John Boscawen, the Electoral Finance Act and ACT

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).

There have been a number of letters to the editor in newspapers recently on John Boscawen, who has been leading a campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill (since yesterday the Electoral Finance Act). Take this letter for example, from the Christchurch Press last week:

Is this democracy?
If you or I want to have our say, we can write to the editor. Maximum 150 words, may get published, but odds are it won’t, may be edited. John Boscawen (sword and shield of democracy), just writes a fat cheque for another ad campaign. Publication guaranteed. Money talks and he is spending up big to keep it that way. He calls that democracy. Do you?
Tom Taylor

A familiar theme in the letters has been the allusion to Boscawen’s wealth. But in some letters (which I unfortunately neglected to cut out), writers have also mentioned Boscawen’s connections to ACT. While I don’t believe Boscawen is actively seeking to hide his ACT connections, it is true that he hasn’t led the opposition under the ACT banner, unlike other right-wing pressure groups which have openly opposed the EFB, such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Family First. In fact, he has generally promoted his opposition as a independent concerned citizen.

Why might this be? I think it is fairly obvious, as the letter writers have pointed out. If Boscawen more clearly pronounced his links with ACT, he might well turn people off. As I found out in research for my dissertation, ACT is still strongly linked with and money. Participants in focus groups I ran for my research felt that ACT was associated with “financial interests” and “business”. These views were mirrored in a projective exercise, in which participants were asked to choose the make of car which most closely represented their view of ACT.1 Participants overwhelmingly favoured the sports utility vehicle (SUV) and sports car, ignoring more ordinary sedan and people-mover models. One participant felt that the SUV was suitable because it “could run anyone over…sort of a bully’s car”, while the sports car represented “arrogance” and “aiming for the highlife”. Wealth was clearly a trigger for these perceptions: one participant said that ACT was not interested in “the social side of politics, whereas Labour is about helping people, the lower people, they’re [ACT] more about the rich people at the top and aiming for that sort of lifestyle, which is what you associate those cars with, money”.

If people wrote off Boscawen as “just someone from the ACT party”, this might reduce the effectiveness of his “impartial” opposition. N.B.: I’m not sure of Boscawen’s exact links with ACT today, but I’m fairly sure he is at least a member and quite likely a major financial donor. He was heavily involved in the foundation stages of the party from my recollection, but I would need to research the specifics.

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