ACT's battle for significance

ACT leader David Seymour is pondering the future of his party after a disappointing election result. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Before the election, David Seymour was talking about his plan to make ACT relevant again. Yet the party went backwards, leaving Seymour facing opposition as a solo act. What went wrong, and does ACT have a future in its current form?

With the demise of the Maori Party, the Greens halving their MPs, and National and Labour desperately courting NZ First, ACT’s election performance has been somewhat overlooked.

While party leader David Seymour easily held his Epsom electorate with a nearly 5000-vote margin, ACT actually slid backwards in the party vote stakes, dropping to 0.51 per cent from 0.69 per cent in 2014.

It’s a small fall, but a far cry from Seymour’s bold prediction to Newsroom in the election lead-up about bringing in as many as five MPs.

Why did ACT fail to reach those lofty heights, and what hope of success does the party have in its current form?

Richard Prebble, who led the party during its late 1990s and early 2000s heyday when it had as many as nine MPs, argues the party’s 2017 performance isn’t all bad news.

“There’s no getting around the fact that the party vote was a disappointment; the winning of Epsom however shouldn’t be underestimated.”

While many would point to National’s tacit endorsement of Seymour, Prebble says he was well ahead before that “well-publicised nod” was made this time around.

As for the underperformance on the party vote, he attributes that to the same pressures of being in a coalition that proved critical for both the Maori Party and UnitedFuture.

“I remember discussing the matter with David three years ago and predicting if ACT did go into coalition and take a portfolio, that we would be hammered in the next election.”

Lawyer and former ACT MP Stephen Franks says he was surprised by the party’s poor performance, but attributes it to the focus shifting back to what Bill English described as a “drag race” between National and Labour.

"I think people who were initially going to vote adventurously, which happens every few elections…then suddenly it looked like it was an election where loyalty was needed.”

Seymour himself has mixed emotions, disappointed with his result but pointing to the demise of other minor parties as a worst-case scenario he avoided.

“Any fool can prosper in the good times, it’s surviving the hard times that really matter.”

He agrees with Franks that the focus on the major parties squeezed ACT, with voters “terrified” of Jacinda Ardern throwing their lot in with National, and the media treating the
campaign as if it was an FPP race (one area where Seymour and his bete noire Winston Peters are in rare agreement).

Seymour is particularly bitter about any suggestion he was “gifted” Epsom by National, arguing he and ACT have successfully made the case that the right gets two parties for the price of one by supporting him.

“They [some media] seem to have this idea that the seat in Epsom belongs to the National Party - the basic way democracy works, which seems to escape them, is that it actually belongs to the voters.”

ACT out of the picture?

Political analyst Bryce Edwards is less charitable, saying ACT “just really aren’t part of the picture anymore”

“If people didn’t already see it, they seem them as a non-party, a one-band MP that doesn’t isn’t really deserving of the title ‘party’.”

Edwards argues there is a fundamental flaw in the principles underpinning the party, a focus on the curative powers of the free market that fell out of favour in the 2000s and was further exacerbated by the global financial crisis.

“What the party stands for, basically neoliberalism, is so discredited and out of fashion that there’s no strong reason for the party to exist.”

Ideological underpinnings aside, there seems agreement that Seymour himself isn’t to blame for the party’s travails.

Prebble says the young leader exceeded his expectations, while Franks describes him as “sure-footed” in his work as a first-term MP tasked with leading his party.

“It’s very easy to stumble and fall and become a target of mockery because they want you to, just having yourself.”

Even Edwards offers some praise for Seymour, albeit backhanded: “I think he’s done quite well actually, I think he’s a very competent politician, but he’s inherited a brand that doesn’t really work in modern times.”

Ghosts of the past

Some of ACT’s current problems may be the result of what Seymour himself has described as the party’s “comedy of errors” after its peak.

First came Don Brash’s National cannibalising the party’s vote, then infighting under Rodney Hide, followed by Brash’s “politically disastrous” takeover of ACT in 2011 and the various legal wrangles of the party’s MPs.

Prebble says he has taken a more charitable view than others of the party’s internal conflicts, but concedes: “ACT has had more internal fights than is good for a party and they got punished for it.”

Franks is also unsurprised by what happened to the party: “We were internally divided, we became the Rodney Hide party, it wasn’t at all surprising we lost our way then.”

While he’s sceptical about the ghosts of the past coming to bear, he notes some would say “turning around a tainted brand is much harder than starting almost afresh”.

So is starting afresh what’s best for ACT?

The party has been talking about a rebrand for some time: back in 2002, Prebble mulled a name change to the Liberal Party, while former party president Catherine Isaac said “a new brand and a whole new look” was one option after the party’s disastrous 2011 result.

Edwards says he has always been a proponent of abandoning the ACT brand; he suggests creating an Auckland-centric socially liberal party, based around Seymour’s Epsom electorate and expanding into the wider metropolitan area.

“I don’t think there is a future for the ACT brand, but there might be a future for David Seymour and a rebranded party or a relaunched party.”

Seymour hints that a rebrand may be on the cards, talking about internal polling commissioned by ACT some months ago on the favourability ratings of himself and his party.

While his net rating was +1 - not bad for a polarising politician - the party’s result was “more negative than any other party we polled, by a considerable margin”.

“Do you keep plugging away, trying to rehabilitate the thing, or do you make a change?”

Half of the people at Seymour’s election night event were under 20, he says - perhaps a sign of successful social media campaign, or perhaps a reflection that they were too young to be turned off by the taint of pre-Seymour ACT.

The challenge behind any potential rebrand, he says, is doing it in a way that’s genuine and authentic: he’s about to head off on a two-week tour around the country to get some feedback from supporters about what may need to change.

Respite in opposition?

Solving ACT’s problems may require not just a name change, but a more fundamental look at the party’s ideological direction.

Under Seymour, it has moved into a more classically liberal space, but under Prebble and Hide the party mixed liberalism with conservative populism on issues like on crime, Maori issues and political correctness.

When former deputy leader Kenneth Wang resigned earlier in the year after receiving a low list ranking, he said the party had moved away from its priorities on law and order and “one law for all”, and Franks argues a more libertarian focus would be a mistake.

“I don’t think any libertarian parties are doing well around the world, it’s just as silly as an extreme-left party.”

Others, such as economist Eric Crampton, have argued in the past that it would make more sense for ACT to double down on social liberalism, rather than “positioning itself as a right-wing rump to National”.

Seymour accepts there is a range of views, saying “every party will have coalitions of people who don’t always agree” and the future shape of the party would depend on what members say.

Prebble and Franks are positive about the future of ACT, pointing to the revival of similarly-minded German classical liberals the Free Democratic Party - going from electoral oblivion in 2013 to a potential kingmaker role at this year’s election.

Prebble believes Seymour will find it easier to put forward ACT’s message in opposition, without “the complication of having to hold up a Government that’s doing many things you don’t agree with”.

Before the election, Seymour spoke about a three-phase, nine-year plan to restore ACT’s prominence. Is he still committed to it?

“Ask me in three years, but right now I just feel surprisingly upbeat about it.”

Having “survived” nine years in government, and with progress on his End of Life Choice euthanasia bill to look forward to, Seymour says his removal from government could prove more a help than a hindrance.

“I think looking back what we’ll say is that respite couldn’t come soon enough.”

Whether his party can win any respite from the political margins remains to be seen.