ACT, David Garrett and the Sensible Sentencing Trust

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 neglected to place a comment at the time on ACT’s announcement that David Garrett, legal counsel for the right-wing lobby group called the Sensible Sentencing Trust, is on place number 5 in the party list. Place 5 was left open at the time of ACT’s main list announcement in August.

It’s not surprising that ACT has, as Steve Braunias puts it today, “sidled up” to the Sensible Sentencing Trust. An anti-crime message has been a key part of the party’s election platform since 1999. In 2002, the “Zero Tolerance for Crime” was accompanied by billboards showing handcuffs on a supposed criminal with the slogan “ACT. Somebody has to.”.

“Laura Norder” (as former ACT MP Deborah Coddington called it) is a safe topic for a right wing party. It’s a social issue, easy to understand (although of all elections, 2008 should be one for debating the economy). Criminals are a very small percentage of voters (indeed the ones in prison don’t have the right to vote at all), so ACT doesn’t have to worry about “offending” them. Moreover, it’s popular grist for the right-wing mill. I’m quite sure more than a few ACT members would agree with Garrett’s stance in favour of capital punishment.

Trouble is, so many political parties agree with tough sentences for criminals that it’s become almost a dead issue. Indeed, crime is what political scientists call a “valence” issue – no parliamentary parties disagree with the necessity of sentencing criminals – the question is only the extent. The opposite of a valence issue is a position issue – such as, say, tax cuts in the 2005 election. National supported tax cuts, Labour opposed them – a clear cut difference.

To make itself stand out against the crowd, ACT is naturally trying to position itself as the toughest on crime. That’s why Hide told Braunias “we could put young offenders in cabins out in the wop-wops”. No family group conferences here. Yet this isn’t a lot different to National leader John Key’s “boot camps” idea of last January. National has a lot more human and financial resources to sell this message. Moreover, it has more credibility in promoting it, because it is in all likelihood going to lead the formation of the next government. Moreover, ACT has to compete with similar messages from other right-wing parties such as New Zealand First (which despite everything still commands twice the support, in party vote terms, of ACT) and even left-wing parties such as Labour, which is keen not to seem soft.

From ACT’s point of view, a more profitable strategy would be to take a position or even valence issue which is less occupied by competition. Possible substitute social-conservative issues include:

  • A hard-line stance on so-called Maori “privilege”, still officially on ACT’s books as “One Law for All” but tucked away in a bottom drawer. Reviving this would tap into the feelings of socially conservative voters who voted for National in 2005 and would build upon the many thousands of dollars National spent promoting on that campaign back then (National has since stepped away from this position, leaving the way clear for a niche party like ACT). The most plausible way of getting some quick fire votes in the lead-up to election day. However, the issue has faded in New Zealanders’ minds since 2004. Would have been an excellent issue to push had Don Brash agreed with Sir Roger Douglas’s invitation to stand for ACT this election.
  • Cutting back social welfare is another perennial hard-right issue. It’s less well trodden than crime (Labour is keen to defend what’s left of the Welfare State). National has stepped away from benefit cuts since the departure of Don Brash. A recession would, sadly, seem an ideal time to take issue with “dole bludgers”.
  • Anti-immigration is central to the success of right-wing parties overseas, seen most recently in the success of fringe parties in Austria which last Sunday took a combined 30% of the party vote. In hard times, it’s easy to find scapegoats for people’s economic troubles and claiming unskilled immigrants are taking “Kiwis’ jobs” is potentially credible. However a no-go area for ACT both because free-market ideology correctly sees immigration as a net gain for the economy (as seen by the benefits to the US economy of “illegals”, without which the agricultural sector there would collapse) and due to the fact that Hide has a son of half-Chinese parentage and is genuinely finds racist slogans unpalatable. Another downside is that anti-immigration and particularly anti-Asian sentiment is associated with New Zealand First, not something with which ACT would like to be associated.
  • Pro hunting. Works for Sarah Palin. Not really offensive for anyone. There are a lot of fishermen too. Worked for the Outdoor Recreation party in 2002 which gained 4% of the party vote but failed on the 5% hurdle. But problem with credibility: impossible for ACT, still the party of “big business” for many, to push this wheelbarrow. Plus no real equivalent to the National Rifle Association to generate heat.
  • Anti-abortion. Works for Sarah Palin. However ceased to be a political issue in New Zealand in the 1970s. Don’t go there.

A hard-line on law and order isn’t going to cost ACT votes – but don’t expect it to win all that many extra either.

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