ACT vs. New Zealand First

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 latest Roy Morgan poll finds that New Zealand First has increased its support from 3.5% to 5.5%. ACT, however, continues to be down in the cellar at 1%, where it has been pretty much for the last two years. Now, I’m no fan of the Duncan Garner-style breathless commentary (“will come as a massive blow to the…”) on individual polls, but I think it might be useful to look at the differences in ACT and NZ First behaviour in recent weeks.

First and foremost, New Zealand First found itself a winning issue for its potential constituents. The support of the police (led by Ron Mark) and criticism of the protests in support of the arrested persons from the Ureweras enjoyed prominence in the media at a time which just happened to co-incide with NZ First’s national conference. Put simply, NZ First made it to the front page lead story on the Monday following its conference in my local paper, the ODT. I can’t remember when ACT last made it to the front page. Despite Hide’s insistence that the media do not matter, visibility certainly does. In fact, after ACT’s annual conference in March 2007, the only report I could dredge up was a Radio New Zealand news item which slotted into the weekend news bulletins (probably between the usual weekend filler of updates on car crashes and university cancer studies).

New Zealand First has also been vigorous on the economic nationalism front. Witness its opposition to the proposed Fonterra float and prior to that, the proposed takeover of Auckland Airport. Winston Peters has been very successful in attracting media coverage to these issues as well. They tie in well with the party’s 2008 strategy of promoting New Zealand nationalism, as noted by the Otago Daily Times in an October 5 editorial (not online):

Winston Peters’ party is now projecting a colloquial Kiwi image for itself by
progressively releasing a series of five brochures with a strong Kiwi pitch.
Cleverly targeted at specific sectors of the community, they are variously
entitled: Uniquely Kiwi, protecting Kiwi families, building a Kiwi future, super
Kiwis, and Kiwi harmony; each of which lists the party’s achievements to date
and future policy objectives.

Now, I’m no fan of the chest-beating for “nashnul identitee” which has been heavily promoted by Labour as one of its “three core themes” for government since 2005 (and unofficially before this). But it works for Winston Peters. And the militant nationalism approach that he advocates is convenient for Labour. If Peters takes the “hard edge”, Labour can take the soft fuzzy Kiwi-this Kiwi-that mainstream “identity” approach. This is when Chris Carter claims campsites are “part of our national identity” (a ridiculous remark IMHO) and Helen Clark sees how many times she can fit “Kiwis” into a speech on ANZAC day. In fact, Labour’s appeal to national identity has driven it closer to New Zealand First, which one could now even say is its preferred coalition partner.

So let’s look now at what ACT has been doing in the last few weeks.

– Rodney Hide grandstanded (or is that “grandstood”?) on the Mallard assault. Not a core ACT issue.

– Was eerily quiet on the police operation in early October. A possible reason for this is that Hide was torn between supporting the police (i.e. supporting law and order, the NZ First position) or defending civil liberties, the natural position for a truly liberal party (see below).

– Opposed the amendments to the Terrorism Suppression Act on the basis that it was fascist. In line with the party’s new-found “liberal” orientation, no question, but out of touch with ACT’s potential pool of voters. The Maori Party (or as Roy Morgan calls them, the “Mario Party”, which I like better, maybe they could get funding from Nintendo?) will get votes from people who thought the “raids” were unjustified. ACT never will. And anyway, this was a parliamentary story and as such received scant coverage (as anything outside Question Time does).

– Announced that it would announce a candidate in Wellington Central

In summary, compare the action taken by NZ First and ACT over the last month and there’s little wonder that the former polls more than five times the level of support for the latter. New Zealand First is connecting with voters. ACT is barely communicating with them.

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