Don Brash will get ACT above 10 percent, re-energising the right of New Zealand politics - or so the story goes. Some aren't so sure, including some in National

So, there are two ways of looking at the ACT overhaul. It's either a grand National plot or National are the biggest losers at the end of this week. I tend towards the latter. But what do you think?

Some see the arrival of Don Brash as ACT leader as a right-wing strategy to create, in 2011-2014, the most right-wing government the country has seen since Ruth Richardson was a Budgetary mother. Phil Goff says ACT would drag National further right. (If I was uncharitable, I might add, as far right as the fourth Labour government when Goff was a minister!). Winston Peters describes the Brash coup as "its takeover of the ACT party in time to organise its election campaign". The result will be a return to "failed policies that started to cripple New Zealand in the 80s and 90s".

Much of which may or may not turn out to be true, depending on how New Zealanders vote come November.

The other view suggests that National will be gutted this weekend. It now has an economist purist to its right; and not just any economic purist, but the very one John Key deposed so as to move National back to the centre and thereby make the party electable again.

Hide understood politics; Brash understands economics.

Brash - especially in a race with Peters and Hone Harawira - is likely to raise race relations again (sob), an issue Key has tried to defuse. He will push on raising the age of super eligbility, abolishing free doctor's visits, the NZ Super Fund and the minimum wage, opening DOC land up to mining, and putting interest back on student loans, and several other issues that National thought it had nicely squared away.

Most of all, Brash will be ruthless on urging more immediate cuts to the deficit (although that may be something National will be happy to respond to). In other words, he won't be worried about frightening the horses, otherwise known as the centre votes Key has worked so hard to tie down. Brash gives Labour something to kick against, giving them hope, and will force National to issue and repeat a bunch of denials that otherwise would have been taken as read.

One of the biggest worries for National's strategists will be whether they will be forced to choose between ACT and the Maori Party. Ask yourself, how can the Maori Party, even with Tariana Turia at her most pragmatic, say it will go into a coalition arrangement with the man who delivered the Orewa speech, questioning whether Maori can even call themselves Maori these days?

Key made efforts to keep Rodney Hide in charge of ACT when the Heather Roy challenge came. He has dominated the centre and right of New Zealand politics for so long. But this he could not control. Brash and his backers, some of whom I've spoken to this week, dismiss Key as a "smile and wave man" who doesn't adhere to true National principles. Closer to the truth is simply that Key has created a National party that's true to the legacy of Sir Keith Holyoake, rather than that of Ruth Richardson.

But Brash and his backers will not stay on message as Hide did, and may even expose cracks between National's centre and right-wing. It will be a test of party discipline that Key hasn't had to face before.

It also complicates things in Epsom. Instead of the nice, sweetheart deal with Hide, everyone now has to go back to square one. If Brash keeps predicting 10-15% for ACT, National voters in Epsom, weary as they are of strategic voting, will rightly ask, 'why should we vote Banks rather than our own candidate'? As for ACT, it can hardly predict double digits then expect a soft deal. And National risk looking either cynical or undermining of ACT if they don't front their own man.

And as popular as John Banks is in Epsom, up against a strong National candidate it might not be as clear cut as some expect.

Indeed, the entire 'Brash as saviour of the right' narrative might not be quite that clear and clean. Just because you can succeed, to a point, with a big machine and popular brand doesn't mean you can do it with a smaller, niche brand. And let's not forget, National barely topped 20 percent the election before he swept into the leadership. Anyone would have improved National's polling after 2002; indeed, I was interested to hear Barry Gustafson on RNZ this morning guessing that a Bill English-led National party would have won in 2005.

Let's not forget that it was that 2002 election in which ACT got its best ever election result - 7.1 percent. And that was when National was on its knees. So is double digits really that likely? Why is everyone assuming that there's such potential to grow the total right vote? We're more likely to see ACT cannibalise some of National's vote and then hit a wall, especially when you add in Brash's historical problem with women voters and his "trust issues".

I can't resist adding this link, just to remember the problems that Brash faced in 2005.

Then there's the reality that the ACT caucus haven't suddenly turned from quirky individualists into a well-disciplined fighting unit just because they have a new general. Brash still has an idiosyncratic team to lead, and has to decide pretty quick whether John Boscawen remains deputy, whether Heather Roy is re-promoted, or what... all without ruffling egos and National.

Oh yes, the only thing we can be sure of is that there's a greater level of uncertainty around this year's election than there's been for a long time.

Comments (13)

by Danyl Mclauchlan on April 29, 2011
Danyl Mclauchlan

Hide understood politics; Brash understands economics.

Brash 'understands' economics in the same sense that the priests of Gosplan 'understood' economics, ie they have an unshakable belief in their own worldview much of which is based on theoretical economic models that fail catastrophically when applied.

by Matthew Percival on April 29, 2011
Matthew Percival

Brash is in fantasy land if he really thinks he can land double digits. Between 3-6% is the band the party is likely to operate in.

You raise the question of a deputy. If Banks gets the party back into parliament by winning Epsom he would have an extremely strong case for the deputy position if he wants it.

I don't see ACT being a problem for National this time around and with Brash already of great age he may not contest in 2014. I say this because National is likely to have the numbers between itself, United Future and the Maori Party which lends itself to a co-alition between the three and if Brash wants to be a part it will be a case of you come to us rather than we come to you.

I do agree it has made this election a whole lot more interesting but there is no need for Key to push the panic button just yet.

At least not until Act polls at 12% in the poll of polls!

by Tim Watkin on April 30, 2011
Tim Watkin

Matthew, the deputy problem is more immediate than Banks. ACT needs a leader in the House, a role Brash can't fulfill as he's not an MP. Someone has to be chosen and therefore favoured.

You make an interesting point about coalition partners. If National is in a position to choose to either go with ACT or the Maori Party/United Future (but not all), which would it choose? Helen Clark always chose to go to the centre rather than the Greens.

Key might have been willing to choose Hide; or at least, with Hide leading ACT we know he would have felt comfortable choosing both ACT and the 'centrists'. Would he choose a Brash-led ACT? In other words, it's possible the choice of Brash as leader could keep ACT out of the next government.

 

by Andrew Geddis on April 30, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"You make an interesting point about coalition partners. If National is in a position to choose to either go with ACT or the Maori Party/United Future (but not all), which would it choose? Helen Clark always chose to go to the centre rather than the Greens."

ACT has the same problem that the Greens have - there's only one partner for them to dance with. And if they refuse to let the ball continue, then the blame falls on them. Which is a convoluted way of saying, National can afford to say to ACT; "we're not letting you into government ... now, are you really going to vote against us and thus risk handing things over to a Labour/Greens/M.P./Hone Harawira cabal? Really?"

by Che Nua on April 30, 2011
Che Nua

Although the Nat strategists have been ruminating for awhile on Act's demise maybe the Brash takeover was also about the imminent arrival of the Hone Harawira party.  With Hone looking to chop the Maori Party flagpole the soon to retire Tariana could be looking at only 1 or 2 seats, Labour getting the rest of the Maori seats except maybe the wildcard up north

This would mean National having no coalition partner outside of Mr Dunn unless they worked with a back on the block NZ First, something Key has already ruled out (hey watch that space).  A Brash Act would also pull votes from the Winston support base not just National & these transfers will be way more critical to NZ First's survival than National

All said it is arguable that Hone Harawira may really be a deep cover agent for National who is facilitating the rise of a right wing coalition government which will have the lowest number of Maori in it since MMP began;-)

by Draco T Bastard on April 30, 2011
Draco T Bastard

It's either a grand National plot or National are the biggest losers at the end of this week.

These two options are not mutually exclusive and so is not an either/or option. National could have strategised the takeover of Act (which I believe they did) and still lose out (which I believe they will).

The other view suggests that National will be gutted this weekend. It now has an economist purist to its right; and not just any economic purist, but the very one John Key deposed so as to move National back to the centre and thereby make the party electable again.

National didn't actually move to the centre. They stayed pretty much where they were - hard radical right with a strong authoritarian bent. The placement of JK allowed them to hide that behind his smile & wave persona.

Hide understood politics; Brash understands economics.

That's giving both of them too much credibility. Neither understands economics (what they think they understand is a monetary theory divorced from economics) and I'm pretty sure that Hide didn't understand politics. If he did he wouldn't have fronted the SuperShitty for National.

Brash gives Labour something to kick against, giving them hope, and will force National to issue and repeat a bunch of denials that otherwise would have been taken as read.

I don't think you'll see any denials coming from National this year in response to Brash's radicalism. National actually do want to do the same things but realised that they had to promise not to do them to get elected last time. Now they're using the GFC and the Chch earthquakes to reintroduce TINA.

But Brash and his backers will not stay on message as Hide did, and may even expose cracks between National's centre and right-wing. It will be a test of party discipline that Key hasn't had to face before.

Or it could be that National are quietly shifting their right-wing into Act now that they've got their man in charge over there.

We're more likely to see ACT cannibalise some of National's vote and then hit a wall,

Agreed, most of Acts voter base will come from present National voters.

by Bruce Thorpe on April 30, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

The time has come for the minor parties to seek profile and differentiation, which puts the major party in government under a lot of fire.

Labour under Goff has been struggling with the "knocker" label, but most of that work can now be left to Winston, Don, Peter,Hone,  Russell and Met. Even Tariana will be well advised to try and look rebellious.

This is a lot of crossfire for Key, and the Nats will have to be much more specific than Key would like.

by Kevin Moore on May 01, 2011
Kevin Moore

"ACT has the same problem that the Greens have - there's only one partner for them to dance with. And if they refuse to let the ball continue, then the blame falls on them. Which is a convoluted way of saying, National can afford to say to ACT; "we're not letting you into government ... now, are you really going to vote against us and thus risk handing things over to a Labour/Greens/M.P./Hone Harawira cabal? Really?""

Andrew, it's actually more of a case of National only having one partner to dance with - ACT. And Brash knows that. He has the leverage, not Key, since National will need ACT to govern because it (ACT) will have taken some of its vote. If they take a mere 4% off National, National will have no-one else to turn to.

The hope behind this move is quite clear: That John Key will retain the support of the centre while ACT takes National's hard right supporters who joined it when Brash was their leader and deserted ACT under Hide.

Also, there"s an obvious reason why National will not give ACT the ultimatum you say they can deliver: Most of National's cabinet wanted to go further right than they thought they could go, in 2008, to gain the treasury benches.

It was clear from the tapes prior to the 2008 election that many soon-to-be-ministers realised they had to 'swallow dead rats' to get in. Obviously, you only see something as a 'dead rat' if you wish you didn't have to swallow it.

It will be National's second term. With each term, the chances of re-election reduce. Those ministers will want to do more than swallow dead rats all the time they're in government.

Ergo, Key, and many of his ministers, will want ACT in government - so that they can do more than swallow dead rats.

The 'trick' between now and November will be Key retaining the centre. I think he thinks he can.

Key will argue that the horses shouldn't be scared by Brash because he (Key) will be in charge = as you have claimed he will be. The centre like John Key. That argument will reassure them (especially since most of them assume that a Key-led government is a fait accompli). Brash won't scare them away.

At least, i think the above is what the strategists on the right believe/hope. Reality, however, is bigger than all of us.

by Cushla McKinney on May 01, 2011
Cushla McKinney

The other effect the return of the DonKey may be the mobilisation of the Left vote.  While many may have been willing to abstain this election because there is nobody to vote for, the risk that this will result in a hard-right coalition may see some people deciding to back the least worst option.  How much of this goes Labour's way, and how much to the Greens/Hone is going to be interesting to see.

by Paul Williams on May 01, 2011
Paul Williams

Just on the notion of a saviour, I think what a leader can achieve is in fact dependent on the standing of the party itself. Brash is being asked to revive a severally damaged brand, not just because of Hide's poor performance, but also because free markets - or at least largely deregulated ones - have performed poorly. I agree with the view expressed here and elsewhere that ACT core constituency is probably pretty small and that it performs best when National is not. I don't see Brash lifting ACT to new and lofty electoral hights, I see him only as avoiding their complete demise.

by Chris Webster on May 01, 2011
Chris Webster

'... TINA' ...

For Hone - arch-villan Maggie Thatcher's cry from the rooftops in Britain is his only strategy ...

Should Annette Sykes sign on she will be the balancer in the Mana Party -

''How much of this goes Labour's way, and how much to the Greens/Hone is going to be interesting to see ...'

Goff has got to stop referring to this nonsensical identifier - 'maoridom'-  WTF is it?  no one talks about pakeha-dom  and neither should they - Goff is exciting as weeds and he failing in the streets to motivate people - let alone get people to vote for his tiresome and out-dated attitudes -

methinks though there will be little interest from the Greens to have a combo no 11 (with nanczos and sue back in parliament) and under a new brand and with a different mandate .. awkward to say the least  ...

hone obviously does not think the greens will or can do what he wants to achieve -- otherwise why not join with them as a member and stand as a green candidate and negotiate for co-leader?

he is already an independent and will not be eligible for any dosh from the electoral purse (unlike act  - brash) -

the greens will have the dosh for its campaign  --

Hone's democratic right for a by-election and an expensive one at that can be cancelled --it would be a sensible and  diplomact retreat - with his Mana intact.

 

by Tim Watkin on May 02, 2011
Tim Watkin

Draco, I think you're over-simplifying National. It hasn't always been the party of Richardson and the like; at its most successful it has been the party of Holyoake and Muldoon. Which is to say that while many would like to go somewhat further right than NZ lets them, it's not all and it's not as far right as you suggest.

National did move to the centre under Key, committing to KiwiSaver and the Cullen Fund (however diminished), interest-free student loans, accepting strategic ownership of the likes of Air NZ, keeping and regularly increasing the minimum wage, even re-centralising the science agencies.

The partial state asset sales, labour reform and the welfare changes to come paint them further right, but that's hardly the whole picture.

They will deny things this year. But you're right, it's what the won't deny that'll be interesting.

by Tim Watkin on May 02, 2011
Tim Watkin

Kevin, many on the right will be hoping for just the scenario you paint: National bleeding enough support to ACT so that they're dependent and can't be propped up from the centre. As you say, they expect Key to hold the centre while they bolster the flank.

But I'm not sure it's Key's preferred option, or the option of those who want National to win a third term. A purely N-ACT government would almost certainly be a short one. And as Bruce says, this certainly means a greater level of attack on Key than he's had to suffer before.

You say Key will argue the horses won't be frightened – but he's already described Brash as "extremist". Interesting to see who in the National party has the power these days – those more to the centre, or those further right.

 

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