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Monday 08 November 2010

ACT: Mysterious Times?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 20th September 2010

David Garrett

As a result of its latest internal wrangling, it seems as if the ACT New Zealand Party may be the third major political party to succumb to electoral oblivion. How did it get this bad?

And what role has LGBT rights played in its downfall?

Since it was founded by ex-Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas (1994) and entered Parliament (1996), the Asociation of Consumers and Taxpayers has been divided into two factions, often in uneasy co-existence. They consist of hardline New Right fiscal conservatives who want the party to stick to its core mission of containing central government expenditure, privatisation and acting as an advocate for the business community...and populist neoconservatives who futilely chase short-term objectives like attacking mainstream social liberal values and more latterly, 'law and order' issues. The latter have been a liability, causing the loss of pivotal bolthole constituency seats like Wellington Central and (now?) Epsom. due to the haemorrhage of centre-right social liberals from the party.

It s electoral fortunes have been rocky. For the first decade or so of its existence, it didn't dip below five percent of the total votes cast under MMP. When it did so in 2005, it decimated the party, reducing its ranks to Rodney Hide, its second party leader after Richard Prebble, and Heather Roy, who became his deputy. Given that Hide held Epsom in 2005, and the party's voter share recovered modestly, it seemed as if the party had achieved one of its chief objectives- partner to the National Party in a centre-right coalition arrangement.

Unfortunately, under the strain of government, there have been sharpened rivalries within the party. They centred on Rodney Hide's ministerial expenditure, Heather Roy's leadership ambitions, and subsequent dumping from the deputy leadership role, and now the brewing scandal that surrounded the past actions of David Garrett, former ACT List MP and Hide loyalist, parachuted into the caucus from the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Last week, TV3's Campbell Live broke the story of past Garrett misdemeanours. At the end of that week, it resulted in Garrett's resignation from the ACT caucus, if not from Parliament itself. Given the knife-edge support that Hide has within his caucus, it is uncertain whether Garrett's replacement, Hilary Calvert, will indeed support the current parliamentary leadership. Although no electorate-specific polling has been taken, Epsom seems to be disgruntled with its current elected representative. There are anecdotes that the demise of Garrett occurred as a result of internal party schisms. Even centre-right political commentator Matthew Hooton has given up on the party.

What about us? There have been a string of antagonistic ACT populist neoconservatives who have to take their share of the blame for the current instability of the party as representatives of their faction. They include past ACT List MPs Muriel Newman and Stephen Franks, and now Garrett himself. They voted against civil unions, substantive relationship equality and brokered a deal between ACT and United Future in which surviving ACT MPs Hide and Roy voted for Gordon Copeland's failed same-sex marriage ban bill in December 2005.

When Garrett entered Parliament in 2008, he seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Although allegedly law and order party spokesperson, he encouraged his caucus to vote against provocation law repeal, when it became the only parliamentary party to do so, and when overseas Tasmanian legal data suggested a rise in the number of murder convictions and greater severity in sentencing. He seemed ill-suited to the responsibilities of Parliament and could never quite shake his early days as a rough and ready oil rig worker. In retrospect, his part record of convictions and serious misdemeanours seems to have been a serious mistake, as was Hide's foreknowledge.

Only time will tell whether ACT will survive the events of last week. There is considerable pessimism on that front, however.

Not Recommended:
ACT New Zealand:

Craig Young - 20th September 2010

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