Election series article # 5: ACT – threat or joke?

Byron Clark, Workers Party Christchurch branch organiser. Originally published in the October Spark.

A common view of political parties in New Zealand’s parliament holds that ACT is the worst of the lot, followed by National, Labour as the “lesser evil” with The Greens as not-perfect but essentially good. This approach ignores the question of  what power and influence these parties hold (or lack there of). There is almost insignificant support for ACT in both the general population and the ruling class. While ACT may present its plans for New Zealand as a free-market paradise for capitalists, the number of donations from corporations and wealthy individuals received by ACT pales in comparison to those received by National and Labour.

Low polling

The latest Roy Morgan Research poll puts support for ACT on 2%, slightly above the margin of error. If John Banks wins the seat of Epsom (the country’s wealthiest electorate with the lowest number of Maori voters) he might bring in one extra MP with him. A pair of free market zealots is hardly going to sway the next government. While National are buoyed by recent polling and are speaking openly about the attacks on workers and beneficiaries they will make if reelected in November, their strategy is still to appear to voters as moderate centrists, Key continues to distance himself from ACT and the relationship National has formed with the Maori Party shows that it sees a “centrist” coalition partner as more useful for its appearance than a far right appendage.

“A Party for men, and women who think like men”

Neo-liberalism has never been a popular ideology with the electorate, and ACT have in recent times down-played their economic policies in favour of social conservatism on issues such as crime and race relations. Both have backfired – their celebrity candidate last election, Sensible Sentencing Trust lawyer David Garrett was shown to be hypocritical beyond belief, holding an assault conviction and another for obtaining a fake passport with the birth certificate of a dead infant (not to mention his sexual harassment of a parliamentary staffer and drunked homophobic rant on national television). John Ansell’s newspaper ad campaign around the theme “stopping the Maorification of everything” may have appealed to a small number of Pakeha, but was universally mocked with few even seeing it worth a proper critique.

Ansell soon parted ways with the party after and gave a New Zealand Herald interview where he stated that “white cowards” were scared to “tell the truth about this Maori issue”. The effort to distance themselves from Ansell hit a bump in the road when leaked emails showed Don Brash had supported even more racist ad ideas designed by Ansell that others in the party saw as too extreme. In his Herald interview Ansell also described ACT as “a party for men and women who think like men” that statement fits with a Horizon poll back in May that found ACT’s support among women to be zero.

Out of control youth wing

ACT’s youth wing, ACT on Campus (AoC) has always pushed the envelope. After the criminalisation of BZP, AoC gave out pills containing BZP as a publicity stunt on university clubs days. Another activity of the group was disrupting Earth Hour events by shining electric lights around (because apparently being a jerk is a great way to win political support). In an interview on Sunrise about this, then AoC president Rick Giles spoke about his disbelief in the scientific theory of anthropogenic climate change, and when asked for evidence supporting his view stated that his “argument is so powerful it’s not necessary to talk about it”. Youtube clips of the interview went viral and the quote soon appeared on t-shirts. Events like Earth Hour do not provide a solution for climate change, but for a brief period Giles was an even bigger joke than the “always blow on the pie” cop.

While that episode was laughable, something more sinister happened recently. Cameron Browne, AoC Auckland vice-president, told a young woman he was arguing with to “get raped”. While Giles was rolled as president for his live TV gaff, new president Peter McCaffrey was quick to make excuses for Browne’s comment. “The fact that members such as McCaffrey have been quick to defend his comments as being ‘in the heat of the moment’ and ‘not really serious’ just go to show what little sensitivity they have around the realities of rape and sexual abuse in this country” said Nicole Skews, Coordinator of the Wellington Young Feminists Collective. ACTs near non-existent support among women suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Junk science for cash

To return to the point of Rick Giles’ climate change skepticism, it was not this view that saw him rolled as president, indeed a distrust of climate scientists has been a long standing ACT policy. At least since they started getting donations from prominent climate change skeptic Alan Gibbs. When Gibbs supplied ACT with $100,000 he was able to buy significant policy change. “Within weeks, the party’s new climate denial line was being pushed to the press.” wrote Gareth Renowen, author of Hot Topic: Global Warming and the Future of New Zealand “back in May 2008, Hide — while adopting an overtly sceptical, do-as-little-as-possible stance — was prepared to at least acknowledge the IPCC reports as a starting point for discussion. Within months, however, he was ready to declare in a speech to ACT’s southern region conference: ‘I remain sceptical that greenhouse gases are the cause of a global warming.’”

There will always be a (hopefully shrinking) constituency for ACT, the groups of Pakeha men who think that political correctness has gone mad, that Maori and women have to much privilege, and climate change theory is a left-wing conspiracy. Meanwhile, Alisdair Thompson is rolled as president of the Employers and Manufacturers Association after saying that gender pay inequality is a result of women menstruating, and large group of business people launch the ‘Pure Advantage’ campaign to profit from environmentalism. The vast majority of New Zealand society does not hold the views expressed by the ACT party.

If Don Brash and John Banks take two of the seats in parliament after the election they are not going to be excerting influence over the National caucus, more likely they will be a pair of ‘useful idiots’ to help Key form a majority government. Of course, many are expecting ACT to disappear from the political landscape all together this year. The Facebook event “ACT Party Funeral” is notable for having more people ‘attending’ than there are people ‘liking’ the official ACT Facebook page.

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