30,000 voters in the collapsed turnout from 2004 to 2007, yet Banks’ vote remained constant. This might suggest that Banks was trusted to do the things he said he would, yet Hubbard’s former supporters simply gave up and stayed away.

    As for the lack of radical reform, yes, this is a real possibility. Remember ACT was born out of the era of the late 80s and early 90s reforms and was therefore very much a part of contemporary economic argument.

    In the 2000s, the zeal for reform has largely evaporated, or perhaps better phrased as “moderated”. Reformist zeal can’t, by its very nature, stay constant. Public interest is lost, grows tired, and worries about new issues, or new solutions to ongoing problems. Also, debates on issues are won/lost, and people move on.

    For example, Labour accepts the overall economic framework and now rejects calls for mass nationalisation of industry or the introduction of tarriffs and subsidies for industry. They now push for free trade with China and argue for WTO participation as a good thing.

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