A ‘Critic’-al view of ACT – part 2

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 main event in Critic this week was an interview with Rodney Hide, on page 39. Despite John Ansell saying this week that with the exception of Hide, ACT’s electorate candidates had “bugger all chance of winning”, Hide still expresses confidence in the ability of Sir Roger Douglas to win the seat of Hunua:

Well, the key thing is the party vote but you have to say, the um … [laughs] I’m sure more people know and respect Roger Douglas than have ever heard of [National candidate in Hunua] Paul Hutchison.

If Ansell is to be believed (and he has had a front seat in ACT’s campaign for the first half of 2008), Douglas’s campaign in Hunua is a waste of time. On this note, I’ve been critical in the past of ACT concentrating too much on electorates, rather than the all-important party vote. However, on reflection I’ve come to appreciate more the rationale for standing constituency candidates is that it boosts ACT’s profile in the electorates in which it fields contenders. This relies on ensuring ACT voters are savvy enough to know that they must give ACT both votes (or at least the party vote), rather than, say, giving Douglas just the constituency vote (which will be wholly wasted if Douglas does lose) and National the party vote.

Party opinion has shifted dramatically over recent years on this point: in 2002 ACT ran a “party vote only” campaign, preferring to conserve campaign resources by not standing any electorate candidates. It is fair to say, though, that the strategic environment has changed just as much in the same period: small parties currently have only a slender chance of retaining representation in Parliament without an electorate seat.

But even more intriguing comments from Hide lie ahead. Later in the interview, he is asked about the merits of MMP. I was surprised at how eager and direct his response was to a very vague and open question:

So you said that ACT is an MMP party; does that mean that ACT is happy with the way MMP runs?
We definitely believe that there should be a referendum. We support a referendum ahead of the 2011 election.

I’m on record as saying ACT supporting a referendum on MMP simply does not make sense. If it were not for MMP, it would not have Heather Roy in Parliament – and ACT would have never gained the strength it did in the 1990s. According to Hide, “MMP has the plus that it allows for greater diversity in our Parliament, but it has a minus that it lessens accountability and transparency”. Huh? Surely not. By its very nature MMP removes the ability of one big party to cook up changes behind close doors and pass them into law the next morning using its clear governing majority.

Indeed, it was this not exactly transparent feature of the FPP system which allowed Sir Roger to implement his economic reforms during the 1980s. I disagree with Hide’s example to show why MMP is not transparent or accountable:

Well, take the emissions trading scheme that is currently winding its way through Parliament. It was presented to Parliament, people gave submissions on it, it then had a thousand changes made to it. It’s now being changed again as the Government tries to negotiate with New Zealand First, the Maori party and the Greens to get it through Parliament. At the end of the day no one party is going to be responsible or accountable for what comes out because it’s been hatched behind closed doors.

Of course “no one party” will be responsible for this law being passed. That is the nature of a coalition (or cooperative, seeing Labour is not in a formal coalition with any of the above mentioned parties) government. Voters will hold the parties which pass a law accountable for it, just as Hide and others have held Labour, New Zealand First and other parties responsible for the passing of the Electoral Finance Act (EFA) and the “Section 59” amendment (the so-called “anti-smacking” legislation) to the Crimes Act.

I have discussed ACT’s desire for a referendum on MMP before on these pages. But here is a recap. The reasons why ACT would support a MMP referendum are three-fold.

  • Firstly, there is the usually stated rationale given by ACT for having a referendum – “giving people a say”. Yet this is disingenuous – voters were already given a choice to change their electoral system just over a decade ago, which is a tiny length of time in historical terms. Changing the voting system is not something to be taken lightly. The United States has not fundamentally changed its system in 250 years; why should New Zealand change its system twice in less than a decade and a half? MMP must be given a long-term trial run, I suggest at least 50 years. If you think that’s unreasonable, consider the fact that FPP had close to 150 years to prove itself in New Zealand and plenty more prior to that in its English home. MMP is yet to be given a fair chance.
  • Secondly, if ACT becomes a one-MP “Jim Anderton” party after the election (with only Rodney Hide keeping the party in Parliament through his electorate seat), ACT will turn into a de facto FPP party anyway. The party vote becomes irrelevant because ACT simply cannot get enough of it to make it worthwhile. Getting rid of MMP would then eliminate parties rivalling ACT for votes in the future which are unable to capture an electorate seat, such as the Greens or New Zealand First. By doing so, ACT could become the only “third party” and paradoxically enjoy more support than it does today, because it could become an outlet for “protest votes” – the disaffected who are looking for another option to Labour and National. (N.B.: exactly this phenomenon is what led to the introduction of MMP in the first place!) This could be called the “last man standing” rationale.
  • Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, the return of Sir Roger to the party has generated a longing within ACT for the “good old days” of the 1980s, when, as Minister of Finance, Douglas had carte blanche to remake the New Zealand economy. This rationale is irrational: Douglas is 1) not in a 50%+ position with ACT, 2) never will be and 3) is not in either of the big two parties which could possibly be. The only plausible explanation for the delusion could be that ACT is hoping with a little pressure from itself, National could use a return to MMP to implement some of the radical changes Douglas never had a chance to do himself, such as introducing a flat tax.

Yet none of the three reasons is a compelling reason for ACT to support a referendum on MMP. If ACT really is an “MMP party”, as Hide says in the same Critic interview, he should surely be calling to support the system by taking a closer look at what parties other than National have to offer – such as ACT.

Put it this way: I didn’t hear Hide calling for a referendum in 2002, when ACT had 9 MPs – all thanks to the party vote.

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