Reduce the indifference factor, not the fear factor

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 New Zealand Herald has two articles on ACT in today’s paper. One is a “Q&A session” with ACT leader Rodney Hide in today’s edition, which doesn’t offer a lot of new information, alhough it’s interesting that when quizzed on economic policy Hide chooses to prioritise “certainty” for investors above the more punchy “tax cuts” message normally favoured. According to Hide there has been “policy uncertainty” in economic matters with the Labour-led government. I’d like to see Hide elaborate about what he means by “certainty”.

The other article is a general overview of ACT’s fortunes called “A[CT] needs to reduce the fear factor”. Again, there’s nothing particularly new but the last section which considers what ACT “needs to do in the campaign” is worthy of comment:

Reduce the fear factor associated with the “slash and burn” politics linked to Sir Roger Douglas when he was Labour’s reforming finance minister. Convince voters that Act’s policies are aimed at increasing the wealth of working New Zealanders, not just big business.

Convince right-leaning voters that Act could have some impact in a National-led government.

This cuts to the core debate over the merits of bringing back Douglas to ACT in 2008. If he was meant to be a “circuit breaker” for the party, it hasn’t worked – ACT is polling at virtually the same level now as it was last year – less than two per cent. So at this stage perhaps we should mark down Douglas’s return as a mistake: he has brought the party zero extra support. Even worse, Douglas has given the party a headache by reaffixing what the Herald calls the “fear factor” to ACT, with all the connotations of the unpopular 1980s economic reforms. Is this interpretation correct?

I might have tended towards this view in the past, but now I’m not so sure whether Douglas has had any effect – for better or worse. Looking at the latter, I think it’s more of an “indifference factor” than a fear factor. Devoted ACT supporters which since 1994 have made up 1-2% of voters have been energized by Douglas’s return – but the party hasn’t been overwhelmed by an influx of new supporters. ACT’s core supporters were always going to vote for ACT – now they actually want to.

A pertinent comparison from the “other election” could be how the addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket has sparked new enthusiasm in the party’s base, but has not brought over many moderate voters. Republicans were always going to vote for John McCain – now they actually want to.

Granted, the return of Douglas may have rekindled some of the distaste for ACT for some politically aware people. But these people were never going to vote for ACT anyway. Moreover, there haven’t been any anti-ACT campaigns start up (as in the 1990s, when Sue Bradford led her unemployed rights marches against the party). The indifference to ACT and Douglas today is illustrated well by fellow blogger and University of Otago lecturer Dr. Bryce Edwards, who recently recalled his own activism against the party in the 1990s:

I last saw Douglas speak in about 1994 at the University of Canterbury. I actually organised a lot of publicity on campus for the talk by putting up hundreds of posters denouncing Douglas for his rightwing radicalism and warning people about his upcoming talk to students. Of course, this had the counter affect, and I think my friends and I were inadvertently responsible for helping Douglas fill the auditorium (and dozens were turned away from the large venue).

Edwards contrasted this event with his experience of Douglas in 2008: instead of filling an auditorium of university students, he was giving a watered-down speech to a sleepy business audience which “didn’t appear terribly enthused by Douglas and his ‘vision’…[v]ery few questions were asked; long silences occurred.” Edwards concluded that the “‘Roger Douglas comeback’ is definitely without the Rogernomics, and nothing that is going to revitalise the fading A[CT] party.”

Why has the “fear factor” reduced? A major factor I think is that there are so many people now who have no direct memories of the 1980s reforms, with the two main groups being all voters aged under about 30 and recent immigrants. Above all, many voters have since moved on: if Rogernomics were new and different twenty-five years ago, much of the policy (if not the most radical components) has already become part of the wallpaper. It seems natural that Telecom is a private company. It seems normal that we pay 12.5% GST. And no-one is calling for reintroducing farming subsidies – not even the farmers themselves.

So if there is in fact no “fear factor” to eliminate, what else could be the problem? One month out from the election, I think the answer is the question of relevance. The Herald hints at this in the final line – that ACT needs to make voters believe that it will have some effect in a National-led government. Somehow, ACT needs to convince voters to vote ACT for its tactical ability, above all via a “keep National honest” message.

I think the time is largely over for ACT to try and convince voters to choose the party based purely on the merits of its policy. Instead it needs to get voters on election strategy. In short, ACT needs to talk down the likelihood of National gaining a clear majority and talk up the necessity for a coalition partner:

  • Can National/John Key be trusted?
  • Do you want to give National a blank cheque for 3 years?
  • Will National really reform the country or is it just “Nationalabour”?
  • Would you prefer Maori Party or ACT to be National’s coalition partner?
  • Do you want the Maori Party/New Zealand First to hold National to ransom?

Election strategy is also about stressing the “value-for-money” messages which ACT successfully trialled in Epsom in 2005. Get Hide and Worth. Get Wang and Wong. Or use the Hillary Clinton line: get change and experience.

We’re entering the final phase…

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