Can small political parties, or political movements, survive their own members?

There's been talk this week, in the wake of the Act Party meltdown, about the possible formation of a new new-right political party. Could such a party rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes? Is one needed, to keep pulling National to the right?

Of course that wasn't why Act was started. Every right-wing blogger over the age of 30 these days likes to claim they were there at the founding of Act, and perhaps they were in some way. All I can say is that one day, when I was working at BBC World Service with Lindsay Perigo, for Alan Gibbs, we both drove out to Redoubt Road with Rodney Hide to meet with Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley to talk about setting up a ginger group which would push for not just lower taxes but, as its then name indicated (Association of Consumers and Taxpayers), more power to consumers. As opposed to all-power to government.

Well, look at Act now. I'll take the money from consumers to visit my grandchildren in the UK (Douglas). I'll take the money from consumers to take my girlfriend to the UK (Hide). I stuffed up so I'll take two weeks off paid for by consumers (Roy, but at least she came back early). I'm a big hypocrite, and a crook, and I stuffed up big time so I'll resign from Act, but I'll take two weeks leave paid for by consumers while I consider my political career (Garrett).

George Bernard Shaw, where are you when we need you?

So Act deserves to die. Rodney Hide, if he remains leader and if he wins Epsom again, may be back in Parliament with one or two MPs, but they will not be representing the Act Party which grew out of those principles seeded in the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. That Act Party has been destroyed. The Act Party of today has no values, no faith, no morals. It is philosophically bankrupt.

And the MPs who sit in the House today preside over Act's corpse. So don't talk to me about any rebirth from that cadaver.

But what is it about small parties which leads them down the path to self-destruction? Is it just the right? It's not just a lack of philosophical basis, because the same in-fighting and back-stabbing occurred in Ayn Rand's objectivist movement. Read any of the many books written about that group, which grew smaller and smaller because of the continuous exiles to Siberia for the slightest questioning of Rand's strict moral code, and see how any dissent was viewed as high treason. (Except Rand's long-running secret affair.)

Similar outbursts occur here. I fell out with the New Zealand Libertarianz Party over child smacking. Libertarians believe in the non-initiation of force, and I argued that when an assault case involving the physical smacking or hitting of a child comes before the court, then a child is entitled to the same defence as an adult. Children are not "nearly humans", and it is not "self defence" for an adult to hit a child. We once allowed husbands to rape their wives but when that law was changed we did not march through the streets calling on nanny state to keep out of our bedrooms.

But back to Act, and the disintegration of small parties. It's the individualism, I believe, of the members. By nature, a party such as Act is made up of people for whom a cooperative is anathema. They're not used to making decisions by committee, and it takes an unusually good leader, such as Richard Prebble was, to hold them together.

Rodney Hide has not been such a leader. Hide has not led with strength, with example. He is not a leader who inspires trust in one to go out there and do well. Can you imagine him as your editor, as your football captain, as head chef in your kitchen, chief surgeon in theatre? I thought not.

When I went into Act, straight from the arms of North & South, I naively believed it would be like working for the magazine. We'd be healthily competitive, all wanting the cover story, or the Qantas award, but happy for the one who got it because we all benefited from the best writer, and the team was only as good as the weakest link.

Was caucus like that? Oh no, no, no, apart from one or two members. When a man was down, well, you kicked him. Some of the most vile emails I received, as an MP, were from Act supporters. Go on to the right wing blog sites now, if you can be bothered, and search 'Coddington' to see the sort of jealous drivel written about my Herald on Sunday column (and no doubt Pundit now that I'm here). It's incongruous that I get more friendly contact from Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten, bless them, than the right!

Act has destroyed itself, with its leaks from within, its botched leadership coups, Hide's concealing from the party and the public Garrett's sleaziness, and Garrett's complicitness in that. Did the rest of the caucus know? I think we should be told.

Is this what politics must be? A brutal scramble to the top, where you must destroy your colleagues to get there, before they destroy you? Sadly that was why I left, as the words rang in my ears, uttered by Gladstone, who famously said, when showing a new chum around the House of Commons, "Oh no my dear chap, those are the opposition, your enemy are behind you."


Comments (15)

by stuart munro on September 17, 2010
stuart munro

The Act Party of today has no values, no faith, no morals. It is philosophically bankrupt.

Sounds like they're about ripe for a merge with Labour, they have so much in common.

by Metiria on September 18, 2010

Deborah, you went to Oxford for three months while an MP, didnt you?  Did you accept your MP salary during that time?  If so, how does that fit into your criticism of your former collegues.


by AndrewNZ on September 18, 2010

Metiria, while I'm all for exposing hypocrisy, if you've got time to read this and post comments of this nature, perhaps you could write a post which seeks to square the Greens vote for the Canterbury earthquake legislation with some semblance of principle.

by Deborah Coddington on September 18, 2010
Deborah Coddington

Metiria, I went to Cambridge, not Oxford. Qantas, not taxpayers, paid the airfares, accommodation, and all living expenses as part of the journalism award I won. I took the MP salary because I kept up with all my MP duties while I was there which was not difficult because of the time difference between UK and NZ. The only things I couldn't do was be physically in the House, and physically in select committee, but I could still vote (by proxy) and still do the select committee work (by email), and I still did my list constituency work. In fact, few people would have noticed I was gone, because I bent over backwards to up the ante, in terms of my MP output. And what's more, I published (paid for out of my own money) my research work which I undertook there (which I won as part of my journalism prize) and gave away to tax payers - the book "Let Parents Choose", which is about choice in education, a fundamental Act Party principle (or it was). So no, there's no hypocrisy on  my part at all. You were in Parliament at the same time - without looking it up, you tell me when I was away.

by Deborah Coddington on September 18, 2010
Deborah Coddington

Other things I remember doing, were interviews by radio in the middle of my night, and NZ's day, and even on several occasions, going into a television studio to do tv interviews with NZ television on political issues. My weekly 'Liberty Belle' newsletter still was regularly published, and I was weekly in the loop on caucus meetings. I'm surprised at this question coming from you, Metiria. How many o/seas trips have you had in Parliament, because I always refused to go on any other trips offered to me by caucus. I always thought the Speakers' trips were a rort. When I met Colin Carruthers, I did join him in London for a weekend when he was appearing before the Privy Council, but he paid my fare and accommodation.

by Mr Magoo on September 18, 2010
Mr Magoo

I think the ACT party are and have always been a perfect example of the policies they try to push...and now the end result also.

A perfectly fitting end to a perfectly nasty party.

by MikeM on September 19, 2010

But back to Act, and the disintegration of small parties. It's the individualism, I believe, of the members. By nature, a party such as Act is made up of people for whom a cooperative is anathema. They're not used to making decisions by committee, and it takes an unusually good leader, such as Richard Prebble was, to hold them together.

If you mean the individualism of the specific members of the ACT party, then yes. It's full of people who obviously can't work together. It's not as if people in general can't be individuals or libertarians without working well with others or making good compromises or being benevolant. I think one of ACT's problems, which lately it's dealt with badly, is that the 'don't tell me what to do' impression projected by ACT attracts so many fringe elements. A lot of subcultures out there are very angry at the government for one reason or another (SST, secritive religious groups, anti-smacking lobbies, etc.), but that doesn't necessarily mean they're rational or will agree with each other.. For these people ACT's a way into parliament, as long as ACT lets them in.

ACT's problem shouldn't be holding those people together, it should be keeping those people out and distancing itself from them as much as possible so they can't pollute the core policies. Otherwise it really needs to think seriously about its core principles and policies and finding people who'll represent them well, rather than just stapling explosive appendages from outside (like David Garret) onto the side to attract fringe votes in the short term. Rodney Hide's done this horribly, and I think you're dead right about his leadership.

The Green Party attracts fringe elements and anarchists for similar reasons as ACT, but so far (as it seems to me) it's kept a strong leadership at the core that's made sure the principles stayed consistent and that the bulk of the party could understand and support the reasoning. The leadership's kept fringe elements under control, at least until someone shows up with a well enough reasoned policy that can be convincing in the long term for the existing party to understand and adopt. Compare this with Roger Douglas foaming on TV whenever a reporter tries to get him to say something about ACT's law & order policy---he doesn't even want to acknowledge he's associated with it. Possibly never having been allowed inside Cabinet has helped keep the Green party together.

by stuart munro on September 19, 2010
stuart munro

Mike - it's the democracy that makes the Greens work. Folk understand that if you can't get people to agree then you don't get to have your way. Odd that this does not extend to government really.

The odd thing is that in principle ACT should also be strictly democratic. The difficulty is that just to survive, Rodney has chosen to run a pretty dodgy brand of faux populism.

Ultimately, small parties need to remember that they are not entitled to exist per se, but only to the extent that they represent a segment of public opinion.

ACT at present survives on pragmatic grounds because it offers National, and some ACT funders, more influence than is justified by its numbers of members and supporters. It's a political bargain, but not an ornament to parliament in constitutional terms.

by Lindsay on September 19, 2010

Metiria, You of course could never be a hypocrite because  you got your degree and livelihood paid for by the taxpayer and now advocate the same for others courtesy of the DPB. For mine I would prefer an MP who advocates small government and personal responsibility  and lapses  than one who advocates the opposite.

by Mr Magoo on September 20, 2010
Mr Magoo



How about several complete and utter hypocrites who merely pander to fringe voters?

by Blair (for Mayor) Anderson on September 21, 2010
Blair (for Mayor) Anderson

ACT's banging on about 3 strikes and Garrets' attribution for having moved it into a political reality is no testament to any of them. Three strikes along with Mandatory Minimums  is being abandoned where ever it has been used (inc the USA) and not without good reason. It doesn't work.

It takes resources away from what does.

If one was to follow ACT's principals and values the drug war would be over and the community would be correspondingly safer.

Nothing tests ACT (and Nationals) integrity more than the moral failure to fix what is really broken while the window (law commission review on drug policy)  was open.

That the debate has been shut down without unfettered dialog because it was seen as 'soft on crime' will IMHO remain a legacy of ACT's non-performance in the House oif Representatives.

There is nothing conservative, moral or fiscal that can justify the prohibitions unintended deviancy amplifying consequence, its propensity to create crime where there would be none, and be a concerned taxpayer.

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