Gordon Campbell on Act, the centre-right’s perennial ugly duckling

National has just endorsed Act leader David Seymour in Epsom, it being that time on the electoral calendar for the ceremonial anointing to take place once again. Act endures, despite its thoroughly fossilized views: it is the only lighthouse still shining the beams of 1980s market fundamentalism out into the electoral darkness.

As the prime beneficiary of privilege, Act resolutely ignores the role that privilege plays in the economy, and in society – which, touchingly, Act still tends to treat as the aggregated outcome of a whole lot of individual rational choices. Despite the party’s ideological wackiness, it is still possible to feel some sympathy for Seymour.

The man does work very hard. He’s the sole MP, party leader, chief doorknocker and main fundraiser for Act, while also being the go-to guy for the media on almost any subject under the sun. Yet regardless… none of that effort and visibility seems to shift the polls one iota.

There’s got to be a reason for why despite all the exposure, Act’s support still flatlines in the polls month in, year out. Try as Seymour might, Act continues to be the one per cent party for the one per cent. In that respect, Seymour reminds me a little of one of those Lambton Quay street evangelists; you swerve around them and don’t take their pamphlets, but you do have to admire their persistence.

Very occasionally, the policy persistence bears fruit. Charter schools may be a shameless taxpayer rort that can’t be justified by their educational outcomes here, or anywhere else in the world. Yet during this past week, Labour has capitulated to endorsing them – mainly to keep Kelvin Davis and Willie Jackson on board – provided there is some cosmetic change to the name, and so long as the new cosmetic name (special character schools) is different from the old cosmetic name (partnership schools) that National has already given them. Heroically, only Act continues to call them what they are: charter schools.

Just as typically, Act put out a press release yesterday about the Epsom deal that tried to tap into the revulsion that its potential supporters are presumed to feel for Winston Peters. Supposedly, only if voters double down and treble down on Act can the arch-fiend be kept out of a centre-right government. As in:

Only ACT can keep the ongoing national disaster that is Winston Peters out of power….

Alas for Act, that’s not what the absentee owners of the Act franchise – aka the National Party – are saying. Yesterday, PM Bill English was instructing Epsom voters to cast their electorate vote for Seymour but to give their party vote to National, even as National pragmatically kept the door open for Peters. As English put it:

To be clear, we want to increase our party votes in those electorates [Epsom and Ohariu] and that’s what our National Party candidates will be working hard to do.” But [English]said National will negotiate with New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters if it needs to, saying that remained a possibility. “It’s up to the voters, they will decide essentially who we need to work with, or any party needs to work with.”

That’s Act’s problem. It wants to build its party vote nationwide to get more MPs and thus reduce the necessity for having New Zealand First in the coalition formation frame. Unfortunately for Act, the country has been there, done that back in 2008 – only to see a caucus of five Act MPs quickly fall apart in a welter of personal rivalries and ideological bickering. I guess that’s the inevitable outcome you get from electing a band of ultra-individualists.

The public has evidently learned its lesson from the Rodney Hide/Heather Roy/John Boscawen era. At no point since have more than a handful of centre-right voters treated the Act Party as being the lesser of two evils, compared to New Zealand First. To most New Zealanders, having Act as a one man band is exactly the size that’s fit for purpose. You could even say that a party devoted to individualism that’s being represented by one individual looks like the perfect marriage of form and content.

The horror, the horror…

Like the Kraken, the Great Metiria Benefit Scandal has woken from its 25 year slumber and is spreading panic and outrage across the nation. As I argued in this column yesterday, the main point of her personal revelation was to highlight (a) the inadequacy of the current benefit levels and (b) the counter-efficient nature of a punitive response by WINZ to minor infringements of its rules on benefit entitlement. None of which seems to have got much traction, with the media anyway. To the outraged, it doesn’t seem to matter that Turei wasn’t advocating people breaking the rules. She was advising against over-reacting if and when a few poor people bend the rules, to make ends meet.

Call me irresponsible, but it is a bit galling that some people feel OK about chastising Turei even while they hold their hands out for tax cuts that will benefit them more, proportionately, than the people that Turei is trying to defend. It seems New Zealanders must be more morally pure than I’d suspected. Plainly no-one, but no-one in living memory has ever done work and taken payment under the table without paying tax on it. Because that’s the working poor version of what Turei did long ago, and it’s comforting to know that no-one has ever worked in the black economy, which evidently doesn’t exist. Oh, and its also great to know that no business in this country has ever arranged its finances to ensure that its taxable earnings top out just below the point at which the highest tax rate kicks in. Because that’s the corporate version of the heinous sin that Turei committed. Good to know that sort of thing also never happens, right?

Apparently, Turei is now to be investigated about what she did back in the early 1990s. Of course, rules are rules. That’s the same mentality that used to condone hanging people for stealing a loaf of bread.

The 1980s, real and imagined

Since Act gives every ideological indication of pining for the days of shoulder pads and perms, back when the market was king… here’s a July 2017 reworking of the synth pop of yore. This new single by Patience (aka Roxanne Clifford) sounds like a distillation of every 1980s synth pop element and intonation circa Yazoo, that you can imagine. After a dozen times through, this perfect pastiche of electro-cuteness transcends its origins.

But you can’t beat the original stuff. From Canada, here’s my favourite Kon Kan single, which channels Lynn Anderson’s ‘Rose Garden’ country hit back when it was still possible to do sampling on this mega-scale. “ I Beg Your Pardon” was released at the end of the 1980s, just before grunge blew that period of winsome electropop right off the map.