Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Act's choice of revival or survival

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Dr Jamie Whyte. Photo / David White
Dr Jamie Whyte. Photo / David White

The stark choice facing the elite Act Party Board members who meet tomorrow to start deciding on its new leader, is one of focusing on either survival or revival. These two aims for the party aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are very much where the two candidates have their strengths and their pitches.

Last night, the Act Party held its one and only public meeting for the three candidates for leadership and the Epsom candidacy. All three candidates appeared later on TV3's Paul Henry Show for an interesting 7-minute item - see: Boscawen on the future of ACT.

Jamie Whyte - the radical choice

Currently polling at zero percent, the Act Party is largely seen to be more of a zombie party than one that's alive and kicking. Its reputation has been tarnished through numerous scandals as well as an acknowledgement by most that it has shifted away from its radical origins as a party of free market liberalism. There seems to be a consensus in the party in favour of some sort of 'return to Act values'. The leadership candidate most associated with this view is relative newcomer Jamie Whyte. For a strong sense of this, it's worth reading the excellent profile on him by Steve Kilgallon: ACT hopefuls jostle for party leadership.

Related to this, see Chris Trotter's column, Whyte's oratory and wit a nice surprise.

Trotter became impressed by Whyte after watching various online speeches and interviews with the wannabe politician - see for example, Whyte 5-minute talk On the state of leftwing politics or his Speech to ACT 2013 Annual Conference.

Whyte's radicalism is very much to the liking of Matthew Hooton, who had been looking to establish his own market liberal to replace the Act Party. Hooton is now putting his weight behind Whyte, especially with a column in the NBR newspaper today titled 'A new Act starts on Sunday' (not yet online). One section is worth quoting at length: "The Act board has no alternative this Sunday but to select Jamie Whyte as its new leader and David Seymour as its Epsom candidate. To opt for former MP John Boscawen would be for the party to yet again look backwards as it did unsuccessfully with Sir Roger Douglas in 2008 and Don Brash and John Banks in 2011. Worse, it would be for Act to sacrifice its self-respect with there being little doubt Mr Boscawen is National's preferred candidate after Rodney Hide rejected its overtures. In contrast, Dr Whyte is the real deal: he really does believe in radically reducing the size and powers of the state. He is not one to acquiesce to corporate welfare in exchange for a handful of charter schools'.

Hooton also warns Whyte that after he is selected as leader, 'the media will try to trap and define him. As an academic philosopher at Cambridge University and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Dr Whyte has pushed the boundaries of classical liberalism. He has, for example, outlined the scholarly case for the complete abolition of labour laws and health and safety regulations, and the legalisation of drugs, up to and including P. Finding the most outlandish thing Dr Whyte has ever written will provide fabulous sport for the press gallery next week'.

Today Audrey Young focuses on Whyte's radicalism in her article, Act hopeful: I won't hijack party policy. This profile reiterates Whyte's radicalism, but there are also strong hints of Hide-like populism and pragmatism. It's notable too, that Whyte has a propensity in his interviews to bring up his disdain for New Zealand's anti-smacking legislation.

John Boscawen - safe and steady

For a very good idea of John Boscawen and his 'safe and steady' approach to politics and the Act Party, see Andrea Vance's in-depth profile, John Boscawen ready to rebuild ACT. Similarly, see Audrey Young's Act leadership 'not a slam dunk' for Boscawen.

According to Radio New Zealand's report on last night's meeting, Boscawen is the 'front-runner' as 'most party members who attended told Radio New Zealand they would like Mr Boscawen to win' - see: Boscawen makes mark at meeting. Boscawen is also reported as saying that 'ACT is a sinking ship and needs a revival'.

TVNZ reports that 'Boscawen is regarded as the safe option but despite a ringing endorsement from Prime Minister John Key and an unblemished parliamentary record Mr Boscawen's biggest weakness is his association with Act's old guard' - see: Act candidates vie for all-important Epsom seat. And in Corazon Miller's Newstalk ZB report, Boscawen says 'I would argue that I'm a less risky proposition. The public know me. The media have had year threes to try and find my faults. Luckily to date there haven't been too many skeletons in the cupboard' - see: ACT supporters hear from men who want to lead them.

For more on Boscawen's electoral strategy for the party, see Brook Sabin's ACT leadership hopeful Boscawen targets Asian voters.

Of course, Boscawen has a long history in the Act Party, and has been an important funder and fundraiser. So Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) has tweeted somewhat mischievously to say 'Rumour is @JohnBoscawennz will give $1m to @actparty if he becomes leader and $100 if he doesn't'. For more such debate and opinions on Twitter, see my blogpost, Top tweets about the leadership contest for Act.

David Seymour, the Epsom electorate, and complications

The Act Party question of 'survival or revival' is complicated by the decision about whether to select someone separate from the new leader to run for the Epsom seat. The idea of separating the two positions out is being pushed most strongly by David Seymour, who is putting his hand up for the Epsom nomination. According to iPredict, there is currently a 67% chance of David Seymour to be ACT's candidate for Epsom in the 2014 General Election. There's also said to be a 67% chance of ACT to win Epsom.

For more iPredict forecasts, see the full iPredict odds. Of particular interest is the prediction of Jamie Whyte to be next ACT Party leader currently at 67%, compared to John Boscawen to be next ACT Party leader, which is at 25%.

David Farrar examines the varied options for the Act Party in choosing its leader and Epsom candidate in his blogpost, ACT decisions. Farrar suggests six possible configurations, which appear to be roughly in the order that he believes are most likely: 1. Whyte for Leader and Epsom; 2. Boscawen for Leader and Epsom; 3. Whyte for Leader and Boscawen for Epsom; 4. Whyte for Leader and Seymour for Epsom; 5. Boscawen for Leader Seymour for Epsom; and 6. Boscawen for Leader and Whyte for Epsom. Farrar picks Boscawen as 'the obvious choice for Epsom'. See also Farrar's earlier post, Epsom and the ACT Leadership.

Note also, that in reporting on last night's meeting, Audrey Young says 'In some ways young David Seymour was the star of the night, intelligent, witty and articulate' - see: Has Act got talent?. Young also says that Bowscawen 'may not be inspiring but he can organise, campaign, and work hard', and although 'Whyte is a relative unknown', 'He showed his adherence to ideas and principle which will have given supporters a sense of nostalgia for the party's early day, and a sense the fresh way he communicated might give the party new appeal, even a sense of a new party'.

For an additional in-depth report on the Act meeting, see Simon Day's ACT hopefuls state their case. He notes, also, that Seymour 'was also the most popular with the crowd'.

The importance of the Act Party

The Act Party might seem irrelevant these days, and some will complain that the attention given to it is unnecessary. But as Audrey Young points out in her column, Has Act got talent?, 'here's a party that could determine whether David Cunliffe is the next Prime Minister' or not. The party looks to be given a clear run from National in Epsom at the general election, so the extent to which is survives and revives will continue to be important.

The existence of micro and minor parties ads to the health of New Zealand's party system, and as No Right Turn points out in his blogpost, Our unhealthy political landscape, the declining number and strength of the microparties should be of democratic concern.

In a sense, the minor and micro parties can often play an important role in keeping the major parties from becoming too bland, boring and cautious. This is a point well made today by Andrew Dickens' in his opinion piece, ACT needs to rediscover their mojo. He says, 'like every superhero needs an arch nemesis, every political party needs their opposition. Labour and National will always be on either side of the centre. But just as Labour needs the Greens on their left, National needs someone on their right. That's not the Conservatives - they're just a National Party that likes spanking and referendums. No, National needs pure market force driven, Ayn Rand loving fans of trickle down and freedom of choice to keep them honest. Not perk busters, not carpetbaggers, not yesterday's men. For the sake of balanced political debate, I hope they rediscover their mojo. It would certainly make things a lot more interesting'.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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