John Armstrong's opinion: ACT 'seriously out of sync with New Zealand's political culture'

David Seymour's long-awaited "relaunch" of ACT turned out to be much ado about not very much at all.

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Leader David Seymour says New Zealanders should not be punished for voicing unpopular opinions. Source: 1 NEWS

To be blunt, it was a non-event.

Seymour takes strong exception to those who have dismissed his party’s exercise in renewal in such derogatory fashion.

He can gripe and grumble for as long and as loudly as he wishes at those pundits who have been less than impressed with what was unveiled at ACT’s annual conference last weekend.

However, it is going to take a lot more than yet another redesign of the party’s logo to breathe fresh life into an outfit which captured less than 1 per cent of the overall party vote at the last general election and which on current opinion poll ratings has yet to give any cause for optimism that it will do better at next year’s contest.

If any good emerged from the relaunch, it was confirmation that the party won’t be changing its name.

To have opted for a new moniker — New Zealand’s "Liberal Party" for example — would have been a major mistake.

With little more than 15 months or so to go until the next election, there would have been insufficient time for the party to establish sufficient name recognition with voters — especially with a host of other new and right-leaning minor parties entering the fray and competing for attention.  

Furthermore, re-registering that party under a new name would have risked accusations that ACT was running from its past. It would have been a distraction rather than a solution.

Despite being slaughtered at the ballot box time and time again, ACT party still expects everyone else to adapt to its vision of how the world ought to be. - John Armstrong

Retaining the "ACT" label was not the best of two options. It was merely the least worst.

If the party is ever going to shift out of intensive care and into the recovery ward, it needs to undertake a top-to-bottom review of its driving ideology.

The party is seriously out of sync with New Zealand’s political culture. Despite being slaughtered at the ballot box time and time again, ACT party still expects everyone else to adapt to its vision of how the world ought to be.

ACT is completely out of touch. Look no further than the party’s unrelenting advocacy of a flat tax. If there is one thing which really worries New Zealanders, it is the growing gap between the rich and the poor. ACT’s answer is for the rich to pay even less tax than they do now. Little wonder the party cannot seem to connect with the electorate.

One could be excused thinking that all of this would have been addressed in the relaunch: That a rethink about the party’s direction would have resulted in a revamp of ACT. What Seymour has ended up with is merely a "renewal" of the party’s existing direction. 

The upshot is that comparing ACT before and after the relaunch is somewhat akin to a game of spot the difference. Except without any difference.

So meet the new ACT. Just like the old ACT.  Well not quite. Seymour deserves some credit for drawing together the party’s policies under a common theme of promoting freedom.

This only succeeds in bringing to mind deck chairs and Titanics, however.

The brute reality of ACT’s predicament is that the party has long been propping up the bar at the Last Chance Saloon. Time is about to be called, however.

The party’s parliamentary survival is contingent on National’s continued willingness to countenance an electoral accommodation which gifts the Epsom seat to ACT.

The survival of the party outside Parliament is down to the generosity of a few wealthy benefactors.

This hand-to-mouth existence cannot go on forever.

Unless Seymour can bring two or three colleagues into Parliament on his coat-tails at the 2020 election, then life-support surely must be pulled.

That diagnosis leaves Seymour with two options. He can sit back and carry on with the status quo — a path that leads inevitably to political death without dignity.

Or he can go for broke between now and Election Day.

Seymour is going for broke. The relaunch might not have changed ACT. Its significance lies in it marking a change in tactics.

Having failed to transform his party, Seymour is transforming himself.

He is seeking to tap into the mountain of moral conservatism in the New Zealand electorate.

He is sounding more and more the populist, if still a highly unlikely one. He is no Winston Peters — and never will be of that calibre.

But he is becoming adept at dog-whistle politics — the term used to describe how politicians use coded language which means one thing to the general population but which strikes a chord and which resonates with a particular sub-group of that population.

Take Seymour’s flagging of his intention to derail Labour’s fast-tracking of an assessment of whether a law specifically banning "hate speech" ought be added to the statute books. 

It would be naive not to recognise that there is an ulterior motive operating here.        

Seymour would never admit, but the stance he is taking is designed to gain him kudos with those of an anti-Islamist bent and who bristle at the prospect of New Zealand laws being written — in their misguided view — by and for an alien minority.

Seymour can be accused of racism. But it is hard to make such a charge stick. ACT’s leader can respond by saying he is only doing what ACT has always done, namely fighting against attempts to curb free speech.

Likewise take Seymour’s call for the abolition of the Human Rights Commission as a further example of how he is trying to connect with  less enlightened voters.

In this instance, Seymour’s attention-seeking is less dog-whistle and more dog-bark.

He is targeting those voters who fume at what they regard as political correctness.

Few if any other state agencies reek of political correctness to the degree to which the Human Rights Commission does.

There might yet be even richer pickings on the political correctness front. 

The Labour Party was taught a very big lesson at the 2008 election about the dangers of a government getting too far ahead of conservative-minded voters.

At times, the current administration seems to have forgotten that lesson.

There is an antidote to Labour’s predilection for things politically correct. It is called New Zealand First. As Labour’s coalition partner, Winston Peters’ outfit is well-placed to veto initiatives which might be cause for later discomfort.

While New Zealand First’s being inside the Government acts as a constraint, that has left a gap on the centre-right of the political spectrum. That gap is made larger by virtue of the National Party simultaneously going through a major repositioning exercise following the end of the John Key-Bill English era.

With large swathes of policy still subject to internal debate, Simon Bridges inevitably sounds wishy-washy by reason of him not being able to be definitive as regards what National would do in response to whatever issues might become items requiring resolution.

That vacuum won’t last for long. But circumstances for now have combined to give ACT some albeit small advantage in an ever more crowded marketplace on the centre-right.

Seymour is not going to waste that advantage.

His language is becoming tougher — even intemperate. He is happy to pick a fight with anyone.

That was apparent in his description — or more accurately — his denigrating of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman as "a real menace to freedom".

It is apparent in his claim that there is an "intolerant new left" lurking in the background of the Government which wants to censor New Zealanders’ thoughts and speech.

It was most apparent in his going into bat for the gun lobby in opposing the rushing through Parliament of the legislation banning possession of military-style semi-automatic firearms.

It ain’t pretty. But it seems to be working, at least in terms of raising Seymour’s profile if nothing else.

It is risky stuff, however.  

His frolicking so blatantly in the red-neck territory long inhabited by New Zealand First is anathema to well-off liberals in metropolitan seats —seats where ACT has registered its highest level of support.

However, merely preaching to the converted is not going to lift the party’s backing to the roughly 1.3 per cent of the party vote which would entitle ACT to a second MP.

Seymour has no choice. He has to to take risks. His tactics may not yet translate into votes. But getting voters tuning into what ACT has to say — rather than tuning out — would be a start.