Attacks on ACT from left and right – an Easter bonus for the 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).

ACT can be well satisfied with itself this Easter, having caused not one but two attacks on it before the break. To me it sounds like a return to the old days, when ACT caused loathing from both the left and the so-called centre right. During the 1999 election campaign, Bill English called ACT’s policies “unrealistic”. On Thursday he was forced to do much the same, while John Key was scrambling to find a coherent answer to the idea of Douglas becoming a Cabinet minister.

The kerfuffle started when Douglas outlined policies he wants to implement should he get the chance to once again become a Cabinet minister. On its own, I’m amazed at the speed with which Rodney Hide has set aside the “new strategy” of being a “nice guy”, in favour of bringing out the policies that had been stuck in the bottom drawer, not just since 2005 but since 1996. Privatisation of hospitals, education vouchers, radically reduced tax rates… While these are Douglas’s ideas rather than official ACT policy, they are certainly a higher gear than the Regulatory Responsibility Bill or Taxpayer Rights Bill which has been Hide’s political dance-step since the 2005 election

What Douglas said actually matters very little. It was much the same as what he advocated at the conference, indeed, it was much the same as he’s always advocated. The boon for ACT was the attack subsequently levelled at the party by National leader John Key:

…I’ll be buggered if I am going to go out there and a policy agenda which is moderate, considered and pragmatic and then turn around and try and sell New Zealanders down the river. I am not doing that… I understand why they are doing it but let’s get real. They are polling 0.7 per cent. There is no room for any equivocation. We are running a moderate, pragmatic sensible centre-right Government.

Labour Minister of Finance Michael Cullen also took a swipe at Douglas:

Just when everybody thought it might be safe to vote National out of the box, like something out of an old horror film, comes Roger Douglas.

Why is this a net gain for ACT? The answer lies in a 2005 study by Bonnie Meguid which I used in my research for my dissertation.* Meguid looked at mainstream-niche party competition and in a nutshell proved (by trawling through decades of examples in Western European party politics) that if a big party attacks a niche party, it will only increase voter support for the latter. This is because by addressing Douglas’s statements, National and Labour are giving them credibility, because they are worthy of comment. [For those readers who have access to online databases via academic or Parliamentary libraries, I can strongly recommend scanning Meguid’s article – cut and paste the reference below into Google Scholar]

If Key and Cullen had ignored ACT on Thursday, the story would have garnered little publicity and the voters who did notice would think it was just Douglas peddling the same old ideas. As it stands, we saw a nice piece from Duncan Garner on Thursday’s 3 News bulletin showing National at sixes and sevens, as well as a battery of articles on the New Zealand Herald website and print edition. The Herald even started up a talkback-in-print “Your Views” section on Douglas – a section which runs to 18 online pages of Douglas’s raving fans and ardent haters, in roughly equal measure.

The adage “any publicity is good publicity” is not necessarily true, but there is no question that ACT has in the last week been put closer to the forefront of voters’ minds. Even if only a few thousand agree with Douglas, this will be a win for ACT. The key point is that ACT is beginning to build momentum – coverage of the conference is followed by coverage of Douglas’s press conference is followed by the ACT on Campus party pills stunt. This stunt too was a great achievement for ACT, because it connects with younger voters in a way that Douglas’s musings never can (after all, you have to be aged at least 30 to remember Douglas’s role in the 1980s). Moreover, the attack by Jim Anderton on ACT’s youth wing giving away pills gave the story news credibility. I suspect many people who saw the story would have laughed at the audacity of the stunt, rather than tut-tutting as Anderton inevitably had to do.

Of course, John Armstrong thinks differently. In his column in today’s Weekend Herald he said:

…it was sloppy tactical thinking on Act’s [sic] part. If parading Sir Roger was supposed to help Act by pushing its brand, it was never going to help National. And Act needs to help National so there is a centre-right Government that Act can be part of.

I disagree. It’s certainly true that ACT will want to end up working with National and needs to hold back from completely ridiculing its “friend”. Going too far on the attack was one problem I identified in my dissertation. But niche parties have to stand out from the crowd. New Zealand First never holds back from attacking Labour during an election campaign and its leader is now New Zealand’s Foreign Minister. No politician gets anywhere from blending into the debating chamber, as Hide is now starting to realise. And remember, in 1999, a core ACT tactic was to attack National – and it was the only time the parliamentary party has ever increased its number of seats (from 8 to 9).

And Armstrong should note that he has now devoted two consecutive Saturday columns to ACT. Not bad for a party polling 0.9%.

*Meguid, B. (2005) “Competition Between Unequals: The Role of Mainstream Party Strategy in Niche Party Success”, American Political Science Review, vol. 99, no. 3, pp. 347-359

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