Conference 2009: the broad church?

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).

If you work in a large organisation, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the “general reminder” e-mail or memo sent out to all staff. “Could all staff please remember that in future….?” or “Just a friendly note that….” and so on. In my experience, these messages are usually directed at just one or two colleagues, but are sent out in a cloaked fashion to all employees in order to avoid broaching the specific issue with the person in question.

Like the not-so-subtle reminders to employees, ACT’s decision to adopt a conscience-vote model for all bills is a general one, but is squarely directed at the party’s division over the three-strikes and gang patches bills. As Rodney Hide announced in his speech to the conference, caucus members will have a genuinely “free vote” on all bills not part of the confidence and supply agreement with National. Essentially, this makes most bills into a conscience vote for ACT MPs. It differs from the traditional whip approach used by most parties in Westminster democracies, which in case of disagreement requires a party’s caucus to go away and reach a unified compromise between themselves.

Because confidence and supply bills are financial and taxation ones, the free vote provision will have its greatest impact on bills of a non-economic nature. Indeed, it is clear that the new system is directed at the current circumstances in which the party finds itself, namely that two socially conservative bills (the “three strikes” and the anti-gang insignia legislation) have clearly led to differing opinions from the five MPs.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the socially conservative/socially liberal “fault line” in ACT. But Hide’s decision to allow his caucus members to vote according to their own views does provide some evidence that the liberal/conservative divide exists within the caucus as well as within the party as a whole. Evidently, the differences must have been so great that the caucus has been unable to come to a compromise behind closed doors.

In his speech and media coverage of the decision, Hide has pointed out the disastrous fate of other small parties which have whipped their caucuses into shape against their MPs’ wills. Foremost of these examples is the Alliance, which crumbled over a failure to compromise over the party’s support for the involvement of New Zealand troops in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001/2. Hide stated: “we have seen what happens to third parties with leaders who just dictate their party’s vote. Those leaders end up thinking they are the party, and those parties don’t last”.

With history in mind, the free vote decision could be seen as an adept solution to a unpalatable problem. Perhaps the traditional whipping system is unrealistic for a party with strong personalities and even stronger opinions. Why risk possible division over relatively small issues? Why not let MPs decide for themselves? Indeed, is ACT not a party based upon freedom of the individual?

Yes, it is a possible solution and at least in the short-term could work well. On some pieces of legislation, socially conservative MPs will line up behind the likes of David Garrett; the socially liberal MPs will vote in another block, perhaps led by Sir Roger Douglas. Douglas was very non-committal in Friday’s “Focus on Politics” programme to the three strikes bill, saying that while he accepted ACT was a broad church, he would not himself becoming involved in advocating for the bill. Yet even so, it is difficult to tell with Douglas: traditional disinterest in ACT’s crime policies does not necessarily mean he does not support them.

I’m undecided as to which “group’ the remaining three MPs – Rodney Hide, Heather Roy and John Boscawen – belong. Hide seems supportive of Garrett, has been well aware of his hardline stance on criminals and would have had a good deal of influence over his high list-ranking. So he could well be voting with Garrett. On the other hand, Hide described himself to me in 2007 as belonging to the “liberal end of the caucus”, suggesting that he might be uncomfortable with such an authoritarian stance. But it would be tough for a leader to not support a first-term MP and indeed one of ACT’s chief campaign policies. I therefore expect Hide to vote for the three strikes bill and for the anti gang-insignia bill. I have no firm evidence for Roy and Boscawen but suspect they could well fall into the socially liberal camp. (EDIT: it has been suggested to me that Hide, Douglas and Roy form the liberal wing, with Boscawen and Garrett heading the more socially conservative grouping. This gives a 3-2 ratio and seems quite plausible to me. For reasons of leadership, however, Hide may well side with the conservative grouping on issues such as three-strikes, as noted above.)

But whether the ratio is 4-1, 3-2 or some other proportion is really immaterial. ACT would not have decided to follow a conscience model for all bills had there been no schism, however mild. Whether the decision is effective or not depends on whether it will help the party to avoid the very division it fears. In this, I think ACT is misguided: in seeking to avoid replicating the fate of the Alliance, it may be creating just a different style of division, whether real or imagined (i.e. media-driven). If ACT MPs end up voting against each other on a regular basis, voters may well and truly lose any concept of what ACT stands for, a situation which is as it stands hardly crystal clear. If certain MPs become nerve centres for different factions of the caucus, will this not set the party up for an easy division later on?

This is clearly, for ACT, the worst-case scenario and reality is probably not nearly as dark. The conscience-style model has the best chance of success if incoherence is employed only when absolutely necessary. If ACT MPs vote together 90% of the time, the party is probably still ACT. If that became 50%, perhaps this assumption becomes questionable. I suspect the former outcome is more likely, taking the heat out of only the most firey of debates between socially liberal and socially conservative ACT supporters as to the party’s final position. A split vote in these 10% of cases will be better for ACT than a split party.

But the move is still a risky one. It is all very well to call ACT a “broad church”, but actually, why should it be? The very point of small political parties is that they can fill certain niches; members are frequently attracted to join because they disagree with the one-size-fits-all approach of the mass parties. Never was this truer than in the case of ACT, a party jointly established by the disaffected supporters of the broad churches of Labour and National, symbolised by co-founders Sir Roger Douglas, a former Labour minister, and Derek Quigley, once a National cabinet minister. Admitting that ACT is a broad church is one thing; embracing it is quite another. Accordingly, ACT will need to be wary of following in the footsteps of its political parents – undergoing permanent division, which unlike the structurally much stronger Labour and National, could ultimately prove to be fatal.

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