Rodney Hide on Radio Live and owning up to being a right-wing party

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).

Today I was fortunate enough to tune into Radio Live just after the 1pm news to hear that Rodney Hide was going to be hosting the afternoon slot (1-4pm) solo. Last week reports to this blog said that he had been paired with Willie Jackson in a left-right battle. I was able to listen until 2 o’clock and I have to say that Radio Live made an inspired choice. It’s hard to imagine any other sitting MP being offered the chance to host his own programme for three hours, although having said that I recall Radio Live hired John Tamihere back in 2005 (when he was in the doghouse with Labour over his interview with Investigate magazine in which he called Steve Maharey “smarmy”) to host a Sunday morning programme, alternating with Willie Jackson.

It will be interesting to see whether Radio Live continues to give Hide slots as the year progresses, as it would be treading on some interesting ground with regards to balance, especially as this is election year. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to invite an MP from the opposite side of the chamber to duel with Hide in the afternoon slot to fill in for Willie Jackson and John Tamihere. Imagine Rodney Hide going head to head with Michael Cullen! It would be much more riveting than Question Time on Parliament TV, which gets bogged down with all the boring patsy questions from Jill Pettis and co.

Today, Hide opened his programme with two unashamedly political topics (as one might expect!). Noting that Key and Clark were to give their opening speeches, Hide proceded to give listeners a visualisation of how much tax they were now giving to the government, which if in $100 notes would tower 72 kilometres into the sky. This was classic Rodney Hide: putting the abstract (tax policy) into colourful analogies, all in his storytelling fashion. This isn’t a new story, of course, but gaining an unfettered national radio platform to tell the country so quite possibly is.

The next topic raised by Hide was more interesting from a political tactics point of view: the petition to hold a referendum on the right to smack one’s children. The petition is being steered by right-wing evangelical lobby group Family First, so by promoting this Hide is at the very least not trying to distance ACT from this sort of hard-right conservative grouping. Family First seems to be shaking up as this election’s version of the Exclusive Brethren, albeit an overt rather than secretive one. A message about the petition was also in last Friday’s ACTion newsletter, along with a link to the Family First website.

Coming back from his first ad break, Hide sheepishly admitted that he had forgotten to give out the phone number for listeners to call. As talk radio listeners are famously loyal, this probably did not matter that much, and soon the first call came in from “John”. It wasn’t John Boscawen, but it was just as much a gift to Hide. Complaining about the level of government spending, the caller asked Hide if he would undertake a review of spending if part of the next government. Of course, at this point a delighted Rodney Hide told him all about his “Taxpayer Rights Bill”, which would “go one better” and put a cap on spending. The remainder of the hour continued in a similar vein, with Hide sympathising with a small business person over his tax obligations and amazingly convincing an invalid’s beneficiary that she wanted a tax cut.

The significance of promoting the anti-smacking petition, as well as the frequent attacks on Michael Cullen, Labour and its “fascism” via the Electoral Finance Act lies in the fact that last year Hide frustrated some of his core supporters by suggesting ACT could coalesce with Labour. With this sort of vitriol, it’s very, very difficult to see ACT going into coalition with Labour now. Conversely, Hide lavishly praised Ruth Richardson’s Fiscal Responsibility Act (1994) and even said at one point that he “didn’t want to criticise National”.

Of course, positioning itself to the right of National is exactly what ACT needs to do to generate votes. I think Hide is rapidly coming to the view that casting ACT as a completely independent party over the last couple of years was a mistake. The feeling that National was responsible for ACT’s decimation at the 2005 election fuelled this viewpoint, and at prima facie this perception was understandable. But there is no alternative. With or without National, ACT is a right-wing party. Its positions are naturally right-wing, its supporters are naturally right-wing. For its own survival, ACT needs to find some way of co-exist – and coalesce – with the giant slightly to its left.

The best new story I heard from Hide (and after all my research last year, I thought I must have just about heard them all) concerned a visit he had to parliamentary restaurant Bellamy’s just after he entered parliament in 1997. Seeing Labour MP (and later speaker) Jonathan Hunt puffing away on a cigarette with some other Labour MPs, Hide complained to the waitress and pointed out that it was hypocritical as it was illegal everywhere else in the country. The waitress subequently communicated this to Hunt et al. and Hide recalled getting “filthy looks” from Hunt. I don’t remember exactly what the analogy was supposed to illuminate apart from “hypocrisy”, but it was certainly a good story.

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