Strategic voting and ACT

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).

It’s the final week of a fairly lacklustre election campaign by all parties concerned. But if ACT does manage to gain an extra MP or two, it may well be due to “strategic voting” taking place. I take strategic voting to mean voting for a party for a reason other than, or in healthy addition to, agreement with its policy. I’ve previously argued that ACT should give up trying to convince voters to become neo-liberals and gain supporters for pure tactical reasons. Earlier in the campaign, we saw ACT reintroduce the tired, but sometimes profitable tough-on-crime stance. Perhaps precisely because of its tiredness, this has failed to capture anyone’s imagination (more on that in my next post).

In recent days we’ve seen some evidence of strategic voting entering the debate, which is to be expected in an election with one major party 10-15 points ahead of the other. As in 2002, some voters will see this as a sign that they have carte blanche to abandon the big two and choose something a little more interesting. Last week, we had an article in the Sunday Star-Times in which it was suggested that Labour voters should choose New Zealand First instead, so as to ensure NZF retains its representation in Parliament and remains a potential coalition partner. Then in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday Matt McCarten, who I think writes one of the most astute political columns in the country, shrewdly makes very logical cases as to why Labour voters should vote Green and Progressive voters should vote Labour.

But more relevant have been the comments made to ACT-leaning voters by John Key in recent days. It’s important to note that these are not off-the-cuff remarks, even if they may sound like them. Comments on coalition strategy is the gold dust of any election campaign under proportional representation, because without it voters are essentially blindfolded. Here is what Key said to the Herald on Sunday:

You don’t live in Helensville. Your electorate vote is in Epsom – Richard Worth or Rodney Hide?I’m voting two ticks for National.So presumably you’ll be advising all other National voters in Epsom to do the same? To give their electorate vote to Richard Worth?We’re running a party vote campaign around the country. It’s no secret that we have a good relationship with Act. Obviously we’d encourage anybody to give two ticks to National, but we acknowledge that there will be people who split their vote in Epsom.

  • And previously, as pointed to at Kiwiblog, Key told TV3 last week that Hide would be a minister in a National-led government. Here are his exact words: There’s been talks with us and ACT and I’m pretty confident that we can put together a government, Rodney Hide will be part of that government and be a minister in that government

So in the final throes of the campaign, National has clearly decided that it would be beneficial to throw ACT a bone. This is without precedent. There has not been a single previous election campaign in which National has treated ACT as anything like an absolute rival in a zero-sum game. Even when ACT was at severe risk of oblivion, in 2005, no lifeline was offered to the small party. (Remember the brush-off Hide received from Don Brash at his coffee-break with United Future’s Peter Dunne?). The implications of this are three-fold:

  • Firstly, ACT has finally gained unquestionable relevance, used in a technical sense. Voters now know that ACT will be a part of a National-led government – perhaps even if National gains an outright majority (now only an outside possibility). Note that Key says “will”, not “would” and that he even says that talks have gone on between National and ACT. I’d love to know on what level these talks have been conducted. Was it a personal discussion between Key and Hide? Or does “talks with ACT” imply that it was a wider discussion at a party level – both with Hide and other figures in the party hierarchy (such as ACT president Garry Mallett)? Either way, it shows ACT to be a “player”, not the irrelevant spoiler it was in elections past. Voters should favour a party that matters to the final result.
  • Secondly, by only talking about Hide, Key would seem to have implicitly ruled out Sir Roger Douglas being in cabinet. This seems logical: with only 2 or 3 MPs, ACT could hardly expect to have more than one ministerial post. Having reentered Parliament on the back of Hide’s electorate seat, Douglas would hardly be in a position to occupy this one post (nor would it interest him, unless it was the Finance Minister’s role, which we know is safely out of ACT’s reach and in the hands of Bill English). This may mute any assertions by Labour in final days that voters should fear Roger Douglas becoming Minister of Finance.
  • This last comment notwithstanding, with a definite National-ACT constellation in prospect, Labour has a real chance of putting forward a genuine fear campaign of a National-ACT government, much in the way Barack Obama has sought to link John McCain with George Bush in the US presidential election campaign. I can seriously imagine newspaper ads running on Friday with a reminder of Douglas’s responsibility for asset sales in the 1980s with the question “Do you want this man back in government?”. Labour would, of course, actually be fool to do this, because by drawing attention to ACT it would almost ensure an improved result on Saturday. But desperate times call for desperate measures – and Clark has already begun to link ACT with National, most notably last week in the “five-headed monster”

Key’s confidence in Hide becoming a minister makes it sound almost as if a draft coalition agreement has already been agreed upon. Note that Hide has previously said he would like to be Associate Minister of Education, which as a non-finance post (and with associate ministers always being subordinate to ministers) would seem to be an easy price for Key to pay. So Hide will be a minister, which leaves voters with no doubt that ACT is in tune and has made reasonable demands of National. If Key’s comfortable with it, why shouldn’t voters on National’s right be?

Hat tip: to Kiwiblog for as always leading me to the articles above

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2 Responses

  1. “This is without precedent yada yada yada.

    Geoffrey, this is amateur drivel.

    In 1999, National declined to stand a candidate in Wellington Central in order to give Richard Prebble every assistance in holding his seat.

    The relationship between ACT and National was incredibly strong, with a “off-the-radar” but highly productive and co-operative communications between the then two party presidents (David Schnauer from ACT and John Slater from National).

    While not a good election for the centre-right, it absolutely highlighted how the two parties could work together if they so desired.

    Arguably there was also co-operation between National and ACT in 1996, though nothing like 1999.

    I suggest you brush up on your ACT history more.

  2. Not at all. Some limited cooperation in 1999 is not the same as the outright statement to voters made by Key about Hide being a minister in government. As I recall, ACT was friendly to National in 1999 but the reverse was hardly true. From my dissertation:

    Later in its first term, ACT attempted to be co-operative, supported National on motions of
    confidence and supply after the National-New Zealand First coalition broke down in 1998
    (Bain 1998). In its 1999 election campaign material, ACT portrayed itself as a stable partner
    for National, claiming that a “party vote for ACT is the very best way of creating a strong
    centre-right government” (ACT 1999: 2). Yet ACT’s penchant for attacking its “friends”
    limited the credibility of this co-operative façade. During the 1999 campaign, National
    repeatedly criticised ACT, with then Treasurer Bill English calling ACT’s policies
    “unrealistic” (Vowles 2000: 145). These hostile relations between National and ACT were in
    stark contrast to Labour’s show of unity with its preferred coalition partner, the Alliance. ACT
    may have suddenly wanted to call National its friend, but against a background of animosity
    between the two, the feelings were far from mutual.

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