Conference 2009: Deborah Coddington

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 safe to say that Deborah Coddington hasn’t been ACT’s greatest cheerleader in recent years. Even when she was an MP, she wasn’t one to mince words, calling Richard Prebble’s stunt-like suggestion in 2004 that ACT merge with National in the wake of Don Brash’s Orewa speech “disastrous”. In 2007, Coddington criticised Hide for being “rapt in his own dancing, flash suits, swimming and catwalk modelling”, instead of promoting policies such as “radical personal tax cuts”.

If the criticism from Coddington has in the past been blunt, it is now razor-sharp. In her Sunday newspaper column published during ACT’s conference this week, she gave ACT a pen-lashing that even her fellow Herald on Sunday columnist, unionist Matt McCarten, might be proud of:

I received many emails and calls this week, in the lead-up to Act’s annual conference, from past and present Act supporters dismayed at their party’s increasing tendency to jettison principles, not only over the so-called “iwi tax” but also the U-turn to support the ban on wearing gang patches.

But why are they surprised? Gradually, Act has morphed from a political party which stood for issues – small government, property rights, choice in education – to a negative and angry party, opposing anything to get a headline. Oh, and posing on the D-list celebrity pages.

There are many good people in Act with enough clout to halt the party’s slide into a replacement for NZ First.

Coddington’s complaint is that ACT’s criticism of a Maori tribe’s ability to charge for the use of its land goes against the party’s supposed defence of private property rights. This is actually a good point and I’m sure a majority of ACT members would actually agree with Coddington’s argument. But you can see why ACT has gone for the opposition of a so-called “iwi tax” – it’s much easier to explain this stance to conservative voters than to explain what property rights are, why they matter and why they apply to Lake Ellesmere. Yet the simple and more populist path contradicts ACT’s ideology. This gets to the heart of ACT’s age-old dilemma: ideology attracts members, but repels voters.

Coddington is of course from the disenchanted libetarian end of ACT; her fit with the party was never a tight one and her shift from Libertarianz to ACT never really worked out. Her comments may be cutting, but they are not surprising.

But Coddington’s comments give another illustration of the depth of feeling felt by supporters of the party’s socially liberal wing – activists who do not hold a lot of formal power but who can certainly make a lot of noise.

You may also like... - Understand the world through New Zealand