Conference 2008: a tale of two Aucklands

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).

I didn’t see a single Maori or Polynesian face at the conference. A few Asian supporters of former Chinese ACT MP Kenneth Wang sat near me, but even they were thin on the ground. If any proof was needed that ACT is a party of white men, a glance at the conference room today would suffice. Are they rich white men? ACT would beg to differ – indeed today again we were told that “ACT isn’t the party of the rich like the media portray us”. Yet there can be no doubt that many of the attendees were high net-worth individuals – people such as property developer Dave Henderson and Business Roundtable head Roger Kerr. During the day it was announced that a raffle on Friday evening – on the fringe of the main conference day and surely with a much lower attendance – raised $1900. You don’t raise that sort of money by selling tickets at $1 each (or if you do, each person needs to buy a lot of tickets!).

ACT might say that this is fine. The party doesn’t have to appeal to everybody. And that is true, to a point. Even if 94% of voters hated ACT, 6% could still vote for the party, and Sir Roger Douglas’s 2008 goal (as stated at the conference today) would be met.

Let’s say 1% of voters are the über-wealthy. Even if ACT gets 90% of these people to vote for it – this represents just 0.9% of the total voting population (assume the other 10% vote National or are Owen Glenn types). Now broaden it out a bit and use the 15% figure of voters Douglas quoted today as paying the top marginal tax rate of 39%. Nine-tenths of the 15% can’t be voting for ACT, otherwise the party would be polling at around 10% – or higher. These voters might grumble at being overtaxed, but these days they might well be tradesmen who have done well out of the building boom, or simply people who have seen bracket creep move them into the top tax-paying category. They don’t see themselves as rich – indeed, if they are the sole breadwinners for their families, they probably aren’t all that rich either. Even if a third of these people voted for ACT, the party would still only get to 5% of the party vote (remember, the 1% should be included in the 15% of top taxpayers, unless they are practising shrewd tax avoidance). Most of this group probably are National voters – or even traditional Labour supporters, the fabled “chardonnay socialists”.

Now let’s imagine that ACT could attract some working class voters. Don’t assume this is a laughable objective for ACT: from 1999-2004 I believe a sizeable number of blue collar, but socially conservative supporters of messages such as “Zero Tolerance for Crime” supplemented the relatively small number of free marketeers.* Why? As I said in my dissertation, ACT’s vote dropped away immediately after Don Brash’s first “Orewa speech” on race, never to return.

What if ACT could win back some of these voters? Assume 40-50% of New Zealanders are in the lower-middle class. This includes beneficiaries, shiftworkers, factory workers – voters without tertiary qualifications. Working class votes are worth just as much as those of the predominantly well-off white men I saw at Waipuna on Saturday. If ACT can win just 10% of this number, it would have Douglas’s 6% goal, once you add in ACT’s core support which has hovered at 1% ever since the party’s inception.

Trying to access some of this mass block of voters is one reason why Rodney Hide embarked on his personal “transformation”, although I accept it was also a personal ambition of his. Appearing on Dancing with the Stars, he was trying to be “one of them” – the clown who isn’t afraid to have a go. The possible alienation of these voters is why bringing back Douglas is such a risk. ACT’s niche of wealthy supporters has been surprisingly loyal to the party. ACT polled around 1% in 1995; today it usually polls just under. Perhaps Douglas can bring back the 0.1% of the wealthy niche who had drifted to National as their “hero” himself drifted away from ACT, and solidify support at 1%. But Douglas does not have cross-over appeal to voters in the much larger working-class “pie” – of which ACT needs but a small slice.

* Admittedly, this is imprecise – in crime-affected Auckland the Zero Tolerance for Crime policy might be colour-blind, but I suspect the catch-cry of “One Law for All” and Treaty time-limits tended to attract more rural, white voters. But as ACT no longer wishes to be seen as an anti-Maori grouping and is indeed actively working with the Maori Party, there is no reason why the party cannot successfully appeal to non-white, working-class voters.

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