Attack – and be attacked

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).

Recently ACT has launched some scathing attacks on both Labour and National, in the hope of tarring both with the same brush and showing ACT out to be the only option for something different. To take just one example, from last week:

It’s clear to us that the problem for New Zealand is economic as well as financial. It’s also clear that the political response from John Key and Michael Cullen has been both woeful and irresponsible. Their policy promises will make tough times worse.

ACT can keep chipping away on these attacks, but its capacity to be heard is limited. Money per se is not and never has been ACT’s problem – as was recently exemplified by the revelations of John Boscawen’s and Alan Gibbs’ high rolling donations. But most people will think of ACT’s attacks as some borer chewing away at furniture: you don’t notice it’s even happening until its too late.

Now, much more effective than doing the attacking is being attacked by someone else. On Monday, Helen Clark associated National with ACT and Roger Douglas. By attempting to associate National with Douglas, once – but perhaps no longer – the most polarising of New Zealand political figures, Labour is hoping enough voters will have second thoughts about voting for National on November 8.

It’s a similar, yet different tactic, to Barack Obama’s linking of John McCain to George Bush in the “other election”. For Obama, it’s part of a concerted and organised campaign; for Clark, it smacks of desperation.

But it should be good news for ACT. Being both Prime Minister and the leader of a much bigger party, Clark naturally draws substantial media attention. Most of ACT’s attacks will never be reported; Clark’s might be.

Furthermore, if Clark attacks ACT, she is in fact bringing ACT into the political debate, from which it is normally firmly shut out in a currently de facto two party contest. Studies show that small parties benefit from attacks from a “mainstream” party, perhaps because of an inclination to support the underdog.

Even better from ACT’s point of view would be for National to respond to Clark’s association: it could force John Key to enunciate his party’s position to ACT, again bringing the smaller party into the frame. Having been shut out of all-party debates, an attack would give ACT the chance to be evaluated side-by-side by voters. And some of those voters might decide they like what they see.

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