Conference 2008: Opinion piece in the Herald

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 have an opinion piece (“Act’s dilemma – what’s in a name?”) in today’s New Zealand Herald, on the return of Sir Roger Douglas to the ACT fold. In the print edition it’s on page A19. Understandably, the piece in the Herald was edited for length and other reasons (and for some reason “perkbuster” was changed to “perkmaster”), so for reference the full piece as I submitted it appears below:

It came as a surprise to those who follow the fortunes of ACT New Zealand to hear recently that Sir Roger Douglas has apparently made his peace with the party. Last week, it was made public that Douglas is to speak at ACT’s election year conference, to be held in Auckland on March 14 and 15. Douglas co-founded the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers with former National MP Derek Quigley in 1993, transforming it into a political party in 1994. But after relinquishing the leadership to another former Cabinet minister from the Fourth Labour Government, Richard Prebble, Douglas became disenchanted with the party’s apparent drift from promoting his prescription of low tax and personal insurance based funding models (set out in his 1993 book and initial ACT party Bible “Unfinished Business”) to more soundbite-friendly scandal-mongering. He resigned as party president in 2001 and severed all formal links with the party three years later, after Rodney Hide, the “perkbuster”, won the leadership in a US-style party primary, following Richard Prebble’s retirement.

It is not yet clear whether Douglas will once again take on a formal position within ACT, although he has suggested he would be happy with a symbolic placing lower down the party list. Instead, just as he turned down the opportunity to re-enter parliament with ACT in 1996, it seems likely that Douglas will be content to occupy a figurehead role, away from the day to day minutiae of politics. Still, at age 70, Douglas is a year younger than presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The chief benefit Douglas can offer ACT is his name. During the start-up phase of ACT, Douglas possessed an extraordinary capability to unify supporters of the neo-liberal economic reforms which he introduced, but did not complete during his time as Minister of Finance from 1984-1988. Dubbed the “Roger Douglas fan club” by one journalist, the reputation of Douglas quickly drew together high profile advocates of economic reform, including former Labour ministers like Prebble and Trevor de Cleene, businessmen Craig Heatley and Alan Gibbs, and thousands of other enthusiastic rank-and-file members who were frequently new to politics. By the time Douglas gave up the leadership in early 1996, ACT had recruited 7,000 members and supporters, a number which has since dwindled to just 1,500, according to figures released by Rodney Hide in his 2007 autobiography. Of course, as memories of the Fourth Labour Government fade, it is quite possible that Douglas’s pulling power has itself diminished over the years, but if Douglas’s return could convince even a fraction of his former fans to take his cue and return to ACT, the party would be off to a good start.

Moreover, Douglas’s reunification with ACT should encourage some of the party’s more wealthy benefactors to provide a much needed cash injection for the election campaign. In 2005, donors deserted ACT for the then near ideologically identical National Party, led by Don Brash – a much safer bet considering the uncertainty of whether a single ACT MP would even be returned to Parliament. Donations plunged from $1.6m in 2002 to $960,000 three years later. A correlation between money and electoral success does not necessarily exist: ACT received an even lower level of donations ($650,000) in 1999, yet managed to increase its number of MPs from eight to nine. However, the party has already announced that list MP Heather Roy will contest the Wellington Central electorate seat, in addition to attempting to have Rodney Hide re-elected in Epsom, ACT’s saviour in 2005. Electorate contests are notoriously resource intensive and as long as ACT polls below the five per cent MMP threshold, the party will want to secure at least one constituency lifeline to ensure its survival.

However, bringing Sir Roger back to the fold carries a host of potential pitfalls. Foremost of these is the very real possibility that Douglas will repel far more voters than he is able to attract. Douglas’s name is responsible in no small part for ACT’s perennial “image problem”. Here, the experience of the party during Douglas’s leadership in the mid-1990s is instructive. Inextricably linked with the moniker “Rogernomics”, even Douglas himself admitted that for many people he was the “devil reincarnated”. Moreover, despite establishing what seemed like a dedicated army of followers, support for ACT in opinion polls dwindled from 3.3 per cent to just 1.2 percent during 1995 – the level the party polls today. The strength of Douglas’s unpopularity amongst voters is illustrated by the fact that especially older participants in discussion groups I conducted on ACT during 2007 cited him as a major reason for disliking the party associated with his name.

Furthermore, by bringing Douglas back inside the ACT tent, Rodney Hide runs the risk of “cancelling out” his efforts since 2005 to give the party a more human public face. His appearance on the immensely popular television programme “Dancing with the Stars” and subsequent fitness regime, together with Roy joining the territorial army in 2006, constituted an attempt to rid the party of its image as a group of “rich white men”. Coupled with Prebble’s retirement and Douglas’s withdrawal, the decimation of support for ACT at the 2005 election and the associated clean-out of most of its MPs severed the remaining formal links with the 1980s. Although Hide’s rebranding attempts have not yet borne fruit in the form of higher opinion poll figures for ACT, this seems more likely because the focus on extra-parliamentary activities has been at the cost of the party promoting some new, saleable policy ideas. The reassociation of Douglas with ACT now means that as far as image building is concerned, Hide might as well not have bothered trying to give his party a makeover since the last election.

The final risk for ACT is that Douglas is his own man. It had been intended that Douglas’s reconciliation with ACT would be announced at the party conference later this month; he was, after all, supposed to be the “mystery speaker”. Yet instead of waiting to be unveiled at a stage-managed party conference, Douglas suddenly confirmed his conference appearance to media last week, along with musing about whether or not he would be on the party list, catching Hide unawares. While the extra publicity for the upcoming conference may well prove to help, rather than hinder ACT, the risk is that a dispute over a more substantive policy issue, such as tax rates, may break out between the now reunited Douglas and Hide, later in the year. Douglas has broken with the party before. He is quite capable of doing it again.

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