Bryce Edwards: The death throes of the Act Party

Bryce Edwards: The death throes of the Act Party

The death of the Act Party has been forecast many times, yet somehow a succession of new leaders have managed to breathe enough life into the rightwing party to buy some time. Of course, Act has remained in Parliament at the grace and favour of National and, in the end, it is likely to be National pulling the plug on the crucial Epsom deal that will finally seal Act’s fate.

The party’s conference in the weekend simply confirmed that Act is a party in serious trouble. Although leader David Seymour attempted to show the party is looking for a new way forward, he had trouble projecting what Act now stands for and the populist policies announced suggested desperation and opportunism rather than a return to being a serious party with a viable and coherent appeal.

Act’s befuddled policies and messages from the conference would have sent a strong message to National, that it’s nearly time to pull the plug on their partnership. It’s hard to see National keeping the Act Party alive at the next election. Although leader David Seymour performs very well as a politician, he simply isn’t able to show that his party brings anything of value to the National Party’s attempts to regain government.

Act’s raid on NZ First policy

Reporting from Act’s conference, Herald political editor Audrey Young described Act’s announcements as a “raid on New Zealand First policy”. She says there’s a logic to this move: “There are a host of shared policies which New Zealand First will not be able to credibly campaign on next election as vigorously and viciously as it has because it is inside the Government tent. Law and order will be one of those areas. Why wouldn’t Act make them its own” – see: Act leader David Seymour signals old and new directions.

However, the new policy focus – especially the abolition of the Māori seats – is “hardly the sort of focus that heralds Act as a party of new ideas.” She also says that the strong attacks by Seymour on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are logical for Act: “This is also territory that Seymour very much has to himself. National has avoided personal insults, even ones disguised as flattery. It is sensitive about criticising her because it knows that many of its own supporters, particularly women, want Ardern to do well. But there are a few people who quietly despise Ardern and in Act’s sole MP, they now have a voice.”

According to Newsroom’s Mark Jennings, Act’s new direction explicitly includes a decision to stop being “the party of ideas”. Jennings says the re-orientation involves the leader switching Act to a party focused on what Seymour calls “visceral” issues” – see: David Seymour changes course.

Jennings also reports on intentions to drop the party’s current name: “The ‘Reform’ party and ‘Liberal’ party are two names being touted.” He quotes Seymour: “If we change, it needs to be a name that is clear and descriptive and one that is immediately understood by people.”

Act is planning to relaunch itself in March of next year, with its new name and new political orientation. This is reported on by Audrey Young, who says that Seymour believes there is “a strong mandate to change the direction of the party” amongst the membership, and “we need to do something completely different” – see: David Seymour looking to take Act Party back to basics after years of failure.

Such issues are also discussed by Laura Walters, who says “Seymour acknowledges the party has tried to do too much; it’s tried to be everything to everyone.” Furthermore, “Over the past term, Act, via Seymour, has been an ideas party. There have been charter schools, the euthanasia bill, and plans to reduce prisoners’ sentences as a reward for learning to read” – see: Act goes back to basics after some soul searching.

Seymour favours changing the party’s name to the Reform Party: “I think if you really wanted to get to the core of what Act is, and what it was founded as, we’re the reform party. We’ve had a reform party before. And our founders were reformers. And most of our agenda is to reform stuff.”

As to the raid on New Zealand First policies, Seymour is unapologetic. According to Jenna Lynch, “David Seymour has admitted a new populist, race-baiting policy idea was stolen from New Zealand First” – see: David Seymour admits stealing New Zealand First’s policy. She also reports: “He’s also resurrected the catchphrase of controversial former Act Party leader Don Brash: ‘One law for all’.”

Act’s populist new policies 

The centrepiece of Act’s new populist orientation, is The Smaller Government Bill – a private members’ bill with five main components: “reduce Parliament to 100 MPs; scrap the Māori seats; limit the number of ministers to 20; force all candidates, even those intending to be elected via the list, to stand in an electorate; force MPs elected via the list open an office in the electorate they stood in” – see Dan Satherley’s Removing the Maori seats: Simon Bridges asks, ‘Would it be worth it?’.

But the name of the bill, and the sales pitch based on “reducing the size of government”, suggests that Seymour doesn’t really understand the classic liberal position of “smaller government” – it’s not about reducing the size of the governing executive or legislature, it’s about reducing overall government expenditure. As the above article points out, components of this bill will do very little: “Reducing the size of Parliament by 20 MPs, assuming they’re all backbenchers with no ministerial responsibilities, would save the taxpayer $3.2 million in salary costs out of a total annual expenditure of nearly $80 billion.”

Seymour’s private members’ bill – if drawn from the ballot – will have very little chance of succeeding. National’s electoral reform spokesperson, Nick Smith, has already said his party wouldn’t support the bill, at least in its current form. Smith has pointed out, in particular, that reducing the size of Parliament would reduce “effective representation” and that this would especially be a problem for large rural electorates. He has also been reported as saying that abolishing the Maori seats “could create difficulties for race relations” – see Matthew Theunissen’s National cautious on Act’s call to reduce MP numbers.

National leader Simon Bridges has also stressed that “National would want to deeply consult with Māoridom on the issue” before deciding on supporting such a move, and “I think it’d be hard to see a situation where it happened today” – see Newshub’s Abolishing Maori seats ‘much more trouble than it’s worth’ – Bridges. The same article reports that Bridges is non-committal about supporting Act in 2020, in terms of letting Seymour win Epsom.

Even if such a private members bill was passed, there would be numerous other hurdles to abolishing the Māori seats. Alex Braae deals with this well in his column, David Seymour says he wants to abolish Māori seats. Can he?

Seymour is being rather hypocritical in wanting to reduce the size of the Executive, according to Greg Presland, writing on The Standard: “The executive reduction policy is, what is that word, hypocritical. Seymour complains that there are 31 members of the current executive. This number includes Parliamentary undersecretaries. Seymour was one in the last Parliament. He was paid $175,600 per annum for the privilege and also received further resources. Maybe he has a point” – see: The end of Act.

Presland complains that Seymour “just wants to cash in on the general dislike there is for politicians”. What’s more, on the need to reduce the size of Parliament, perhaps Seymour has a point: “After all there was a recent incident where an opposition MP took extended time out of his work to go dancing with the stars.”

National getting ready to ditch Act

David Seymour did well this week to make a case for Act’s potential survival and importance to National when he went on TVNZ’s Breakfast stating: “We’re at 1.1 per cent – that’s two and a half thousand votes nationwide from getting a second MP … that would be a second MP because of the party vote… The government’s only got a majority of three [seats] at the moment – Act picking up a few more seats could be critical to the shape of the next parliament and who forms the next government” – see: ‘Why are you relevant?’ – David Seymour grilled on Breakfast as he mulls an Act Party rebrand.

But Act’s new populist direction is unlikely to see any great surge in support, according to Mike Hosking. He argues that while Seymour’s Smaller Government Bill is “eminently sensible”, “they’re just not ideas that swing votes towards you” – see: David Seymour’s Act Party is going nowhere.

Hosking has a more important point: “if Seymour ever did get some traction, he’d be taking it off National anyway. And in an MMP environment, it’s the total package that gets you to government. National are on 45 per cent, Act are on one.
If Act went to three, National would go to 43 per cent. So the centre right hasn’t moved.”

More generally, Act simply isn’t helping National’s coalition-building plans. By winning Epsom at the last election, this just meant that the National Party received one less list MP – quite simply the National-Act deal in Epsom isn’t producing any benefit for National. If anything, it brings negative associations of “dirty deals” and allows Labour an extra ideological target in being able to warn of a potential “National-Act Government”, which can help drive middle New Zealand away from voting for the centre-right party.

It seems likely, therefore, that National will cancel its deal with Act in Epsom prior to the next election. Or, as Matthew Hooton put it on RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon on Monday, “I don’t think that passive euthanasia is what’s planned. I think that the most likely thing that will happen is in about February of 2020 Simon Bridges will cut their throat. And that will be the end of them.”

Finally, for the best case against Seymour’s argument for reducing the size of Parliament, see economist Michael Reddell’s blog post: A case for more MPs?