Can Labour learn from Act’s leadership primary? (part 1)

This post was originally published at Liberation.

The current New Zealand Labour Party leadership primary contest presents a more democratic way to elect a party leader. Traditionally, the party leader has been seen as a matter for the parliamentary wing, with the much less visible role of party president being elected by the party as a whole. In this blog post – the first of two posts on the subject – I argue that the new primary system, while far from perfect, can only be seen as a long-overdue reform which should strengthen the Labour Party as a whole, by giving members and affiliates a genuine way to circumscribe and shape the power of the powerful, state-funded parliamentary wing.

Labour’s new leadership selection process is not totally unique in New Zealand – it is not the only party which uses or has used a wider democratic process to determine its leadership. The Green Party also runs a democratic selection for selecting its two co-leaders, who are confirmed on an annual basis, for example.

In these two blog posts, however, I want to focus on the 2004 primary held by the Act Party and to evaluate whether there are any lessons that Labour could draw from that experience. It is worth recalling that a number of Act figures – most notably Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble – came from the Fourth Labour Government of 1984-1990.

In my analysis I draw on research for my 2007 dissertation and, in the second blog post, from information on the 2004 Act primary recently passed on to me from a former Act insider, who wishes to remain anonymous.


Act’s first and to date only primary contest had its prelude in the Donna Awatere-Huata fraud scandal. Awatere Huata had been an original Act MP, but shortly after the 2002 election, fraud allegations involving Awatere-Huata taking $80,000 from the Pipi Foundation came to light. From December 2002, Act became embroiled in a drawn-out process to remove Awatere-Huata from parliament. The caucus expelled Awatere-Huata in early 2003 and initiated a process to expel her from parliament altogether. The efforts to cut Awatere-Huata adrift took up valuable party time and energy, with Act’s leader Richard Prebble reportedly becoming consumed by the case. Awatere-Huata was eventually convicted shortly after the 2005 election.

The Awatere-Huata case appeared to precipitate dissatisfaction with Prebble’s leadership, which broke out openly in early 2004. The last straw was Prebble’s suggestion that ACT merge with National in the wake of Brash’s “Orewa speech”, which was labelled “disastrous” by MP Deborah Coddington. A leadership row ensued, with Hide aborting at least one “coup” before Prebble resigned at the end of April 2004.

The natural successor to Richard Prebble was the high-profile MP Rodney Hide, then best-known for his original “perk-busting” and muck-raking tactics. It was probably the division over Hide’s style which led the party to decide to hold a leadership primary, with a membership decision, rather than holding a caucus vote. (The previous leader, Richard Prebble, had been essentially appointed by Sir Roger Douglas in 1996 to give a more saleable image to the party).

The subsequent primary featured Rodney Hide, Stephen Franks, Muriel Newman and Ken Shirley. Like Labour in 2013, the Act MPs travelled around the country presenting their case to members. For the media, however, it was little more than a sideshow to the main event, which was the clash between Labour and a resurgent National Party under new leader Don Brash. Journalists seized upon real or imagined rivalries, illustrated by the headline “Knives come out at last in ACT leadership fight”.

Act 2004: a longer, more divisive campaign; Labour 2013: short, sharp and positive

While the Labour primary in 2013 resembles a mini election campaign, the Act primary saw the party become leaderless and – apart from sporadic media coverage, mostly negative – invisible for over six weeks, with Rodney Hide taking over the leadership on 13 June 2004.

While it is unlikely Labour took direct lessons from Act’s experience, it is notable that Labour has avoided a drawn-out contest – with just over three weeks from David Shearer’s resignation to a new leader taking over the reigns on 15 September. It is also worth noting that the Labour leadership election rules have essentially banned negative campaigning. This has led to the contenders of David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones competing much more on new policies and their own image than on attacking the weaknesses of others.

An inevitable result?

Act’s 2004 primary was won by Rodney Hide. While Act’s base tends towards the purist side, members presumably realised that the party needed a media performer to draw attention. If the primary had been held to keep Hide out, it had clearly failed. Neither is it clear that the primary “united” Act in any way: Sir Roger Douglas resigned as party patron later in 2004, in a calculated snub towards Hide, while Deborah Coddington announced that she would not seek re-election.

Interestingly, there was little mention of a primary contest in 2011, when Don Brash took over the leadership of Act. Brash won election by a simple majority of the five-person caucus. In 2012, his successor John Banks, now a caucus of one, was confirmed as leader by an Act board meeting.

In the next post, I look at some new information on the primary campaign from a former Act insider

Homepage photo credit: mangee / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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