Winners and losers in the Act Party leadership coup

This blog post was originally published at Liberation

The New Zealand political landscape changed in some major ways with the extraordinary coup by Don Brash for the leadership of the Act Party. Who wins from this unusual changing of the guard? Long-time Act-watcher, Geoffrey Miller, argues in this guest blog post that the ‘winners’ to come out of the coup are Don Brash, John Key, John Banks, Aaron Bhatnagar, Phil Goff, Hilary Calvert, and the Coastal Coalition. And the ‘losers’ are Rodney Hide, John Key, John Boscawen, Brian Nicolle, and Reform New Zealand.

Blogger Whaleoil has already come up with some winners and losers from the Act coup. Here’s my version. It’s not an exhaustive list.

Winners

Don Brash

Obviously. Not many people get to lead one political party; Don Brash will have led the two main rightwing parties in New Zealand politics. Because Brash wasn’t on Act’s list last time around (he wasn’t even a member), there’s no way of him entering Parliament before the next election, even with some Russel Norman-style sleight of hand. But he’ll be first on the list in 2011. Barring another Act implosion (never something to be ruled out), Don Brash will be back in the House of Representatives by the end of the year.

Rodney Hide

It might seem strange to call Rodney Hide a winner on the day he lost his job. However, in the end he passed over the leadership to Brash in a dignified manner, and hence Hide has managed to keep some decorum. Moreover, he’s also managed to keep his ministerial position, presumably as part of a deal with Brash. Hide had the option of resigning and triggering yet another by-election in this term. But even with John Banks, a well oiled National machine (already a victor of two recent by-elections) could have turned a swift by-election into a debacle for Act. Hide knows this and so does Brash.

Of course, Rodney Hide will not stand in Epsom for Act again and is likely to leave politics at the election. But the alternative – leading his party to oblivion in November, with a new Brash party or National ousting him from his seat – would have been worse. Now, any blame for a poor showing for Act in November – still a very plausible outcome – will be laid at the door of Brash, not Hide. And regardless of what happens in November, it’s quite likely that in the future Act supporters may look back fondly at the Hide years and realise that he didn’t do such a bad job after all.

John Key

A more extreme right-wing flank may make voters feel even more grateful for John Key’s ostensible centrism and tick National in November. Fears from voters that National will enter an alliance with Brash after the election can be downplayed, perhaps with the line ‘if you don’t want Brash, the best thing to do is to give two ticks and a clear majority to National’. John Key, good cop; Don Brash, bad cop?

John Banks

Having fought his way back to the top, two years ago John Banks found his job as mayor of Auckland was being disestablished, thanks to the Auckland Supercity plans. The plans were devised and implemented by no-one other than Rodney Hide, in his role as Minister of Local Government. Unfortunately, the replacement prize of Supercity Mayor proved to be demographically unwinnable for a Banks agenda.

In 2005, shortly after he lost the mayoralty the first time around (then for reasons of his own making), Banks was rebuffed in his attempts to stand for Act after he demanded a high list ranking.

Now, it looks like John Banks will repay Hide’s favour – and do him out of a job as the Member of Parliament for Epsom.

Aaron Bhatnagar

Aaron Bhatnagar has long been a feature of right-wing circles in Auckland and was once a close Hide confidant, being his campaign manager for the 2002 election. However, Bhatnagar later fell out with Hide and Act and ended up running John Banks’s mayoral campaigns in 2007 and 2010. Bhatnagar was an Auckland councillor himself for the right-wing Citizens and Ratepayers (C&R) grouping from 2007-10, but, like Banks, fell victim to the creation of the Supercity and did not stand for reelection.

In 2011, Bhatnagar stood for selection as National’s Botany candidate but missed out to Jami-Lee Ross. Unless National finds him another seat, there’s a very good chance he will end up as Banks’s campaign manager if Banks stands for Act in Epsom as predicted. Depending on how frosty his relations with the party still are, Bhatnagar may end up as a candidate for Act in his own right.

Phil Goff

‘Vote John Key – Get Don Brash’ – Labour’s new campaign slogan as suggested by the blogger ‘Imperator Fish’.  Labour has spent over four years trying to convince voters that John Key was at least as wicked as Brash, if not more so, without much evidence of success. Now the bogey man himself has made an unlikely comeback. (Expect National to become a little quieter about Labour’s reliance on Winston Peters.)

Hilary Calvert

As ‘IrishBill’ at The Standard remarked: ‘I’ve never seen such a new MP with so much power over the future of their party. Classic.’  A year ago Hilary Calvert probably thought she would never become an MP. Now, she has provided the casting vote to topple the leader who shepherded her into Parliament. We can but speculate what was offered by Brash to Calvert behind closed doors – but a wild guess might include a higher list placing in 2011.

Coastal Coalition

A lobby group vigorously opposed to the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Coastal Coalition has been generally ignored. The Coalition is centred around former Act MP Muriel Newman; another backer appears to be John Ansell, the creator of National’s 2005 billboard campaign.  The notable exception to the non-interest in the Coastal Coalition came in December 2010, when the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, expressed his frustration at the apparent motivations of the group:

I’m not going to be beaten by these clowns. I’m not going to be beaten by people who think the Phoenicians and Vikings were here first. This was [supposedly] a veritable crossroads of the ancient world. Phoenicians were here, Celts, Vikings, you name it, they were all here except for the Maori.

Despite (or just as likely, because of) Newman’s involvement, even the Act Party has taken little notice of the Coastal Coalition to date. That may well change with Don Brash at the helm. When questioned by media, Brash has been happy to reprise his views on Maori and the Treaty of Waitangi. It should not be forgotten that Brash’s original Orewa speech in 2004 did not originate in a vacuum, but was itself a reaction to Labour’s original Foreshore and Seabed legislation. Indeed, much of the speech set out Brash’s proposed response to it. The Coastal Coalition may therefore have just acquired a much more sympathetic supporter of its proposals.

Losers

Rodney Hide

Given the disarray Act finds itself in, it might seem a tad generous to say that Rodney Hide was a victim of his own success. But ironically, the uptick in support at the 2008 election which boosted Act’s caucus from two to five paved the way for Hide’s downfall. It was impossible to roll Hide from 2005-2008. Five MPs made gaining a majority of the disaffected much easier, especially when one of Hide’s colleagues was the never-satisfied Sir Roger Douglas. (Of course, Hide himself had decided to bring back Douglas into the party fold in 2008.)

John Key

John Key had been hoping to secure an absolute majority for National on 26 November. Over the course of his four years as leader, he has tried to build up an image of National as a more compassionate party with a friendlier face. Now, he faces being tarnished by association with his old, less popular boss. The confused spin coming out of the National camp suggests that Key and his advisers are uncertain about how to handle Brash. He has ‘virtually no chance’ of becoming Minister of Finance or Deputy Prime Minister after the election, according to Key. But if Brash can muster anything like the support he thinks he can in November, Key might have to give in – and sacrifice his carefully crafted moderate image in the process.

John Boscawen

Act MP John Boscawen, as far as we know, stayed loyal to Hide until the bitter end. Boscawen had injected a significant funding boost into Act when it needed it in 2008. He had vigorously campaigned against the Electoral Finance Act and since becoming an MP had poured great energy into opposing the Emissions Trading Scheme. Boscawen may yet pledge loyalty to Brash as leader and be kept on. But he was Hide’s protégé.

Brian Nicolle

Brian Nicolle has been an Act Party strategist since the party’s inception and was  particularly close to Rodney Hide (who was also a founding member). Few people, if anyone, have a better knowledge of the workings of Act. Nicolle also worked under previous Act leader Richard Prebble, however, and Brash will need people with Nicolle’s nous to build an election strategy. Nevertheless, Brash may decide that Act’s strategy to date has not worked and that he needs to find someone else to serve as his tactical adviser. Nicolle may not become an absolute loser from the situation, but he will certainly not be a winner.

Reform New Zealand

‘Reform New Zealand’ is another lobby group, but which is trying to become a political party. Exactly who is behind the group is not clear, but it’s a fair bet that it includes a few of the malcontents who have cut their ties with Act since 2008. The website http://www.reform.org.nz is reportedly registered to Peter Tashkoff, who was ranked seventh on Act’s 2008 list. Tashkoff, a supporter from way back, returned when Sir Roger Douglas came back to the party in 2008, but fell out with Act again in 2010. He subsequently started a Facebook group (now apparently removed) called “Are you ready to Reform, New Zealand?”. However, Tashkoff told the New Zealand Herald in February 2011 that he is no longer involved with the Reform New Zealand group.

Some reports earlier this week suggested that Brash might have joined (or probably more accurately, taken over) the Reform grouping if the coup attempt of Act failed. That will now never happen and Reform New Zealand is effectively dead and buried.  Some of the disaffected may now want to come back to Act, but after some of the statements made last year, it is not certain the party will want to have them back, even under a new leadership.

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