BREAKING NEWS: A winning 2008 election strategy for 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).

“This is 3 News, with Mike McRoberts and Hilary Barry”

“Kia ora, good evening. National leader John Key kicked off the political year today with his Burnside speech. And he had a shock in store: a coalition deal signed and sealed with Rodney Hide’s ACT party, ten months before the election even takes place. For more on this story, political editor Duncan Garner joins us now live from Parliament. Duncan?”

“Yes good evening Hilary, I can tell you that Key’s announcement took everyone completely by surprise, his advisers had been telling the media privately that Key would give a speech on education. Well the Burnside speech was certainly on education – a lesson in backroom political dealing.

“Refreshed from his holiday at his $2.8 million home at Omaha Beach, John Key gave his second Burnside speech to a room full of National Party supporters and media. To begin with, it was jovial:

KEY: “Well first of all I want to commiserate with you if you’re a closet Labour Party donor and missed out on getting a New Year’s Honour. Just let me know if so and I’ll send a text to Helen up in Oslo – just hope she’s not meeting the Norwegian royal family!” [laughter]

“But then, Key got serious and dropped his bombshell. National’s preferred coalition partner for the 2008 election is Rodney Hide’s ACT party. In fact, it’s more than preferred: National has stitched up a tango deal with the party leader now famous – or is that infamous – for his antics on the dance floor:

“To most voters it will come as little surprise that National would prefer to work with its friends to its right, long supporters of tax cuts and free-market policies born out of the 1980s economic reforms. But National doesn’t just want to work with ACT, it’s going to actively help it to survive.

“Currently, ACT remains in Parliament thanks to leader Rodney Hide holding the Epsom seat. In 2005, Hide had to fight every inch of the way to take the Epsom seat from National’s Richard Worth. This time, National’s withdrawing its candidate, giving Hide all but a clear run to victory in Epsom, and guaranteeing his party’s survival. In return, ACT’s sole other MP, Heather Roy, will withdraw from the Wellington Central electorate race, where she’s up against National candidate Stephen Franks – ironically himself a former ACT MP.

“In return for unconditional support of National, Hide will get a guarantee of deep tax cuts to be implemented immediately after the election, set down for November. And there’ll be more tax cuts as economic conditions allow. But there’s a gimmick: the more party votes Hide gets for ACT, the better a ministerial position Hide will get in a National Government. Key’s promising him an “Anti-Red-Tape” role if he remains in Parliament, but gets less than 5%. If he gets between 5 and 10% support, Hide will be Associate Finance Minister, with one other undecided ministerial post also assigned to ACT. If ACT gets over 10%, Rodney Hide will become the country’s Finance Minister, with 2 other ACT ministers in a National-led government.

“Funnily enough, Hide’s gone to ground this afternoon, saying he doesn’t want to spoil John Key’s moment. But plenty of others have been willing to comment: Deputy PM Dr. Michael Cullen has called it a “flip-flop” by Hide, who last year had begun to woo Labour.

CULLEN: “Voters don’t want to go back to the dark days of the ’80s and ’90s, in fact they’ve made it quite clear they want their tax dollars spent on providing quality health and education. They certainly don’t want a resurrection of Rogernomics”

“Whether voters agree with Cullen, or are willing to give what Key’s calling a “Coalition for Change” a chance, remains to be seen.

“And Hilary it’ll be interesting to see whether Labour is able to credibly portray ACT as the right-wing bogeyman as it’s done in the past. There’s a real generation gap with Key and Hide, compared with say the National leadership of Don Brash and ACT’s Richard Prebble. And any Labour talk of doom and gloom is really going to jar with those quite comical dancing shots of Rodney Hide and his new-found image as a slimmed-down weight-loss devotee

BARRY: “ACT’s been polling at only 1 or 2 per cent for a long time now, what sort of effect is Key’s announcement going to have on the party’s support?

GARNER: “Well the key point here is that the deal makes ACT look like a serious player. Hide’s going to be a minister of some description, the question is only what. So voters will be more willing to cast their votes for ACT if they know they’ll be put to good use. And by not having to wage expensive electorate campaigns in Epsom and Wellington Central, ACT will be able to conserve valuable resources for a nationwide push for the party vote.

“The only question is whether the tactic could backfire for Key, if the deal cuts too much into National’s own support-base. But the parties are both on the same side, they’re fighting for the same team. Hilary?

BARRY: “Duncan thank you, Duncan Garner, live from Parliament.

“And straight after 3 News, at 7, John Campbell will have exclusive interviews with both John Key and Rodney Hide to explain the National-ACT deal in full

That’s tonight on Campbell Live, here on 3.”

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11 Responses

  1. rolla_fxgt says:

    Brilliantly well made Geoffrey, if you didn’t know better it actually would be believable.

  2. Oliver Woods says:

    Agreed with the previous commenter :D.

    In fact, this is probably all real already, just not on the news!

    By the way, Geoffrey, how are ACT people reacting to Stephen Franks standing in Wellington Central? I had noted a rather confused but almost positive tone amongst ACT people I spoke to about it…

  3. First of all a disclaimer: no Duncan Garners were harmed in the making of this post 🙂

    Actually I don’t think this sort of discussion is occurring between National and ACT at all, although as I make clear in the post (using Garner as a mouthpiece), it should be. But Hide is intent on making ACT an independent party – which I just don’t think is working. However, as Garner “said”, the partnership makes a lot of sense. At the very least it would save some cash and time for both parties by making electorate contests simpler. National needs coalition partners – and ACT has always been cited as its natural friend.

    Oliver: I haven’t heard anything concrete about reactions to Stephen Franks, but I understand he fell out with the party in fairly short order after the 2005 election. An NBR report (linked on the sidebar of this page) in mid-2007 said that he was considering standing for National and that’s what happened. When I interviewed Hide in August 2007, he seemed pleased that the likes of Franks and Muriel Newman were gone. From page 45 of my dissertation:

    “The removal of hard-line conservative social policies was facilitated by the failure of MPs Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman, who had advocated tough stances on crime and social welfare, to be re-elected in 2005. Hide says they “weren’t the liberal end of the caucus, they were the conservative MPs, you know, lock ’em up, throw away the key, families have got to work, you’ll do this, you’ll do that, sort of approach to New
    Zealand, whereas Heather and I and Ken Shirley and Richard Prebble were the liberal end” (Personal

    Since the 2005 election Franks became legal spokesman for the Sensible Sentencing Trust, although I’m not sure whether he is keeping this role since becoming the Nats’ candidate in Wellington Central.

    It will be an interesting campaign in Wellington Central this year. Franks and Roy will probably try and run “positive” campaigns and avoid attacking each other, but Roy will need to be on her mettle. The seat matters more for her than Franks, even though I doubt she will win and Hide will probably bring her back by winning Epsom anyway.

  4. Oliver Woods says:

    Very interesting and perceptive comments Geoffrey – thanks for explaining that further for me!

    I personally believe that there is a possibility that ACT, like the Progressives in 05, may lose it’s second MP in Parliament if the party continues as it does – and I agree with your call that Roy lacks any ability to win Wellington Central. I doubt Franks could either to be honest, the electorates changed in the last 10 years.

    I was involved in the Labour Party campaign in Epsom last election (with Stuart Nash – easily Labour’s most able newcomer, far more capable than dunces like Phil Twyford and the conservative unionists-aplenty that always are high up on the Labour list). During the campaign, as something of a campaign junkie, I followed all the campaigns of all the candidates in teh electorate, major and minor, and Rodney’s by far was the hugest, being incredibly well funded American-style and simply bigger and deeper than I had ever imagined a candidate race could be in New Zealand.

  5. peteremcc says:

    As to stephen, it’s all to do with the shift towards social liberalism as well as economic that I mentioned on the other thread.

    I’m sure Stephen would still have been welcome in ACT, but I think he probably fits better in National.

  6. David Farrar says:

    A minor clarification – Stephen Franks is seeking the National nomination, but a selection has not yet been made for WC.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Rodney’s by far was the hugest, being incredibly well funded American-style and simply bigger and deeper than I had ever imagined a candidate race could be in New Zealand”

    To be fair, it was the volunteers that did this for Rodney’s campaign. Both National and ACT would have spent the same amount of dosh – just less than the $20k cap. The number of people they had on the ground was quite astonishing, and, I agree, something that was bigger than I though possible for an electorate race in NZ.

  8. Thanks DPF for pointing that out. I’ll be surprised if Franks doesn’t win the nomination for National in Wellington Central, unless there’s another very strong nominee. On the other hand, there’s no question that Franks would be from the far-right of National, which could jar with the more centrist position John Key is trying to occupy.

    Do you know when the selection for Wellington Central will be announced?

  9. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think being “far-right” will be Franks’ problem.

    He’ll have multiple obstacles, primarily in the form of Finlayson, Mapp, Worth and Power.

    He’s from another party, and the Nats grassroots will be suspicious, while many MPs will be downright opposed.

    My pick is Paul Quinn.

  10. Nat Voter says:

    Back to the orginal post Geoffrey.

    I fail to see what National would gain from a deal with ACT negotiated 10 months before the election.

    It is quite obvious that John Key is trying to win the political centre. A deal such as you are proposing would expose National to constant attacks from Labour. Any attempt by John to introduce a centrist policy would be followed by Labour pointing at ACT and saying “National doesn’t really mean this, look at their nasty coalition partner, they are evil capitalist who want to eat your babies, they will never allow National to do {enter centrist policy here}

    What is worse, is that it would be in ACT’s best interest to state that they are opposed to any of National’s centrist polices, as they would claim that they are providing a “backbone for national”. This would fuel Labour’s attack, while also leading to National losing right wing support to ACT.

    Such a strategy would also lead to National being continually exposed whenever ACT released an extreme policy position. John Key would be forced to explain if and why/why not National would support ACT’s policy, instead of spending time advocating National’s campaign points.

    At the end of the day, an election is a contest of ideas. National needs to convince as voters that its ideas are best for the country, not do deals with the competition before the race is run. If a coalition is required, National should negotiate with the parties that remain in parliament after the election.

  11. Nat voter: thanks very much for your very salient comments.

    When I was drafting the post, this was exactly the thought I had. Labour would attack an National-ACT coalition as going back to the “failed policies of the past”, Rogernomics etc. etc.

    Labour might try to do this.

    But I think it would fail. While political aficionados like us have long memories, I think memories have faded somewhat of the 1980s and 1990s reforms. One has to be about 30 or more to personally recall Rogernomics. That leaves a whole lot of voters in their 20s that ACT could target for starters.

    Moreover, Dancing with the Stars, the ocean swimming etc. wasn’t for nothing. When I ran focus groups for my dissertation, dancing was often the first thing people associated with ACT, almost universally! While ACT is still linked with a far-right image for some, this image is fading. If you wanted to definitively get rid of it, ACT could introduce a new logo and slogan, e.g. ACT 2. This is what Tony Blair did with Labour in the mid 1990s, which became “NewLabour”. It’s too late for a name change at this stage, however.

    And don’t forget – Labour has been working with ACT over the last couple of years. It voted for Hide’s Regulatory Responsibility Bill, at least for its first reading, and Helen Clark is quite amicable with Hide now by all accounts. While this could change for the election campaign, at the very least Hide would be able to counter by bringing up some very complimentary remarks made by Labour MPs in the House about his bill – “well Labour was quite happy with our policies last year, what’s changed?”.

    Finally, a National-ACT deal would help National. John Key reportedly understands MMP. What better way to understand MMP than by stating a preferred coalition partner? Labour did this with the Alliance in 1999 and it worked very well, since then the Greens and Labour have had an unwritten election alliance which has not harmed them at all. I don’t think ACT would try to portray itself as the hard edge of National as in the 1990s, rather, it would commit to some key pieces of legislation it wanted, such as the Regulatory Responsibility Bill and tax cuts. Unlike 1999, this sort of economic talk is now “in”. For a populist touch ACT could easily start up a “Bring Kiwis Home From Aussie” campaign. If run as a gimmick this could produce a few humorous stunts which would easily get some support.

    And remember, ACT just needs to get a few per cent that National would otherwise get for it to have a very successful election night come November.

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