My year as an ACT supporter
Picking through the rubble of its worst election result, Louis Houlbrooke ponders ACT's existential challenge beyond the circumstances of 2017.
To begin with a disclaimer: I worked for the full parliamentary term as press secretary in the office of David Seymour. I'm no longer working with ACT, so I now write as a long-time supporter of the party and 'true believer' in its ideas of individual freedom and personal responsibility.
Election night's result vindicated the polls and delivered ACT a miserable 0.5 per cent. Our vote wasn't just insufficient to elect a second MP; it actually reduced since 2014.
That's sort of astounding. This year's campaign was stronger by bounds, built on three successful years. We'd had nothing like John Banks' tea tape or donations scandals – no scandals at all, in fact. No headlines about shotguns behind shop counters (!) or incest (?!).
And after four leadership changes in short succession we now had stable, recognisable leadership. People actually like David Seymour and he's got established populist and policy credentials (letting bars open for the Rugby World Cup, a bill drawn on euthanasia, expanding partnership schools).
Crucially, for someone of my generation, ACT shrugged off the grumpy, reactionary vibe that came with the David Garrett and Don Brash types, and offered a younger list of candidates and a more optimistic presentation of classical liberalism. In short, it's never been less embarrassing to call myself an ACT supporter. And yet ACT produced its worst result yet.
Perhaps we can explain this through the year's main policy issues.
The cost of housing deservedly dominated debate in 2017. It's the country's biggest source of poverty and inequality. ACT's view was and is very simple: regulations on land use have, over the course of decades, created a painful shortage, and so we must slash red tape and build on the scale we achieved in the '70s.
But housing policy was a crowded field. Every party sought to seize the debate, presenting bribes and casting blame wide. ACT's ideas were lost in the noise of Kiwibuilding, tax-fiddling, and foreigner-bashing, with the average voter probably more confused about housing issues now than ever.
ACT's biggest headline policy was to pay teachers more – but only at schools that opted out of the national union contract. It was a fun policy that reframed the debate on teacher pay and upset all the right people. ACT stands to benefit from this line in future.
ACT has always supported tax cuts, but we sadly discovered that voters are relaxed about the current level of taxation, despite years of bracket creep swelling their tax bill. And regardless of a shoddy record, National was already campaigning on tax cuts. By the campaign's final weeks we pivoted away from the issue.
We also proposed cutting wasteful spending. We should have campaigned earlier and harder on this issue. Why is the government funding The X Factor NZ or academic papers on Chinese musicology? These questions enrage Kiwis struggling to balance household budgets.
The greatest policy tragedy in 2017 was the impact of our aging population. National's announcement to raise the superannuation age in 20 years' time undermined the possibility of action occurring sooner, before boomers retire and massive costs set in.
The election of Labour-New Zealand First presumably means even National's feeble proposal is scrapped. But it's a moot point when National was never going to be held accountable for such a distant promise in the first place.
Ultimately, superannuation couldn't offer ACT traction in 2017. The steadily rising cost is a generational concern that just doesn't engage voters facing a three-year election cycle.
To be both 'tough' and 'smart' on crime is perhaps to just appear confused.
On crime, ACT campaigned with a set of policies that, frankly, would have been difficult for any party to explain, let alone one with minimal media space. We wanted to penalise parents of young criminals, while also incentivising literacy in prisons. To be both 'tough' and 'smart' on crime is perhaps to just appear confused.
And blaming dairy robberies on tobacco tax hikes managed to simultaneously trigger hang-em-high conservatives and the anti-smoking progressives. I loved ACT's entrance to this debate, but I don't think voters did.
Policy aside, ACT's failure could be better explained by basic multi-party dynamics.
In the face of a re-energised opposition, National successfully led a 'rally in' campaign. They literally issued statements telling voters that the only way to stop Labour was to abandon minor parties and fall in line. It's a complete denial of how MMP works, but it was a powerful and intuitive message for a voter base and media that remains deeply immersed in first-past-the-post narratives.
We pushed the message that because we hold Epsom, no vote for ACT is wasted. But this was lost in the noise and National dominated us. ACT-friendly voters ultimately thought something like, "I like that Seymour, but I just can't risk wasting my vote." We probably didn't even cross their minds in the booth.
However, I think ACT faces a deeper challenge beyond the circumstances of 2017.
ACT is Parliament's true party of principle. It's not that ACT applies its principles with total consistency, but the party's original values of individual freedom and personal responsibility remain its key motivator in Parliament and public debate.
But voters aren't concerned about ideological consistency. More appeal has been found in the big-tent pragmatism of National, the reactionary moves of New Zealand First and Labour, and the intangible emotional values of the Greens.
Perhaps, on an emotional level, the harshness of ACT's fiscal Darwinism and the softness of its social liberalism are simply incompatible to real-life voters.
I'm now stepping away from the party to work in an activist role outside Parliament. But I remain eager to see the party succeed, even if it's under a new name and structure. David Seymour remains the only viable option for ACT's leadership. He is ideologically sound, great on the doorstep, has a super-human work ethic, and, crucially, is open to the hard decisions needed to deliver a better result in 2020.
Louis Houlbrooke was ACT leader David Seymour’s press secretary and is joining the Taxpayers’ Union in 2018.