A short history of the ‘primitive combat' that is practiced internally by the ACT Caucus.

For all of his years spent perfecting the art of attack, Rodney Hide has clearly learned little about defending himself in a media firestorm. Stonewalling reporters about the reason for Heather Roy's dismissal was a terrible idea, especially given that several very disgruntled people had access to a dossier of embarrassing allegations about her treatment.

The document is a curious one. Supposedly endorsed at the time by Roy but written by an advisor, we're asked to believe that these "draft" notes were cue-cards intended only for her eyes. Yet the narrative reads as though it was written for broader consumption, even helpfully spelling out for outsiders the names and full titles of parliamentary staff and other players in this complex narrative.

Among the glimpses offered by the notes is the vision of Hide arriving at the office "all pumped up" from the gym to yell at staff members, and the startling suggestion that he might have undermined his deputy leader by sharing lurid rumours with the National Party about drug-taking. (Who took the drugs, and what the drugs were, is left to our imagination.)

Hide now actually wants to tell people why Roy got fired. (It's because she or an advisor wrote "BS" in the margin of a Defence Force briefing note? Really?) But for most of the public, the only clear points from this mess seem to be that the ACT leader is apparently a bully and the party is in a mess.

I was struck by the comment in Roy's notes that ACT "sees team leadership as primitive combat, with a need to destroy a colleague's reputation".

When I worked for the ACT parliamentary caucus as a press secretary from 2001-2003, the party had nine MPs. At any one time, a majority of them genuinely and quite fervently believed that they should be leader. This special dynamic helped prevent any one person from challenging then-Leader Richard Prebble or Deputy Leader Ken Shirley.

But it didn't stop behind-the-scenes battles. At one point, a newspaper ran speculation about ACT's pending list ranking. It was obvious from the number of unattributed quotes that most of the MPs or their supporters had made off-the-record comments backstabbing the others.

The parliamentary wing of ACT was an impressive attack machine - at the time, the only effective Opposition party - but it did not provide a nurturing, cuddly environment for its politicians. Most political parties are the same. It's partly why so many good people have such negative experiences when they make a career change into parliament. And I suspect small political parties tend to be rougher still than larger parties, because there's less structure, the list placing becomes more important, and there are fewer ways to shine than other than besting your own colleagues.

Although most of us think of it simply as 'far right', ACT has always included a bunch of different ideologies: classical liberals, libertarians, hard and soft conservatives, and those whose ideology was hard to pinpoint. Under Prebble, ACT attracted disaffected conservative voters by tub-thumping on law and order.  This kept the party in parliament but upset ideologically purist party founder Sir Roger Douglas.

Within parliament, though, the most damaging caucus fights did not seem to be about ideology or even strategy, but ambition. The real warfare happened via the media. Embarrassing notes were leaked, damaging rumours were spread about MPs' private lives, and negative stories were printed. It is no secret that some of Hide's colleagues believed that he was behind the bad publicity.

Whether this is fair or not, only Hide and a few other people know. But even by ACT standards, Hide was not a team player. He seemed to waste little of his considerable charm on his caucus colleagues. He was an excellent attack politician who knew how to create and maintain pressure quite mercilessly on his targets - yet he could be thin-skinned himself. I found that he could be both forceful and demanding, but also generous and thoughtful.

Around parliament, he attracted an extremely devoted, colourful clique of followers who assisted him with research, his attack strategies, and more. Hide's then-executive secretary, the most formidable personal assistant I've ever met, made a point of cautioning me within my first week that she knew that I'd been involved with socialists at university. His self-appointed "security advisor" later informed me, in all seriousness, that he had "checked me out" and that, other than a few minor issues, I was OK to be around the MP.

Hide continues to inspire fierce loyalty from interesting people - these days from right-wing bloggers who have been quick to declare that Roy needs to harden up and quit (I think in that order).

Commentators are understandably shy of writing off ACT because all previous predictions of its demise have proven unfounded. But the challenges ahead are obvious. Setting aside even the question of leverage with National in Epsom, it's clear that ACT's (already dangerously slight) grassroots support, party organization and donor generosity are all likely to take a hit.

From her own notes, it seems clear that Roy made some major mistakes in dealing with her leader. For one thing, she underestimated him: she believed until the caucus meeting that she would remain a Minister and only be dumped as Deputy Leader. Her attempts to change the party's strategy were certainly ham-fisted, but she paid a high price for that.

When I worked for him, Rodney Hide was a masterful attack politician who was driven by the ambition of becoming party leader. He got exactly what he wanted.

While he underwent an astounding physical makeover, I'm not sure he ever really transformed into becoming a team player. The question now is what price he'll end up paying for not creating a more cohesive working environment.

Comments (3)

by George Darroch on August 20, 2010
George Darroch

Fascinating, thanks for that glimpse.

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