Roger returns (part II): From Dancing to Douglas – circuit-breaker or poisoned chalice?

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).

What are the implications of Sir Roger Douglas’s return to ACT? Today, I look at the pros and cons of him returning to the party he co-founded in 1993/4. While I’m sure many ACT supporters were pleased to hear that he’s coming back to the fold, the strategy is certainly not without risk.

The main advantage of Douglas coming back is his galvanising effect with core ACT supporters. In my dissertation, I examined how Douglas possessed an extraordinary capability to unify supporters of the neo-liberal economic reforms he introduced, but did not complete, during the Fourth Labour Government of 1984-1990. In the set-up phase of ACT, the reputation of Douglas quickly drew together loyal supporters: a journalist even called ACT a “Roger Douglas fan club”. Indeed, high profile advocates of economic reform soon flocked to ACT, including former Labour ministers like Prebble and Trevor de Cleene, businessmen Craig Heatley and Alan Gibbs, and thousands of other rank and file members. It is unlikely that anyone but Douglas could have won a similar level of even semireligious devotion (one supporter called Douglas “our Dalai Lama, our spiritual leader”.

It’s difficult to say how many of these supporters drifted away from ACT as Douglas’s formal involvement with the party disintegrated. Even today, ACT still seems to manage a “bedrock support” of about 1% in opinion polls (0.9% in the latest One News-Colmar Brunton poll; 1% in the Fairfax Media poll from last weekend). This was about the same amount as ACT was polling in 1995, when Douglas was party leader (Richard Prebble took over in March 1996). Douglas’s return should help to keep the core supporters of economic reform with ACT. His involvement might allay fears that ACT is becoming a “personality party” driven by Rodney Hide’s own personality.

Moreover, Douglas’s economic focus (the label invisibly attached to him being “sacked Finance Minister”) dovetails perfectly with ACT’s renewed committment to promoting economic policies such as the Taxpayer Rights Bill and Regulatory Responsibility Bill. Douglas was not only a fan of the party concentrating on raw economics, he hated it when ACT diverted to “populist” issues such as perkbusting. As I understand it, Douglas was not so keen on the saleable, but non-core social issues of race (“One Law for All”) and law and order (“Zero Tolerance for Crime”), as he saw them as peripheral to the party’s main message of economic reform. In 2008, Douglas will act as a visible cue to voters (and particularly ACT-thinking voters) that ACT is a party of economics, not dancing, fitness or anything else.

Lastly, Sir Roger Douglas gets headlines. On July 7, 2007, 3 News carried a report on the ACT Wellington Regional Conference. The regional conference of any political party, let alone a minor one, does not normally warrant a network’s political staff giving up their weekend. The reason last July’s conference warranted a report was that Douglas had criticised ACT the previous day for entertaining the prospect of a “co-operation agreement” with Labour over the Therapeutic Medicines Bill (later sunk for lack of support). Following July 2007, the next TV news report devoted to ACT that I can recall was….the item on Tuesday night on Douglas’s return. ACT has a major problem with visibility right now and the use of Douglas as a “news hook” should help the party with getting coverage from media which show little interest in covering parties other than Labour or National.

But there are also several drawbacks of having Douglas on board. Firstly, while he was able to draw together absolute core supporters, the likes of Hide, Heatley and Gibbs, Douglas was also responsible in no small part for ACT’s “image problem”. Since 2005, Rodney Hide and ACT in general have gone to tremendous lengths to try to erase the negative perceptions carried by the party because of its links with the generally unpopular neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. As past ACT candidate Willie Martin put it in an interview with me last year for my dissertation:

The 1980s people are gone, we’re a party of Rodney Hide and supporters now, I think people probably generally associate Rodney Hide with ACT now, or ACT with Rodney and that Rodney is just sort of this quite fun guy who goes on Dancing with the Stars. I think we are going to see quite a change of some elements of the population as to how ACT’s perceived

Well, now the “1980s people” appear to be coming back, with Douglas’s return a crucial component in this. Furthermore, after relinquishing the ACT leadership in 2004, Richard Prebble did not desert the party in the way Douglas did, but stayed loyal to Hide, giving a speech to the Wellington Regional Conference in July 2007. ACT on Campus treasurer Peter McCaffrey’s blog recently published a photo of Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide together, looking the best of friends. At a personal level, this is fine, of course – but Hide should be wary of letting Douglas become the face of the party again. Here, the experience of the party when Douglas was leader (from 1994-1995) is instructive. For every voter who admired Douglas, there were many others who did not. The chief contributor for the dislike was Douglas’s role in introducing the economic reforms in the 1980s, forever linked to him under the moniker “Rogernomics”. A 1996 North and South magazine article claimed that Douglas “carried the stale odour of a different decade’s politics. People often associated him with the pain but not the gain of economic reforms”. Recognising his own dislike, Douglas conceded in 1996 that for many people he was the “devil reincarnated”. Quantitatively, a December 1995 poll found that Douglas was the least-liked leader of any party. Furthermore, with Douglas at the helm, support for ACT in opinion polls declined from 3.3 per cent to 1.2 per cent during 1995, its first year as a registered political party.

Moreover, Douglas is a major risk simply because he is his own man. He does not ask permission to speak. Although it has been glossed over, the revelation this week that Douglas was to speak at the ACT conference in March was a mistake. He was meant to be the “mystery speaker”. So how did the word get out two weeks in advance? Of course, I don’t know the exact sequence, but I suspect TV3’s Duncan Garner received a tip-off from inside ACT (or put two and two together from the conference information mailout) and contacted Douglas for confirmation. At this point, Douglas should have simply said “no comment” and left it at that. I doubt the story would have gone to air just based on a rumour. But instead, Douglas confirmed it and Rodney Hide hastily had to himself confirm (and sound pleased about) the news – on the fly at Wellington Airport. This was pretty shambolic: Douglas refused to give an on-camera interview, yet was happy to be quoted about coming back. Then there were the musings about whether he was going to be on the ACT list. This is the sort of thing which should be sorted out behind the scenes, not debated via the media. Then a press conference is arranged, Douglas and Hide appear as best mates together and it’s neatly all stage-managed.

Of course, no great harm was done by the pre-emptive announcement of Douglas’s return. In fact, it may have actually helped ACT, giving it some extra, much-needed publicity in time for the conference next month. You can be sure that the conference will be covered by the news media, simply because of the “Douglas effect”. But the danger is that during the year a open disagreement will break out over a more substantive issue, like a matter of policy between Hide and Douglas. Douglas hasn’t hesitated before to voice his disapproval about what ACT is doing. He won’t again. But internal division has never helped ACT. And if a party can’t govern itself, how can it expect to successfully contribute to governing the country?

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