ACT’s Christmas letter – part 1

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).

I joined ACT for research purposes in February 2007, at the outset of my research, but on Thursday this week finally received my first piece of conventional mail from the party. Of course, like most parties these days, ACT prefers to save money and use e-mail. Accordingly, it sends out the weekly ACTion! e-mail newsletter to members every Friday. The problem with ACTion! is that there’s not a lot in it and most of it is the same each week, having been copied and pasted from the previous edition. It’s also not very personalised and I’m sure for many people it’s just another newsletter which might warrant a cursory glance, if that.

But it’s an ACT tradition to send members a printed update just prior to Christmas. So what may be gleaned from this year’s edition? In the letter from party president Garry Mallett, there’s a “semi-attack” on National.

…bulk funding [of education], a baby-step, has proven a step too far for National. Maybe National has to move left to capture the centre voters, but in so doing, National can’t deliver the bold solutions we need to make New Zealanders more prosperous, productive, free, safe and proud of their nation. National may bring new faces and a new style but their policies will be the same old stale ‘Government Knows Best’ mix that has plagued New Zealand since Muldoon and before.

I think you can sense there the pent-up frustration within ACT that National is now receiving 50%+ support and is suffocating ACT, despite the latter’s attempts to differentiate itself during the year, such as when Rodney Hide said he would be prepared to work with other parties, notably Labour. Admittedly, Mallett does qualify his criticism of National, saying he doesn’t “want to be too negative on National – they’re better than the social engineering and socialism-lite of the Labour/Progressive/Green/NZ First/United hook-up – but not much better”. This is interesting too, given that Hide has made a point of not criticising Labour. But this is president Mallett, not leader Hide, which gives him a certain free reign for criticism.

The remainder of Mallett’s letter focuses on Hide’s Regulatory Responsibility Bill, which is currently before Select Committee, local authority rates, calls for donations (the real reason for the letter, of course!!) – and a list of characteristics which Mallett believes makes ACT stand out from all other parties. The list is very interesting, as creating a point of difference between itself and National in particular has been ACT’s biggest problem since at least 2004. Most of the items on Mallett’s list display the usual rhetoric about ACT recognising “hard-work and enterprise” and so on, but there is some substance. First, Mallett specifically mentions health policy:

ACT fights for patients’ rights in health. ACT knows patient outcomes are more important than (1) who owns the hospitals (2) the ‘cultural safety’ of health treatment or (3) whether your health profession is paid by the state or a private employer

When I interviewed Hide in August, he told me that ACT could well fight the election on just two key policies, probably the Taxpayer Rights Bill and a health policy:

Ideally what I’d like to campaign on at the next election is something like say the Taxpayer Rights Bill and something like a health policy, so demanding transparency and accountability, so I like the idea of campaigning hard on an economic policy and a social policy…health is certainly the one that’s top of everyone’s mind and I’ve struggled a bit to know what a policy is that we could present. Obviously I believe that the health system fails because it’s run like the Soviet empire, but just saying that you’re going to privatise the hospitals is not a vote catcher and I’ve done some work, a little bit of preliminary work only in this area, and I’ve got this idea of making a transparency sort of bill, so that people, we can actually measure the performance of the health sector, and I can imagine sexing that up in an election campaign, saying look, National and Labour can argue about it, but here’s the thing that we need, we actually need to know that when you get on the health waiting list you’re going to wait X weeks only, you know, something like that, and I haven’t quite formulated that in my mind yet, but I’d love to be campaigning on something like that and that if we could monitor it and assess the performance of the health sector, we could, it would be the first step to achieving contestability, the private sector.

Mallett’s highlighting of health policy would appear to strengthen Hide’s comments. Remember, campaigning on health as main policy would be new for ACT, which has traditionally promoted a low-tax message. coupled from 1999-2005 with socially conservative views on crime, welfare and Maori issues. As far as altering ACT’s image from a party of the hard right (as Hide is attempting to do), this is a shrewd move. As health is a “soft” and “feminine” issue, campaigning on it should make ACT be seen more compassionately than on, say, “Zero Tolerance for Crime”. Campaigning on health is obviously also driven by the fact that this is the area in which Heather Roy has expertise (she is a former physiotherapist and has been ACT’s health spokesperson since entering Parliament in 2002). Nevertheless, it should be noted that Mallett does still advocate a tough-on-crime message:

ACT stands for strong justice so honest decent New Zealanders are safe from crooks and thugs and those crooks and thugs feel the true consequences of their illegal behaviour

A tough justice policy is probably the only socially conservative policy ACT could still include without this clashing with the “nice guy” image Hide has tried to construct. Hard-line stances on crime have almost become a “valence” driven, i.e. a position on which all parties basically agree, apart from the exact details. New Zealand First, National and even Labour (which passed the Sentencing Act 2002 which toughened sentences) have all pushed hard-line stances on crime. By the same token, however, this means that it is not a unique stance on which ACT will win votes. I don’t think ACT will make crime a big part of its election campaign, nor would it be terribly effective if it did. Mallett included a similar message in last year’s letter and I think it corresponds with his personal views (he is from socially conservative side of the party) and with a majority of ACT members, who liked the “Zero Tolerance for Crime” message. What isn’t included, however is mention of a tough stance on welfare and Maori issues. For years, ACT campaigned on cracking-down on abuse of social welfare, “one law for all” and Treaty of Waitangi time-limits. These simply do not fit with Hide’s remoulding of the party into a supposedly friendly and non-extreme-right grouping.

In my next posting, I look at what else came in ACT’s Christmas envelope to members, including a letter from Rodney Hide.

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