ACT’s Christmas mailout – part 2

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).

In a pre-Christmas posting, I looked at what ACT president Garry Mallett had to say to members in a December 2007 letter. Today I examine what leader Rodney Hide had to say for himself. Hide’s letter is an important document, as it is the closest guide we currently have as to how ACT is planning to campaign in this year’s election.

First, Hide talks about a “Taxpayer Rights Campaign”. According to Hide, this “campaign will demonstrate what makes ACT fundamentally different…[the] party will advocate for a constitutional limit on the size of the tax take and tax cuts”. I’m not too sure how effective this campaign will be, although it’s interesting to see that Hide believes ACT needs to make itself seen as “fundamentally different”. In the last chapter of my dissertation, I said that ACT needed to carve out is own niche, but the niche has to be something which inspires voters. I don’t think a Taxpayer Rights campaign is going to garner votes. For one thing, it’s too complicated and vague, despite the claim made in the brochure (this was included with the mailout but I also obtained a copy of it earlier last year):

ACT would start by capping taxation at the per person level it is today. It’s easy, add up how much tax the Government takes today, divided it by the number of people in the country and that’s it…[i]f politicians wanted to increase tax, they would have to either cut ineffective spending in other areas, or ask Kiwi taxpayers for consent

The Taxpayer Rights Bill is just too airy-fairy and I think Hide knows that. He explained to me that the chief reason why he doesn’t just go for, say, a flat tax of 20% instead, is that he wants to keep potential coalition options open – specifically allowing a ACT-Labour coalition:

…when I wrote the book [Hide’s autobiography My Year of Living Dangerously], a flat tax was my preferred policy for 2008 and I liked the resonance of 20-10 by 2010. Since finishing that publisher’s draft, I got my Regulatory Responsibility Bill through Parliament, first stage, and I thought wow, I might be able to go for a bigger prize, because I think the Taxpayer Rights Bill is a bigger prize and would have a bigger impact. And I also think that the flat tax would speak to our core constituency, but may turn off our potential constituency, because they don’t get it. So that was my thinking and then there’s a third point that occurred to me was: very, very hard for Helen Clark to consider a flat tax of 20 cents given her statements and her position. Not so hard for her to consider a Taxpayer Rights Bill. So it would give me a greater leverage on both the major parties to have something that both wouldn’t rule out, whereas I might be in the election campaign, and then she just rules out 20 cents

At the time, I could see Hide’s reasoning. But I am now thinking that it is far more detrimental for ACT to try and position itself as a centre-party which can go with Labour or National at the next election. Almost two years of portraying ACT as a “nice-guy” party by Hide has not gained the party more support; in fact, it has cost it voters. At the 2005 election, ACT polled 1.5% of the party vote, which seemed disastrous enough. This year, the party has been frequently gaining just 0.5% or so of the party vote in opinion polls. Let’s put it another way – out of 1000 people polled, that means just five people say they would vote ACT – this compares with up to 80-100 voters at the best times during ACT’s modest “golden years” between 1999 and 2004 (even on a bad day ACT would get 4% support – voters that it would do anything to come by now).

No matter how hard Hide tries, voters of the Left will not vote for ACT. The answer – admit to being a right-wing party and promote simple tax cut figures, maybe even a flat tax, while advocating co-operation with National only. This would bring back core supporters. There’s nothing nasty about stating a preferred coalition partner.

In the remainder of his letter, Hide has three more bold headings. The first is “Fighting Fascism”, under which he notes that ACT opposed the Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill on the basis that it “threatens civil liberties” because the Prime Minister is empowered to decide which terrorist groups should be designated as such. Again, Hide points out that ACT’s voting against this bill distinguishes it from Labour and National. This is true, but how much value do voters place on “civil liberties” when casting their ballot? Freedom might well be undervalued in New Zealand, but there is little ACT can do to change this. Again, this comes down to the size of the niche ACT is trying to attract. There might be a constituency for freedom supporters, but it is without doubt a much smaller one than the “tough on crime” fans who would prefer a crackdown on alleged terrorists (e.g. Tame Iti). This stance is much simpler to convey too – freedom can easily be confused with being “soft”.

The third heading is on the Regulatory Responsibility Bill. There’s nothing much of substance here, apart from a wish from Hide to see the bill passed before the election. This would give ACT a real achievement to communicate to voters, but thus far the RRB has failed to capture the imagination of voters.

The final heading is labelled simply “Election Year” and the paragraph is worth quoting:

…We move into election year strategically focused on doing some core ACT economic and freedom issues very well rather than trying to ‘scratch’ every political itch! We are very clear about what we stand for and will concentrate on high performance, accountable and transparent Government, smart green policies and taxpayer

Targeting a few issues is a good idea for a party with depleted resources. The question is, does ACT have the right issues?

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