National, Act, Brash and Orewa

This blog post was originally published at Liberation

On 27 January 2004, Don Brash, then leader of the National Party for just a few months, gave a speech to the Orewa Rotary Club on what he called ‘the dangerous drift towards racial separatism’ in New Zealand. In his speech, Brash advocated the abolition of the Maori seats, an accelerated Treaty of Waitangi settlements process and the removal of ‘divisive race-based features from legislation’.

The word Orewa is of course still strongly associated with Brash today. In his interview with John Campbell on Wednesday (27 April 2011), Brash was asked whether he wanted to go ‘back to Orewa’, to which he responded:

Well it’s not a question of return, I’ve never moved from Orewa. I mean Orewa basically said Article III of the Treaty says that the Crown guarantees that all New Zealanders bear the same rights and privileges as British subjects. I think it’s fantastic, I believe in that very strongly.

Orewa became the venue of four further speeches by Brash. None of these generated the same amount of the attention as the January 2004 speech. The most recent incarnation of Orewa was in November 2010, when Brash gave his first Orewa speech since he had resigned as National Party leader and left Parliament four years earlier.

Orewa – the beginning of the end for Act? 

Following Don Brash’s election as National Party leader and especially the opening salvo of Orewa in January 2004, many in Act felt that Brash had taken away their party’s raison d’être. Many right-wing voters liked what they heard in Orewa and switched their support from the bit-player of Act to the much larger competitor, National.

This theory was given credence especially after Act’s disastrous 2005 election, in which it received just 1.5 per cent support. Following election night, numerous figures in Act cited the National Party led by Don Brash as the key reason for its poor performance.

  • Outgoing president Catherine Judd (now Catherine Isaac) said Act’s ‘vote and brand was taken by National’.
  • Rodney Hide, in his autobiography My Year of Living Dangerously (2007, p. 176) recalled that ‘Brash’s leadership made Act redundant’, as National promised the ‘very policies that Act had pioneered in Parliament’.
  •  Brian Nicolle, a long-serving Act Party strategist, told me bluntly in 2007:  ‘Act was destroyed when Don Brash became leader of the National Party’

The basis to this theory is that National took over Act’s distinctive niche of extreme-right positions on issues such as Maori, taxation and social welfare. But is this version of history really true?

Don Brash, copy cat? 

Don Brash replaced Bill English as National Party leader in October 2003. While English had been portrayed as a centrist, Brash and his backers came from further right.  Orewa was the public launch of the new direction Brash intended to take National. While English had struggled to identify National’s unique selling points, Brash put forward a clearly conservative agenda. Brash made it clear at Orewa that he wanted nothing short of ‘one rule for all’. He stated unequivocally that, if elected, National would abolish the Maori seats, speed up Treaty of Waitangi settlements and ‘remove divisive race-based features in legislation’.

To underpin his more conservative agenda even further, Brash later gave prominent separate speeches promising a tougher stance on law and order (July 2004) and social welfare (the topic for the second Orewa speech, in January 2005). In the 2005 election campaign, National campaigned heavily on heavy tax cuts, as well as tougher stances on Maori issues and crime.

It is undeniable that National’s promise to abolish the Maori seats and of ‘one rule for all’ sounded remarkably similar to ACT’s 2002 election policy of ‘one law for all New Zealanders’. Similarly, Brash’s pledge in a speech to the Sensible Sentencing Trust in July 2004 of an ‘all-out assault on crime in our communities’ (PDF) contained the hallmarks of ACT’s ‘Zero Tolerance for Crime’ policy of 2002.

Moreover, the promises of substantial tax cuts at the 2005 were comparable, if not identical, to those promised by ACT. National proposed that incomes of up to $50,000 would be taxed at 19 per cent or less; ACT pledged to tax incomes up to $38,000 at the rate of 15 per cent – a difference only in the fine print.

A flawed theory?

As plausible as it sounds, however, the idea that Act was squeezed out by National’s adoption of Act-like policies has problems.

First and foremost, the argument that Act performed poorly because its policies were ‘stolen’ (John Bishop, National Business Review, 31 March 2006) by National rather conveniently absolves Act of any responsibility for its own demise.

Second, the very premise that National took policies ‘from Act’ is highly questionable. Proving correlation is one thing, proving causality is quite another. Act’s version of social conservatism (‘One Law for All’, tough on crime, welfare reform) blended with economic liberalism (tax cuts) was a familiar recipe of the centre-right. It should hardly be surprising that National, a conservative party, suddenly decided to champion tough stances on issues such as race, crime and social welfare. A glance at the party’s history provides numerous examples of the party taking similar positions, from the ‘dawn raids’ on Pacific Island overstayers under Prime Minister Muldoon in the 1970s, to the work-for-the-dole programme instituted by Jenny Shipley in the late 1990s.

Third, Act itself had ‘borrowed’ many of its own ideas from their original creators. For instance, Raymond Miller (in the 2007 book The Baubles of Office, p.165) pointed out that Act had itself taken ideas from other parties, and not just from National. New Zealand First had previously owned much the same socially conservative territory as Act now sought to serve. Political commentator Colin James described New Zealand First in 1997 as a ‘”small people’s right wing”, the sort of illiberalism mixed with fear that fuels xenophobia, racism and opposition to migration and minorities…wont to turn on ‘bludgers on welfare”’ (From Campaign to Coalition, p.77). While Act was distinct to New Zealand First on its approach to immigration, the general thrust of the parties’ social conservative policies was the same.

Thus, by shifting from its more distinctive policies on tax and superannuation to the more heavily fought-over turf of conservative, non-economic policies, as Act did from 1999, it was only going to be a matter of time until the party would be forced to relinquish ownership of these policies to another right-wing rival. New Zealand First had ‘owned’ the policy mix in 1996; Act had successfully mined the social conservative vote in 1999 and 2002; in 2005, it would be National’s turn.  (This is not to say that Act was solely a socially conservative party, but it had become increasingly so as a result of the lack of appeal of its neoliberal economic policies).

Opinion polls post-Orewa

Prior to Don Brash’s Orewa speech in January 2004, Act’s poll ratings were solid, if not spectacular. The party was registering 5-6 per cent support, a figure which it has never attained since. However, this was still some way off the 2002 election night result of 7.1%, which itself had been something of a disappointment for Act. While it had hoped to profit from National’s slump, voters ignored Act in favour of the more centrist United Future, which experienced a last minute burst of support. It pays to remember that in 2004, Act was a list-only party – Hide stood in Epsom as a survival measure only from 2005 – and hovering around the 5 per cent mark was not a good place to be.

However, what is clear is that following Orewa support for Act plunged. In the first polls following Orewa, in February 2004, support for ACT declined from five or six per cent to two or less, a level which remained virtually unchanged up until the 2005 election.

A homemade problem?

Did Don Brash destroy Act, whether intentionally or otherwise? Not exactly. The true significance of the immediate collapse in support in early 2004 was that Act’s support disintegrated solely on the basis of Brash launching a socially conservative policy on Maori. National’s policies on crime, social welfare, taxation and other key issues were only unveiled over the next 18 months. For instance, the earliest concrete sign of tax cuts came only in December 2004, after National had carefully considered its strategy (see Nicky Hager, The Hollow Men, 2006, p.61 and 68).

The fact that support for Act ebbed away immediately after the Orewa speech, on Maori, suggests that most of its support base had been comprised of voters interested in Act’s tough stances on social issues such as race and crime. The deserters did not appear to be loyal supporters of Act’s original recipe for economic reform.

If ‘Act was destroyed when Don Brash became leader of the National Party’, as strategist Nicolle claimed, then Act had laid the groundwork for this in advance. Act had deliberately de-emphasised its economic policies in favour of more typical centre-right social policies. This strategy cornered a chunk of the socially conservative vote in 1999 and 2002 from voters while National limped on without a clear direction. But by doing so, it had made its own niche less distinctive. The 7 per cent Act won in 2002 turned out to be made of extremely soft, rather than bedrock support.

A new leader

Following Orewa, Act found that it had lost much of its support base nearly overnight. The party began to flounder. Some in the caucus looked for someone to blame and settled on the then leader, Richard Prebble. The last straw seemed to be Prebble’s suggestion that the party had become superfluous to requirements and should merge with National. Deborah Coddington called Prebble’s white flag ‘disastrous’.  A leadership row ensued, with Rodney Hide reportedly aborting at least one coup attempt before Prebble finally saw the writing on the wall and resigned at the end of April 2004.

To determine the new leader, the party decided to hold a leadership “primary”, in which nearly half the caucus participated. The primary and the uncertainty which surrounded it only prolonged Act’s time in the wilderness. Rodney Hide was eventually deemed the winner. But by the time that happened, in June 2004, it was too little, too late. Act had been clobbered by a more well resourced and credible rival. Don Brash was on his way.

2004 redux?

In 2011, Act is again in turmoil after a series of scandals in the current parliamentary term. The caucus is divided, a situation which Don Brash successfully exploited in his take over of the party. The Dominion Post reported on Thursday 28 April that some members have now requested a 2004-style primary be held to elect new leaders:

Former board member Dave Moore suggested there had been a flurry of phone calls and emails to the board urging it to take the leadership vote out of the hands of the caucus and put it to members.  The party’s constitution allows for a primary-style run-off between leadership candidates, to be voted on by the members, rather than MPs.  Mr Moore acknowledged that a number of members were “pissed off” at Dr Brash putting a gun to the party’s head over the leadership, particularly as he was still not a party member.  ‘But people are saying we need to consider this seriously, don’t just shut him down.’  He believed the vote would be close, and not a slam dunk for Dr Brash.

Will history repeat itself?

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