Why did Ansell leave?

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).

A little less of my day job at the moment leaves a little more time for Douglas to Dancing. And there are plenty of things to comment on. Easily the most significant is the departure this week of John Ansell, essentially a marketing expert who was brought in earlier this year with the aim of sprucing up ACT’s appeal and packaging the party’s policies in more voter-friendly ways. As many will recall, Ansell was responsible for the ideas behind much of National’s advertising (and notably the half/half Labour-National comparison billboards) during the 2005 campaign. Let’s begin with Ansell’s words of frustration, published in the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday:

“I wanted a mandate to do my job properly but I think I’m regarded as a bit of a troublemaker. In political parties you get 60-odd candidates creating their own personality cults rather than branding the party in a unified way…Yet other than Rodney [Hide, the party leader] they’ve got bugger all chance of winning their electorates. It’s nuts and I said as much but couldn’t get any traction. So I was trying to lay down the law that it was not about them, it was about the party vote.”

My first instincts when I saw Ansell had left was that he and Sir Roger Douglas did not get along. Yet surely this should not have happened: Ansell was, after all, brought in at the same time as Douglas – at the March 2008 annual conference. Ansell would surely have never been brought in to the ACT team, had he and Douglas had not seen eye to eye. But here is the key: even though I understand Douglas invited Ansell on to the team, Douglas may not have accepted that it would mean delegating a fair amount of the control over ACT’s “message” to the marketing men.*

Had it been Hide who had invited Ansell to help out ACT and Douglas never returned to ACT, I am sure there would have been no such problems. After all, it was Hide who understood the importance of image. This was, of course, seen in his desire to give ACT a more positive and warm exterior in 2006 and 2007, when he participated in Dancing with the Stars, took up a fitness regime and released a snazzy-looking autobiography, the cover of which had more in common with a sportsman than a politician. Hide – and Ansell – appreciated the importance of good looks.*

To put it another way, if Hide and Ansell were like hand and glove, Douglas and Ansell would be more like chalk and cheese.

  • Douglas: the principled politician, who would rather see ACT at 1% but with the most pure, undiluted and potent bottle of policy-medicine from the pages of Unfinished Business and its offspring.
  • Ansell: the pragmatic salesman, who would rather see ACT at 10%, with the copies of Unfinished Business stacked in the ACT office cellar and at best only an edited highlights package of policies remaining – but with some more appealing 21st century policies sprinkled on top.

This does not have to mean Douglas was completely hostile to Ansell; on a personal level they may have even got on well. Douglas’s invitation to Ansell must have been driven by the realisation that ACT needed a dramatic refresh in its branding. But as far as Douglas was concerned, these efforts would have to be in parallel with his own plans. On no account was Douglas going to clear his ideas with Ansell before publishing them, even Douglas’s method of presentation for these ideas was incompatible with the forward-looking and streamlined party Ansell was trying to create.

This clash was encapsulated by the release on Douglas’s campaign website of Further reading to ACT‘s 20 Point Plan to bring our children home. Tellingly, this collection of readings from the likes of Roger Kerr (Business Roundtable) and Phil Rennie (Centre of Independent (=neo-liberal) Studies) – was uploaded on to Douglas’s website only. Download the PDF and you will find page upon page of closely printed text, with a few graphs and tables added in for good measure. Definitely no slogans, no colour (with the exception of the ACT logo on page one) and no simplified campaign messages.

While we cannot say for certain that Douglas himself put the package together, the pseudo-intellectual (pseudo-intellectual not in a derogatory sense, but because it is a campaign document), statistical nature of the document does lead me to that suspicion. There are more than a few parallels with Unfinished Business (1993) and other publications issued by Douglas over the years, such as a regional conference presentation he put together after the 2002 election.*

Douglas (or possibly a volunteer staffer) put a fair amount of time into putting this package together – but for what purpose? I am certain the only people who would bother reading the report would be either some of the loyal ACT supporters (1% of New Zealand voters) who will be giving the party their vote in November anyway, or political watchers such as myself (and even then I should hasten to admit that I have by no means read every word in the PDF). The report would not convince any voters wavering between voting for National or ACT (the voters ACT needs to attract), simply because there is no chance they would ever read the report.

In summary, the report was a waste of time, convincing no new voters and wasting precious campaign time that Douglas, or whoever was responsible for the “further reading” brick, could have spent on working the ACT mail stuffer. If a rift developed between Douglas and Ansell it may well have been partly due to Douglas’s insistence on publishing the report. Indeed, it is intriguing that Further reading… appeared on Douglas’s personally controlled campaign website, rather than at the official home of ACT, despite bearing the official party logo and not just being related to Douglas’s Hunua campaign. Originally, I was told by an ACT insider that the report would soon also be available at the main ACT website; yet when trying to verify this today, I could not find any trace of it.

In light of Douglas’s report, it is clear that the 20 point “pledge card” unveiled on the ACT website some time earlier was an Ansell inspired compromise with Douglas to boil down the essence of his masterplan into a more manageable (but still hardly bedtime reading) list of policies which ACT believed would “get you an extra $500 a week, beat Australia, and bring our children home”. Some colour and more personal language made this infinitely easier to comprehend than the Douglas PDF-doorstop, but it was still a wad of detail that I imagine few recipients could be bothered reading.

Indeed, I suspect Ansell was frustrated by a desire by Douglas to include nearly every possible policy area. Ansell would have known that ACT needed a 3 point plan, not a 20 point one. A reply by Douglas to an interview by Salient this week suggests that Ansell’s creative abilities were constricted by Douglas’s desire to micro-manage:

I think John probably from his point of view found there were frustrations, he wanted to control from woe to go.

Douglas’s quest for control indicates why even the slimmed down pledge card was still a mass of closely printed text, instead of a few bold “bottom lines”. ACT is not going to win votes on climate change, whatever it says, so why include it on a mailout to voters? Why is ACT the only political party which sees the need to compare its policies with those of Trinidad and Tobago and Belize?

Above all, the pledge card – even though it could have been much worse had Ansell not been around – illustrated a return to the age-old, ACT-old tendency of putting up a policy tsunami as if it would win 50% of the vote in the election. After he took over the leadership in 2004, Hide took steps to tackle this flaw and in 2005 ACT did not even issue a full policy manifesto as it had done in the past (as seen by the lengthy summaries from manifestos summarised in the appendix of my dissertation). In 2007, Hide told me the party would campaign this year on just a few bottom lines, a stance which would have been completely in sync with the tactics used by Ansell. But Douglas’s return brought back the idea of presenting an all-encompassing “masterplan”. Yet a party on 1% – or even 10% – will never be in the position of being a political master, or even a political mistress.

It was a former New York state Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo, who once said politicians “campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose”. Douglas campaigns in prose – and at this rate will never have to worry about the governing.

Seeing his “poetry” corrupted by his paymasters, Ansell has unsurprisingly set off for pastures new.

*Portions of this post have been edited to reflect feedback supplied to me by a contact

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