A ‘Critic’-al view of ACT – part 1

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 must have felt nostalgic for my alma mater tonight when I entered the URL of Critic, the student magazine of the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA), into my browser’s address bar. Fortunately, as a free on campus weekly, Critic sees no need to fumble about with clunky “E-Paper” technology and posts each week’s edition as a freely downloadable PDF, including this week’s paper.

This week, Critic featured (on page 22) an interview with Warren Jones, the organiser of the Dunedin chapter of ACT on Campus. Jones’s name featured in the acknowledgements of my dissertation, as he was most helpful at the outset of my research and particularly with introducing me to figures in the party. According to Jones, the Otago branch of ACT on Campus currently has “12-15 activists and a wider group of registered supporters”. This isn’t a huge number, but it respectable considering ACT’s overall relatively low profile, general student political apathy and the fact that Jones was given the task of restarting a virtually moribund group when he moved to Dunedin to study in 2007.

Still, the modest grouping today at Otago pales in comparison to what it once was, mirroring the decline of ACT itself. In my dissertation, I found out that a decade ago Otago had one of the larger and more active ACT youth branches. In those days, it was called “Prebble’s Rebels”. Former ACT candidate Willie Martin recalled in an interview with me (the transcript begins on page 99 of the dissertation) how the Otago campus buzzed with activity with “big house meetings all the time…policy days where we go and talk about policy and one of our members managed a hotel so we were allowed to have our monthly constituency meetings in like a hotel conference room and they were really quite busy”. As Martin explains, the forerunner of ACT on Campus in Dunedin had a core group of fervent supporters:

When I joined in ’97 there were heaps of young people and we picked up quite a few around the ’99 election and had quite a vibrant sort of, it was called Prebble’s Rebels at that stage, had quite a vibrant sort of grouping, and yeah there were probably easily 10, 15 of us who’d regularly do stuff, and part of the reason for that was there was a guy called Clint Heine who ran it at that stage, who’s now in the UK, but he basically spent far more time devoting, devoting time to Prebble’s Rebels stuff than he did to his university studies and right up to the ’99 election he was basically just working for ACT full-time and it sort of became a social thing as well, sort of like Clint was organising sort of going putting posters up and that sort of stuff and a lot of them were doing that and then organising heaps of sort of, drinks on the weekend and that sort of thing, so it was a social thing as well as a political thing, back then and certainly ACT on Campus in Dunedin has never quite reached that since

Martin does credit the personality of Heine for much of the seemingly unlikely early success of the Dunedin grouping (Dunedin North being a Labour stronghold). But he also notes that the youth wing’s fortunes were interwoven with ACT’s: “the party as a whole at that stage had a lot more members and a lot more buzz happening…it was sort of Richard Prebble trying to do something new and innovative and certainly once we got more used to it I think that slowed down as well”.

I understand Heine remains a loyal ACT supporter. He now runs a group blog on New Zealand politics which offers some good, partisan commentary on ACT’s fortunes, including some comments this week over the departure of John Ansell from the ACT campaign.

Illustrating the vitality of Prebble’s Rebels in the 1990s, I’ve been told that Prebble’s Rebels enjoyed making trouble in lectures by the likes of Dr. Brian Roper, a left-wing academic whose beliefs could probably be summarised as being the antithesis of ACT’s. ACT supporters sitting towards the back of the lecture theatre used to heckle Roper during his lectures on New Zealand politics. With much reduced numbers, it’s hard to imagine ACT supporters attempting a similar endeavour now.

Coincidentally, an interview with Roper (whom Critic describes as the “[u]niversity’s self-proclaimed resident left-wing activist”) also features in this week’s Critic, on page 13. I was somewhat surprised by his prediction of the outcome of this year’s election, which could be described as resigned acceptance of a National-led victory:

I think that National will win the next election comfortably, at least in terms of being the party with the largest share of the popular vote. The only reason I hesitate in terms of predicting a National victory is that National, since the introduction of MMP, has struggled to a greater extent than Labour to find coalition partners. But I actually think it will find some coalition partners for the next election, particularly when John Key is going to present the National Party as being a moderate, sort of centrist kind of party.

This is not exactly fighting talk – but it becomes even defeatist in the next paragraph, when Roper says “it’s a good election for Labour to lose – we’re looking at the most severe recession in the world’s economy since the 1970s and some political economists are predicting a global recession on the scale of the depression of the 1920’s”. Whatever the circumstances, it would seem to be a bold call to essentially wish defeat on the party which is in the best position of representing something remotely close to your political beliefs in Parliament. In a year’s time I wonder whether Roper will still believe it was an election worth losing for Labour – assuming, of course, that it does lose, which is still by no means certain.

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