Act NZ's decreasing circle

Former Act MP Gerrard Eckhoff, of The Half Mile, Alexandra, explores why the party's support has plummeted.

The future of Act New Zealand hangs by a single thread; a thread woven by John Key and attached by him to the National Party for mutual benefit. National can remove that attachment any time and for any reason.

It is entirely predictable that commentators now chant a requiem for the soul of the perceived-dead party and the dying believers in Act New Zealand as they did in 2005, 2008 and 2011. So many former supporters have gone; Act's vote was almost the same as that of the Mana Party. Why?

What has happened to the party that prided itself on a principle approach to issues of the day; that held so much promise for so many and was respected by political friends and foes alike?

Question. Who said the following? "I agree with very little Act says, but what I will credit Act with, is that it has developed a coherent position - developed from first principles. It will always have my respect for that and for the energy with which it approaches its task of advocacy."

The country needs Act, or a similar political party, to advocate the need for challenge to the way we conduct the business of government.

National and Labour seem to compete for the same catch phrase and the popular decision. Act always seemed destined to present an alternative respected by economists but condemned by the fourth estate.

Act seemed to have mastered the art of presenting policy with a cold face. In truth, the human side of Act has never diminished from the earliest times of the party which tore down the portals of privilege, whether found within Labour unions or Federated Farmers.

It was Act people (formerly of Labour) who took farmers from being state-subsidised beneficiaries to being the saviour of the New Zealand economy. Act people took unions from the entrenched, compulsory, militant attitudes, that crippled the country during the 1970s and beyond, to being respected industrial advocates.

The "left" retrenched and regained control of the Labour Party. Act New Zealand then formed to represent consumers and taxpayers.

These same people were condemned by their former colleagues in Labour for being turncoats by forming a party which in essence believed that unless you want the same poor result, you need to change the way the business of government is run.

Act's demand for a quality education for all children, whether they be from Remuera or Otara, was but one example of the call for change to a system that fails so many from the wrong side of the socio-economic divide.

Act has always said that if it was only a matter of money then most of our problems would have been solved years ago.

Act's real appeal was its founding philosophical belief that consumers and taxpayers knew better how to run their lives than the state did.

Somehow that simple and popular mantra was superseded by the more extreme classical liberal brand under the then party president Catherine Judd (nee Isaac). Ms Isaac is now ranked no 2 on the party list.

Most New Zealanders don't know or care who or what a classical liberal is. Those who do point out that a "hands-free" approach to the financial sector especially has cost the world dearly.

The classical liberal tag is now officially gone from Act's logo, but the association with totally unregulated markets, especially financial markets, remains.

The support base for Act started to crumble, especially in rural and provincial New Zealand, as almost the entire focus of the party centred on Auckland. Perhaps coincidentally, the appointment of Rodney Hide and Heather Roy as ministers saw an increasing remoteness from the remarkably loyal support base until this last election.

Instead of recognising the need to reinvigorate the party throughout the country, the enticement of a Cabinet post seemed irresistible.

Heather Roy's principled but electorally irrelevant Bill to remove compulsory unionism for students was a classical example of how to ensure your support base yawns and looks elsewhere.

Given the appalling abuses by many finance companies since the mid-1980s, a Bill from Act a few years ago to bring that industry into line would have reaped significant electoral reward simply by adherence to Act's fundamental brand as a party designed to protect the interests of consumers and taxpayers.

If one problem for Act was to be highlighted it would be the party's apparent indifference to today's obvious and emotive social problems.

Yet, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth for the party. Few people understand that Act was formed to lift the performance of sectors such as education and health, vital to ensure social justice for the less well-off.

There is no question Act people do have many answers to apparently intractable problems, yet as soon as Act offers a workable alternative, social commentators and the voting public seem to close ranks against it.

The issue then arises as to whether Act's problem is the singer or the song. Some will suggest both, but surely, as the world's ongoing financial events vividly illustrate, all other political parties are totally out of tune with solving problems that beset our society.

Act is very inclined to remind the electorate of those unpalatable and unacceptable realities, starting with recognising who is the monkey and who is the organ grinder.

Oh, and the answer to the question posed in paragraph 3? Helen Clark (Adjournment debate December 17, 2002 - Hansard).



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