Matthew Hooton: The rise and rise of Act – and why they can hit 10%

OPINION:

National’s revisionism about its recent past and denialism about its present make it a fleshy carcass off which Act can scavenge. But Act wants more than to be a parasite on its rival.

For most of the last parliamentary term, Act’s polling sat stubbornly below 1per cent.

While Act would be kidding itself to believe its 7.6 per cent result was not mostly caused by National’s fiascos, its strategists spied the first opportunity to return to the glory days of 1996-2002 as early as March 17.

That was immediately after the dramatic weekend when Jacinda Ardern finally took Covid-19 seriously. Her Cabinet had met in emergency session on Saturday afternoon. The talk was of border closures, lockdowns, probable economic calamity, a massive monetary response and a $12.1 billion fiscal stimulus.

Despite that atmosphere, National strategists decided their then-leader Simon Bridges should attack Grant Robertson for increasing benefits and the Winter Energy Payment — both fairly obvious stimulus measures by a Labour-NZ First coalition.

Bridges savaged Robertson’s response as “confused and muddled”, questioned whether $12.1b was enough and then argued the stimulus should be distributed via tax cuts.

He may have been right but, in the context of the times, came across as quibbling. Ardern humiliated him by talking about national unity.

Act leader David Seymour would also have preferred tax cuts, but took the statesman’s road.

He said the Government might not have got everything right but acknowledged graciously that “they’ve had to make critical, high-stakes decisions with limited information in a fluid situation”.

Under the circumstances, he said, “the role of Parliament is to be supportive [and] to offer constructive criticism and helpful suggestions”.

Soon after, Act began polling sustainably above 2 per cent. It sat around 3.5 per cent through the Todd Muller disaster before doubling its support to over 7 per cent as Judith Collins’ campaign unravelled.

Seymour and his nine new MPs recognise that they are lucky. Their forward strategy starts with not stuffing things up, like Act did after its last good result back in 2002. So far, none appear to share the eccentricities of some who rode in on Richard Prebble’s and Rodney Hide’s coattails.

Since the election, the party has invested heavily in understanding the 7.6 per cent who voted for it and why, with a massive research programme involving a sample of 3500 people. Act strategists are encouraged by the results.

First, the party’s support is evenly distributed across demographics, with 6 per cent support or higher in every age group and region except Gisborne.

It does best among farmers and in rural New Zealand generally, followed by provincial towns and city suburbs — but is above 5 per cent even in the inner cities.

Act remains weak among Pacific Islanders and Indians, but is above 5 per cent for European, Māori and Chinese New Zealanders.

Perhaps more importantly, its post-election study had 40 per cent of Act voters claiming to have backed the party because of its policies and leadership, another 20 per cent for ideological reasons and just 7 per cent because they were fed up with National. There is probably some post-hoc justification biasing these results but they still suggest Act’s success was based on more than just a protest against National.

Seymour’s conclusion is that Act will do best over the next three years by positioning itself as a constructive critic and serious problem solver, consistent with his March 17 speech and his and deputy leader Brooke van Velden’s work on euthanasia.

On this view, Act will have a monopoly in Parliament as the party of difficult but honest conversations — something like the Greens had before being overwhelmed by identity politics.

Plenty of topics cry out for such treatment, including New Zealand’s ongoing productivity malaise; disastrous performance in primary school maths and science as revealed again by this week’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study; improving efficiency in the use ofrural and urban land; and getting a better return on the third of our incomes now taken in tax.

If any party is able to champion a proper price-based system for freshwater allocation it would be Act — especially as the price would be close to zero in much of the country for most of the year.

In support of this “honest conversation” strategy, Act backed the Government’s party pill legislation and the extension of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act — both opposed by National for reasons known only unto it. Environment and climate change spokesman Simon Court, a civil and environmental engineer, is signalling serious science-based contributions in those areas.

On monetary policy, Seymour has already challenged dogma on how asset-price inflation should be handled, prompting Robertson’s recent letter to the Reserve Bank. Though an admirer of Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, Seymour will not be bound by the details of their policy prescriptions any more than they were by their predecessors of 30 or 40 years earlier.

To execute its strategy, Act will need to use its resources wisely. Its 2020 result brings it more than $10 million in extra parliamentary funding over the next three years compared with the previous term, and MPs have agreed it should be pooled. Its staff are moving to open-plan in the old Parliamentary Library building, with Seymour forgoing an office.

Most interestingly, Act is thinking about leasing buses as mobile offices to travel among provincial towns and villages, instead of wasting taxpayers’ money leasing a dozen permanent offices scattered randomly around the country.

The bureaucrats at Parliamentary Services have fits over anything that hasn’t been done before, but Speaker Trevor Mallard should overrule them. It is something the Greens and Māori Party shouldconsider to better serveconstituents.

The real challenge for Act has always been to attract voters, not just from National but from across the centre line — and to have leverage over National by being prepared, in extremis, to deal with Labour.

Any such speculation is premature. But if Act genuinely commits to its “honest conversation” strategy, perhaps some Labour voters frustrated by the emptiness of Ardern’s offering might give it a look.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant. His clients have previously included the National and Act parties. He employed Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden as a graduate and was a school friend of its fifth-ranked MP Simon Court.

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