The continuation of David Garrett’s guest posts on the Rise and Fall of the Act Party.
Previous installments: Part one, Part two.
Decline and fall ? Part III
In April 2011 Rodney Hide told Don Brash he would support Brash as leader of ACT, thus putting to an end what was in effect a hostile takeover, and the public washing of dirty laundry which was by then occurring almost daily. Things came to a head rather quickly, which meant the “setup” the day after the leadership change was odd, to say the least.
Brash was the leader of a party he had joined two days before, but had no seat in the House. Rodney and John Boscawen were both MP’s and Ministers of the Crown. Brash wanted Rodney gone – from parliament if not the earth – because Brash viewed Hide as “toxic”, and the proximate cause of all of ACT’s problems. In his imagined perfect world, Hide would simply disappear, and be replaced as MP for Epsom by John Banks, a man who did not seem any kind of “fit” with many of ACT’s principles.
However, Hide had the confidence of the Prime Minister, and was also committed to being the “best MP for Epsom”, a position he had won and then held at two successive general elections. He saw no reason to resign from either position, and in my view he was quite justified in seeing things that way. Whether one agreed or disagreed with Hide’s strategic view, there had never been any question of his competence or work rate, either as a Minister or an MP.
ACT MP John Boscawen looks on at a press conference after the first ACT Party Caucus Meeting on May 3, 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
The situation was ripe for the kind of shambles that is now ironically being played out a year or so later – an ongoing and unwelcome distraction for the government, and daily further ignominy for ACT. Thankfully for all concerned, fate had delivered John Boscawen as Deputy Leader of the Party, a man disliked by no-one important, and trusted by anyone who mattered as an honest broker.
One could write another book – albeit an unsaleable one – on the machinations which occurred in an attempt to resolve the apparent impasse. When the smoke cleared, Brash had agreed not to continue trying to rid himself of Hide “by lunch time”, Hide had agreed to step down at the 2014 election, Boscawen became the leader of the parliamentary caucus, and the bit players continued their roles.
While all this was happening, back at party HQ Brash was selling the idea of his mate Banks succeeding Hide as candidate and then MP for Epsom. Those with much longer track records in ACT than me remain puzzled how Brash convinced the Board to accept Banks as the vehicle for bringing Brash himself, and presumably one or two others into parliament at the 2014 election.
Everyone else has a theory, so here’s mine. Brash had promised the Board two things if he was leader of the Party. First, that he would bring in large sums of money which would not be forthcoming if Hide remained. Second, he would increase the Party’s vote at the election later in the year to at least 15%. It is hugely ironic given the public perception of ACT as “the rich pricks party” that in the first quarter of 2011 it was as usual broke, and scrabbling to pay the bills.
We now know that the party managed to raise and spend almost $1.3 million at the 2011 election. Presumably, some of that money had begun to flow in as soon as Brash became leader. If so, it seems credible to assume that the Board were persuaded that Brash was indeed the new messiah – after all he had pulled off a coup that had seemed laughable only weeks before, and his promises of being able to deliver money were coming to fruition. Surely a party vote of 15% – Brash apparently thought it would be more like 40% – was as deliverable as the money? As long as they followed the prescription of the good doctor.
So Banks was confirmed as MP in waiting in Epsom, and the train clattered on, its couplings increasingly strained, but still in one piece. For a while, it must have seemed that the storm clouds had cleared, and after November 2011, there would be a solid ACT caucus of Brash, Banks, John Boscawen and two or three others. Senior ACToids have apparently always been very optimistic.
Then, a new bombshell. John Boscawen announced he would not contest the election and would retire from politics “to spend more time with his family”, a well used political cliché normally employed to cover up something sinister. Since John is unmarried and has no children, it was assumed by the feverish media that the real reason for John’s decision must surely be something else. Wrong again. John meant exactly what he said, and knowing him as I do, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had to explain to him what the cliche normally meant.
For me, the next seemingly inexplicable decision was to abandon the Party’s law and order focus completely in favour of education and the usual “market forces and deregulation” economic policies. This despite the Party having achieved a major victory in the “three strikes” legislation, and for that and other reasons, having the tacit support of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, probably New Zealand’s most effective lobby group.
The appointment of a 25 year old university student as Justice Spokesman, and the concurrent release of some totally silly policies led quickly to Garth McVicar publicly telling his supporters that ACT had lost its way, and urging them to consider which other party best articulated SST’s goals. This was a not-so-subtle steer in the direction of the fledging Conservatives. The result? ACT got a lower Party vote than the Mana Party, and the Conservatives – which none of the pundits had taken seriously – got 2.8%, six months after being formed. Coincidence? Who knows.
Then three months after the worst election result in its history, the Banks fiasco. A week is certainly a long time in politics, and who knows what the coming sitting week will bring. Every political columnist has a theory or a prediction. The end of the week could see anything from Banks resigning from parliament – which in my view is unlikely – to the vultures in the mainstream media finding some new sideshow upon which to demonstrate how far the fourth estate has fallen since the likes of Ian Templeton or even Barry Soper began their careers as political journalists.
I understand that much of the debacle surrounding Banks stems from his refusal to take advice – which must surely have been to STFU and keep his head down. As Rodney Hide noted last Sunday, Banks is a politician from another era. He was used to Ministers giving press conferences – from which they might exclude journos they didn’t like. He was used to a time when journalists called Ministers “Mister” and wouldn’t dream of chasing them through building lobbies thrusting microphones up their noses. He must think he has mysteriously found himself elected to a foreign and not the New Zealand parliament. As they say, the past is another country.
Can ACT survive all this? Who knows. Hide and others have pointed out that ACT has been written off many times, but Phoenix like, somehow always rises again. For what it is worth, I doubt it can survive the collective blows inflicted on it which I have traversed in these three posts. Even if it does manage to stay alive to contest the next election, if the Conservative Party can avoid being branded “just another bunch of God botherers” and do significantly better than ACT in 2014, I believe, with some sadness, that would indeed be the final ACT, and the end of a remarkable story.