Otago Daily Times

Act­ing up in Par­lia­ment

- Politics · Elections · Arbeidersparty · New Zealand · New Zealand First · Wellington, New Zealand · ACT New Zealand · Roger Douglas · Government of Malaysia · United Future New Zealand · John Banks · Rodney Hide · Derek Quigley

WHILE last week­end’s elec­tion might have been a tri­umph for Labour and a suc­cess for the Greens, Act was also buoyed by its re­mark­able come­back.

Act seemed des­tined to dis­ap­pear not so long ago. It only won the Epsom seat for the past nine years, and that re­quired cups of tea and help from Na­tional.

Its rat­ing was only about a miserly 1% even early this year. Com­pare that to its tally, sub­ject to spe­cial votes, of 7.6% (10 MPs) this elec­tion. Three years ago that was just 0.5%.

Younger vot­ers will not re­mem­ber Act’s ear­lier glory days. Act (the As­so­ci­a­tion of Con­sumers and Tax­pay­ers) was founded in 1993 by Roger Dou­glas and Derek Quigley, and be­came a po­lit­i­cal party the fol­low­ing year. It won seven list MP places in the 1996 elec­tion and nine in the next two.

Act then lost its way and was down to two MPs in 2005, re­cov­er­ing to a re­spectable five in 2008, where it sup­ported the Na­tional gov­ern­ment along with United Fu­ture and the Maori Party.

John Banks was its only MP from 2011 to 2014, fol­lowed by David Sey­mour for the past six years.

Un­der Rod­ney Hide, it made a name as the perk­buster, but it then be­come hard­line on law and or­der and some so­cial is­sues. It drifted from its lib­er­tar­ian outlook.

The ir­re­press­ible Mr Sey­mour this year has danced through pol­i­tics with a sure step. His ad­vo­cacy of the End of Life Choice Act and his suc­cess guid­ing the law through Par­lia­ment was skilled. On the Covid Epi­demic Re­sponse Com­mit­tee, he made a name for ask­ing per­ti­nent ques­tions. He stood alone against the tight­ened gun laws fol­low­ing last year’s mosque mur­ders, and he spoke up for free speech.

Mr Sey­mour is likeable and un­en­cum­bered by the com­plex­i­ties of Na­tional or the de­mands of ac­tu­ally hav­ing to gov­ern. But, while it has been less dif­fi­cult to ar­tic­u­late clearer poli­cies and ide­ol­ogy and he does not have to ap­peal to a broad church, he still had to make the play and grasp the head­lines.

His band in Par­lia­ment has to fol­low the same path. They will scru­ti­nise spend­ing, at­tack en­croach­ments on in­di­vid­ual rights and ar­gue for choice and smaller gov­ern­ment.

Both United Fu­ture and New Zealand First have suf­fered when a large group of in­ex­pe­ri­enced MPs came to Welling­ton. But while Act’s line­up looks rea­son­able on pa­per, Par­lia­ment is a cruel and test­ing place where weak­nesses are ex­posed. Act will be vul­ner­a­ble if and when any be­liev­ers in wacky the­o­ries spout forth.

Na­tional’s on­go­ing prob­lem was that, even with 40­plus per­cent of the vote, it lacked al­lies in Par­lia­ment to form a gov­ern­ment. Iron­i­cally, this time, it has a sig­nif­i­cant party to its right. But the com­bined share is dis­mal.

Some sug­gest Act is the party of the dis­grun­tled, that its back­ing will col­lapse nearly as fast as it soared. It might well have swiped sup­port from New Zealand First and the far Right, but a pri­mary fur­row seems to have been from for­mer Na­tional vot­ers, es­pe­cially farm­ers.

No­table are the big tal­lies for Act in the south­ern coun­try booths.

Na­tional’s house was in such dis­ar­ray that Act pro­vided an al­ter­na­tive. Surely, many of those votes will flow back if Na­tional can do a half­de­cent job.

Act largely aban­doned its court­ing of con­ser­va­tive pop­ulism, and it has moved from its one­time bla­tant cli­mate­change de­nial. In­stead, all Act MPs will need to be clear on their ba­sic clas­sic lib­eral mes­sages about in­di­vid­ual rights, eco­nomic free­doms and smaller gov­ern­ment if it is to main­tain a core in Par­lia­ment after 2023.

They must act up as a vig­or­ous op­po­si­tion party in the House with those prin­ci­ples in their sights. But act­ing up with di­ver­sions and di­vi­sions will con­sign Act once again to near obliv­ion.

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