Kenneth Wang – a dream candidate?

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).

The results of the Douglas to Dancing online poll are in. Of course, I don’t claim that the poll results are in any way scientific. The fact is that 13 people responded. While this is by no means a high number, this is a niche blog! So let’s look at the results as an indication of the people most interested in ACT – they might not be ACT voters (although I’m sure many will have been), but they’re keen enough to vote in an online poll.

It seems that Kenneth Wang is the preferred dream candidate of respondents. Wang is probably the (former) ACT MP about which I know the least. He entered parliament in 2004 to replace Donna Awatere-Huata, whom ACT had expelled – first from caucus and later, after a year of wrangling between Awatere-Huata and the party, from parliament. Wang was thus an MP for about two-thirds of a year, until the 17 September 2005 general election. The only thing I recall I hearing about Wang at the time he was an MP was that journalists found his accent difficult to understand. But by ACT’s accounts, he was a diligent MP and was dedicated to serving the Chinese and Asian communities in Auckland. This was not a bad idea at all. As I have previously noted, New Zealand has extremely generous voting laws (which enfranchise permanent residents). And as Winston Peters never ceases to remind us at election time, New Zealand has a sizeable and growing Asian population, especially in Auckland. Add in the fact the entrepreneurial qualities of Asian New Zealanders (apologies for any perceived generalisation) and ACT’s traditional message of free enterprise and personal responsibility could have struck a chord with Asian voters.

Wang proved particularly adept at using Chinese and Korean advertising to attempt to attract voters, although native-language advertising is still a novelty in New Zealand elections. Wang also operated an attractive-looking website (unfortunately I can’t comment on the content as I don’t read Chinese or Korean), which despite not being updated in three years still compares favourably with ACT’s official online offering. After some digging around I found the latest mention of Wang in the news media referred to him as honorary president of the New Zealand-Beijing Fellowship Society. The next latest mention of him was back in November 2005, when he was cleared of sexual harassment allegations. As I recall, Wang has already been confirmed as an ACT candidate for 2008 and during 2007 ACT’s member-only e-mail newsletters referred to him as heading the party’s “Asian Chapter”.

But let’s get back to the topic – is Wang really a dream candidate? I did raise my eyebrows when I saw his name leading (with 9 votes). Just behind him were Ruth Richardson, Catherine Judd and Don Brash (all on 8 votes). Wouldn’t any of those be a better fit for ACT? All three are experienced: Richardson, of course, presented the “mother of all budgets” and still pops up in New Zealand’s political discourse, such as when Helen Clark mentioning her in a speech she gave in February. Judd served as ACT party president from 2001-2006, in which time she attempted to give ACT’s image a makeover – an earlier version of the makeover Hide has been trying to give the party in more recent years. Finally, Don Brash, as we all know, brought an ACT-aligned view to his leadership of the National Party from 2003-2006.

First, let’s look as what’s feasible. Would Richardson, Judd or Brash want to stand as a candidate for ACT. Ruth Richardson has been out of politics for a long time -but just in the last couple of years I think she’s become more vocal. In August 2007, she rapped the government on the knuckles when she told The Press that it should be more tightly controlling fiscal spending: “Even the Reserve Bank, which has to be very circumspect, is now being quite explicit. You can’t run credible monetary policy if your fiscal policy is at odds”. The same August 9 article told readers that Richardson had been working in the consultant in the US. Earlier, in June 2007, the Sunday-Star Times profiled Richardson in its “Steve Braunias interview”. From the article:

She now runs Ruth Richardson NZ, hiring herself out as an governmental and corporate consultant: “I’m an example of a politician privatised.” Business is good. Recently, she was in San Francisco; this month, Brazil; after that, Paris. She also has clients in Jordan, El Salvador, Macedonia, Pakistan, Mauritius, the Caymans… the list goes on. And she also has directorships in firms including British Telecom, Marlborough’s Oyster Bay vineyard, and Jade Software in Christchurch: “Our latest contract is to build the port IT system in Gdansk. I remember saying in parliament, `New Zealand’s economy is like a Polish shipyard!’ And now here I am in the business of supplying the IT to a Polish shipyard.”

While she sounds busy, in reality this is a similar kind of work to what Douglas took on in the early 1990s. Yet he still found time to start up ACT, supported in this by other figures such as co-founder Derek Quigley and Rodney Hide himself. So it is conceivable that Richardson could cut down on her consulting to help out in ACT – and possibly as a candidate. And while she holds her cards close to her chest, it’s clear that she has the desire to come back. Witness the politically charged comments, as printed in the Sunday Star-Times of June 10, 2007:

We’ve just seen writ large in the latest Budget the fatal conceit that this government has the answer to every economic and social ill, that somehow it will dictate how we live happy and fulfilled and successful and risk-free lives. Yeah, isn’t that great?

The one fishhook to all this is that Richardson is anti-MMP. Still, most of ACT’s founders were against reforming the electoral system and this irony (or is it hypocrisy?!) never stopped them from coming to terms with and becoming part of new political reality.

So Ruth Richardson, a dream candidate? Actually, I think not. Richardson appeals to the same sort of supporters that Douglas does – the traditional group of ACT voters. The 1%, if you like. But if the party has already brought back Douglas to shore up this support base, what sense would it make to add Richardson? This would only decrease the opportunity to appeal to broader groups who detest the reforms of the 1980s. Bringing Richardson would turn off the new group of voters that ACT has begun to access – the people who have admired Rodney Hide’s personal transformation and who watched him on Dancing with the Stars. Of course, bringing Douglas back may have this effect anyway. But why rub it in?

Next, we can dispense with Judd and Brash pretty quickly as genuine potential candidates. Even Rodney Hide admitted to me that Judd’s attempted rebranding of ACT’s image (notably with “The Liberal Party” moniker) was a “total failure”. Judd has clearly had her turn – she may have even tried her best (although as I discussed in my dissertation, her Liberal Project had many flaws). Not being part of the original “1980s team”, she wouldn’t bring back former ACT voters. And she has already been shown as unable to convert new ones. While as a public relations consultant she might be worth having on board to assist new ACT helper John Ansell (the National Party billboard man from the 2005 election, to be covered in another post) in selling ACT’s message, she’s not a dream candidate.

For his part, it would be very, very unlikely for Don Brash to stand for ACT, just three years after leading the National Party to a close defeat, but defeat nonetheless. He would be an easy figure for opposition parties to demonise. The more interesting aspect to me of his selection by participants in the online poll is the lack of animosity towards Brash for ACT’s own predicament. As I discussed in my dissertation, following the 2005 election, ACT supporters held Brash’s National in no small part responsible for its own electoral decimation. But I think the prevailing view is that Brash did as could have been expected and had National won, the economic right would have been back in charge of the country. ACT supporters don’t hate Brash – they admire him for having come so close to taking the reigns of power in 2005.

This brings us back to Wang. An expanding ethnic demographic, easily and affordably targetable in niche, Chinese-language Auckland media and an enthusiastic former MP willing to dedicate his time to an election campaign? If Wang can get 30,000 Asian votes (a fraction of the total population) and help double ACT’s party vote, at the very least it sounds like a dream combination – if not a dream candidate.

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