Gerry Eckhoff and the “Country Party”

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).

Until today, I thought Gerrard (Gerry) Eckhoff was a loyal ACT trooper, even though he lost his seat at the 2005 election. At the 2007 annual ACT conference in March, which I attended as part of my research, Eckhoff loomed large and gave a rather entertaining, if at times confusing speech on “environmental morality”.

But it seems that we now have to add Eckhoff to the growing list of former MPs who have expressed misgivings about the new direction of ACT. In today’s Otago Daily Times an “op-ed” piece written by Eckhoff appeared, headlined “Time to take a Country Party to Parliament”. This being the ODT, the article isn’t online (although it may surface electronically in subscriber-only Factiva later on), so I’ll type out the important bits:

The National Party once stood attention when Federated Farmers spoke. No longer. The power base has long since shifted to urban New Zealand, which is effectively Auckland and its environs. Naturally enough, the focus of politicians of all persuasions is almost entirely on the problems of that rather consumptive region. It has been observed that the South Island, especially, now has more in common with the east coast of Australia than it has with the North Island.

The answer for rural New Zealand is to have our own representatives in Parliament by way of a Country Party

This is heady stuff given that Eckhoff is a former MP and as far as I am aware, still a member of ACT. Wasn’t ACT meant to be great for rural voters? Removing red tape, Gerry? It appears that like Muriel Newman, Stephen Franks and Deborah Coddington, Eckhoff feels alienated by Rodney Hide’s “new strategy”:

Act New Zealand – well, I am no longer sure what it stands for but it will fight hard to get it, whatever it is

This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of ACT. In fact, the timing of the whole article is remarkable. Here is Eckhoff, having regained a little power to implement ACT-like policies through his election to the Otago Regional Council, arguing that a new national political party is needed.

As for Eckhoff’s argument, I’m not sure how much appeal a rural-based party would have. He claims that “most New Zealanders could not name one rural representative in Parliament, let alone three”. Err, what about Bill English, deputy leader no less of National and MP for Clutha-Southland? Or Nick Smith? Or indeed Shane Ardern, who championed opposition to the fart tax by driving his tractor on the steps of Parliament (although admittedly, he doesn’t seem to do much these days, with his last press releases on the National website from August 2007)? If anything, National seems more aligned with rural interests now than it did under Don Brash, when city MP Gerry Brownlee was deputy. The last geographically-based party that I recall was the South Island Party, which contested the 1999 election but subsequently disappeared virtually without a trace.

I’ll look more at Eckhoff in a later post.

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