ACT out of cash and out of time?

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).

ACT has a reputation for being a party of the rich, a reputation which the party has often denied. There is some evidence for this, as I found out in my dissertation:

ACT’s declared election spending decreased by over forty per cent over the elections from 1996 to 2005, although the decline was not uniform. In 1999, the figure dropped by sixty percent compared with 1996, to $657,889.14. Donations recovered to allow spending of $1,625,558.79 in 2002, but slumped again in 2005, when the party spent only $966,614.72 (Electoral Commission 2003). Furthermore, [then party president Catherine] Judd (2006) cited lack of financial and human resources as a reason for ACT’s poor 2005 election performance.

The slump I wrote of then is relative: the million dollars spent still represent a very well funded campaign. But perhaps the 2008 situation is even more dire, with most high rolling donors continuing to throw their weight behind National with the hope of creating an outright majority. Of course, wealthy ACT loyalists have not disappeared: Alan Gibbs chipped in $100,000, likewise John Boscawen.

But are Gibbs and Boscawen the last men standing? Today, just 4 days out from the election, ACT sent out an urgent e-mail appeal to supporters begging for contributions. ACT itself admits that it is “strapped for cash”. The appeal is pretty blunt:

And all these campaigning activities cost money. Money to pay for phone calls, paper, photocopy cartridges, rent, power and light….. you get the idea, and the message! So we are knocking on your door right now.

If you didn’t know this came from ACT, you might think it was a message from the Green Party or RAM. If ACT is begging for money from its more modest contributors to pay for photocopy cartridges just days out from election day, things must be in a bad way.

This highlights the perennial dilemma of ACT’s organisational structure, as I investigated in my research last year. At its inception in the mid-1990s, it started a network of electorate organisations and enjoyed some real grass roots fervour. But as the party tasted electoral success, it lost interest in cultivating the local organisations, finding it could finance itself very nicely out of a few wealthy corporate and private donors. As a analogy, ACT preferred to function as a private company, rather than a listed one beholden to thousands of small “shareholders”. Not needed for their money, small supporters of ACT were displaced, with many drifting away.

Now, ACT seems to be in a fix, with the wealthy corporate and private donors having shifted their power behind National. ACT, never having built a durable grass-roots support base, is having to scramble to contact its small band of members and supporters for small change – not to cover anything exceptional, like the hire of an election jet, but just to cover basic office supplies.

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