Conference 2009: preview

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’s Annual Conference takes place next weekend. I won’t be attending this year, so would appreciate reports from anyone who is. ACT has always held its conference early in the year and in post-election years this gives it a good opportunity to report back to members on the election outcome. In 2009, I imagine the mood will be very much self-congratulatory, perhaps even surpassing the 1997 “Victory Conference” after ACT made it into Parliament for the first time. There is good cause for this: not only were the 5 MPs ACT gained at the 2008 election at the top end of expectations, but ACT is also in government for the first time.

But we know all that. There can only be so much time for self-congratulation. ACT now has to focus on the realities of day-to-day governing and implementing as many of its policies as possible to reward members, who in many cases have given the party 15 years of loyalty. In the past, ACT conferences were used for “big-picture” policies or slogans – last year Douglas wheeled out the “beat Australia by 2020” plan. And just last month – even after being elected – Douglas was peddling a reformed version of the Guaranteed Minimum Family Income tax programme, something which might be nirvana for ACT, but which in reality never would be implemented under ACT’s current support arrangements.

ACT has never been short on long-term planning, but it needs to grind out of National more incremental changes towards that goal. The time for firey rhetoric, slogans and above all grand plans is over. ACT does not need to fight an election for another three years. But its best chance to push through its core economic policies will come over the next eighteen months. After 2010, National will be unwilling to risk anything seen as remotely non-centrist. Can ACT get the 39% top income tax rate removed, last year derided by Douglas as an “envy tax”? What about bulk funding in education – a plan central to ACT ideology but opposed by National under John Key’s leadership because of its perceived unpopularity? These are just a couple of examples of small but achievable gains ACT could squeeze out of National early on.

What is the conference programme? Each MP is naturally allocated a time-slot, but they’ve clearly been asked to keep it short! In accordance with their list placings, John Boscawen gets 4 minutes; David Garrett has been given 5. Rodney Hide will give one of his no doubt entertaining speeches. Coffee breaks. Lunch break. Graham Scott, former Treasury Secretary and 2005 ACT list candidate, gets a slot later in the day, while former rugby league coach Graham Lowe has an hour early on. I’m sure all of these will be feel-good affairs: Scott will assure members that ACT’s economic policy is the right one to pull New Zealand out of the recession; Lowe will give some “gutsy” motivation from a no doubt “ordinary Kiwi”.

John Key turns up at 8.50 on Saturday morning for a 15 minute slot. I expect little of substance from his speech. Will thank ACT for working constructively. National pleased to have ACT’s support and that even though they don’t agree on everything. Both parties working to improve the future of New Zealand. Unique partnership with National, ACT and the Maori Party. Isn’t it great that we all work together? From memory, John Key will be the second National leader to speak to an ACT conference: Don Brash was the first, with his speech to an ACT regional conference in 2003, shortly before his leadership coup, creating friction within National.

The real interest for me is the keynote speaker, Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment. Lees-Marshment is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Auckland and formerly of the UK. Her theory of political marketing and particularly her typology of the various market/sales/niche orientations of political parties has become a seminal work for studies of modern party politics. In my dissertation I used her theory as the initial basis for my analysis, with the chapter on ACT’s “image problem” stemming from what I saw as ACT’s sales-oriented status (i.e. ACT does not change the policies it offers based on popularity, but tries to convince voters via political marketing to want them).

Lees-Marshment has been given access to ACT’s internal files and research and presumably she will give the party an assessment of the success of its marketing in the election campaign. Given ACT’s return to an emphasis on social conservatism (specifically, the “three-strikes” bill), I would be interested to hear what she makes of the role ACT’s image now plays and whether this is something the party can or should change.

Incidentally, Lees-Marshment is not the first academic to speak to an ACT conference. If my memory serves me correctly, several years ago Dr. Raymond Miller (also from the University of Auckland) spoke to the annual conference, while Colin James has also been a keynote speaker. The traditional willingness of ACT to accept outside academics and critics at what is essentially a feel-good party affair is to be commended.

Sir Roger Douglas has been shunted to the Friday evening part of the conference weekend, ensuring that his speech will gain minimal media coverage. According to the ACT newsletter, he will give a “controversial” speech. The slight problem here is that with Douglas, nothing really surprises. The most controversial speeches are always given by the least controversial-seeming people. Douglas certainly does not fit into this category!

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