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Debate within democratic parties and Don Brash

  • April 26th, 2011

Don Brash's challenge for the leadership of ACT would have been ludicrous a couple of decades ago. It would have been unthinkable that a non-member could challenge for the leadership of  a Parliamentary party. Yet today it is credible. Why?

I think it shows MMP parties evolving to fill a policy debate vacuum.

Western democratic parties were once crucibles of citizen participation in policy development. Today in New Zealand party members are largely  impotent. It is not surprising that party membership is little prized.  Party conferences are rigidly stage-managed. Policy remits are anodyne, if they are permitted at all, confined to topics with little long term party branding effect.

The credence of the Brash challenge is tacit recognition of inter-party competition as the replacement for the competition of ideas we formerly gained from debate among party factions. We no longer expect open policy debate within parties. It may be MMP or it may be the reflection of an impoverished media.

Whatever the reason open debate over ideas must now be across the safe insulation of party boundaries. 

Without any formalised internal party  'faction' system neither National nor Labour have a hygenic mechanism for  internal dissent over policy. I posted earlier this month on this  problem for Phil Goff''s Labour.

Parties can not risk allowing humble members to impose policy discipline on their  MPs. Political journalism is now pre-occupied with the mechanics of leadership, not ideas. Permitting obvious internal debate is interpreted as a failure of political management.  It is reported only as division, disunity, and loss of authority to govern.

Twenty years ago we had Sir Douglas Graham and John Banks comfortably within one party,  defining the spectrum of opinion on  criminal justice policy, for example. Today all must pretend to unanimity, lest the media fish school up to feed on "weakness" and "disunity".

Yet we know we need policy challenge. Hence the widespread anxiety among National rank and file members for ACT to do well, even many who do not like particular ACT MPs.  

Under MMP government coalition dynamics, a long term ruling National leadership will need  other parties to own and 'force them into" necessary policies that will scare the middle voters. John Key can even be strengthened, if  to those middle voters he alone can moderate the extremes  without himself being extreme or  exclusionary. He may seem to be all that can protect them from the Maori Party , or ACT or Winston, or the Greens, without driving those parties into wilderness extremism.

The commentators show clear consciousness of the appeal to National activists of an ACT without the confounding Hide factor.

Tracey Watkins is leading the pack. John Armstrong is surprisingly unequivocal in urging Rodney to go,  Whale oil is, as usual, penetrating. Lindsay Mitchell fairly rebuts the age slur on Don Brash.  Blair at  Clint Heine  and friends is left to express the old  fogey view:  

 " I remain of the firm belief that the best, and probably only way to fully implement good laissez faire government in New Zealand remains through the National Party….you are never going to get an ACT (or Brash Party) Government, and it is always going to be through National that laissez faire policies will be implemented. It then becomes a question of how you get National to do it. Do you work within National and take them along with you? Or do you pummel them from the outside and hope to bully them into doing it? "

Kiwiblog is from the same school. His posts show the responsibility that might be expected from a house organ of National .

To the traditional tribal party member a challenge for leadership from outside a party will still seem bizarre, even from a person who embodies the party's values.

I'm reminded of a formative early legal engagement. In the mid 1980s I advised Richard Carter (who recently died as Sir Richard) on his extraordinary hostile takeover of AHI, to form what became Carter Holt Harvey Ltd. It was the boldest takeover in Australasia in its time. Against most of his professional advice, and to near universal puzzlement if not derision from the financial media, Richard insisted on launching (on market initially) a keenly priced bid for a company in which the majority of shares were held by a major Australian conglomerate which had publicly stated that its holding in AHI was not for sale.

Richard's victory, after months of siege, was due to his disregard of the received wisdom, and his view that the internal compelling logic would prevail in the end.

Presumably Don Brash hears similar music. He is genuine when he says he regards Rodney as a friend. But he presumably sees little alternative, and the downside from trying is trivial compared with the stakes.

The ACT Constitution shows the odds, nevertheless.

" 12.1 The Party shall have a Leader and a Deputy Leader appointed by the Board. When the Party is represented in Parliament by at least three Members of Parliament, a majority of the members of the Party’s Parliamentary caucus may make such recommendations to the Board from time to time as they see fit concerning the exercise by the Board of its powers of appointment, removal or replacement of the Leader or Deputy Leader, and the Board shall act on such recommendation accordingly unless at the meeting of the Board at which such recommendation is being considered at least eight (8) of those persons attending and voting otherwise resolve.

Don needs a caucus majority , or a hung caucus and a board simple majority, or 8 members of the board.

A long shot. Whatever the outcome of the ACT challenge, the respectful attention it is receiving suggests more long term stability for minor party participation in government. Constellations of parties may compete for the same activists in semi-respectful symbiosis.  In effect "broad church" parties  will become the parties of the middle, and the most vigourous democratic debate will be external, between aligned parties


  • Blair
  • April 26th, 2011
  • 9:44 am

Should clarify that the post on Clint's blog was written by me, not Clint.


Have you been selected as a National Party Candidate for this election Stephen?

  • Stuart Mathieson
  • April 27th, 2011
  • 5:55 pm

Dear Stephen,
it was good to see your remarks on the possibly hasty charging of Mr. Macwan after the Lake Dunstan tragedy.
My current interest is your obsession with lassez-faire eonomics. You don't have to be a sociology or philosophy graduate (although it helps) to see that the so-called "level playing field" mantra that Roger touted in the 1980s would be short lived. As wealth shifts to one end of the political spectrum at the expense of the other – political participation at the local level diminishes and the whole democratic process becomes increasingly compromised. The results are plain for all to see. Loss of national identity, increased crime and substance abuse, domestic violence and violence in general. Egalitarianism of some degree has to be managed. It wont happen spontaneously.
I can't understand why a goodlooking intelligent Jewish boy like you would be enfatuated with such a stupid doctrine!


thanks Stephen for this early response, I will come back later with an assault.
All Brash is doing is what ACT have done since it was incepted, direct and control from top down.
Members, ACT members what do we care, who are these little people let them eat cake


I posted before that one of the reasons ACT had major fall off in membership over the last decade was its tendency to
ignore its members and direct from the top.
This policy saw the change away from an idealistic party representing individual responsibility and power, and choice.
When Prebble left the party he organised a truly democratic transfer, and I was proud of him.
Rodney won that transfer of leadership, but somehow we just became an unpopular populist party, and members like me drifted away.
It is a sad fact that Brash, and Douglas and even Hide himself draw utter derision and sometimes visceral hatred from many New Zealanders.
I could give many examples of how ACT over the years has utterly ignored its membership,
and now more than ever.
It is all very well for Brash to read about Napoleon, and then attack without reference,
and ignore the people, but the writing is on the wall already and the fury that was unleashed against Brash in 2005 will reappear.
And What does it mean to be on the Board of ACT, nothing.
What does it mean to be a paid up member of ACT.
It means nothing.
Why should I rejoin ACT when my vote means nothing.
God knows we need a saviour, but I would rather he had come as a paid up member.
I know Most of these New Zealanders are isolated here, and have no idea how far we have slipped down the scale. and that we need reality so maybe they will see a better side of the crusty old Brash firing off blanks in a better light, a more macho Brash, a more Muldoon like Brash.
But I doubt it
ACT hasn’t changed ; It is still a party for the privileged.
And the TV has not started on him yet, who will stand beside the man and tell him what to say and how to smile, and how to look good when his actions have been bad.

  • Gordana Vukomanovic "Yugo Sport & Art Assoc" NZ
  • May 2nd, 2011
  • 10:23 am

Mr Stephen Franks
Dear Stephan from Gordana
   As with the Resurrection, the fundamental issue is Sovereignty. Who rules? is the question: the God of love & justice, of ever-new life; or the whole human complicity with death? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37).
      Fact is that our understanding of Democracy is coming to be much more complicated if we concentrate our focal point on the realistic postulates. Let us turn the page of history and confirm geographical distanced communism as relevant for the nowadays recalling of Democracy. Bolshevik Russia glorifies just one BIG teacher Vladimir Ilic Lenjin  as well as Communist Yugoslavia is confirming only one BIG leader Josip Broz Tito. But the theory of politics and social science historically acquire democratic character by identifying many opponents and even trivialized sub-theories. One is Stalinism – recalling Russian dictator who won Second World War as well as Balkan’s régime of “WAR crimes” known as Milosevicisam. The prohibition of religion by time and place means that perception of several different a political rather than social understanding is to determine democratic approach of communist era.
   The common ground, understanding by philosopher Karl Marks and Fredrik Engels relays to European science on the end of era of feudalism and with begin of era of capitalism. Industrial revolution and proletariat had been lead by middle class but never by richest or poorest.       
   The message of Easter is that this covenant with death – this complicity with death, dying, deadness, the pseudo-gods that rule so many lives – is broken, disannulled once & for all. ‘Your covenant with death will be annulled. Your agreement with Sheol will not stand’ (28:18). In its place, the freedom to live, to explore life in all its dimensions as gift of God: the new covenant of life that is bestowed on us, in-with-through Jesus.
  What to take as granted ground with recognizing  Democracy in New Zealand today ? Existing Religion ? Way on which we identify our leaders first by agricultural or second  with racial and fascistic  colored theories ? What is the democratic choice  in realty? Are we  making democratic  choice because of leader's ages as one is older and one is younger ? Is it  democratic choice if we are capable to identify ourselves with male’s psychological expression of sexuality by accessing male’s seat in Parliament ??????
 Psalm 30:11-12, …….  For on that first Easter morning it was clear that something wonderful, awesome, glorious had happened. It was all to do with life, with new and abundant life. We struggle to express it, yes. But just consider the implications of failing to grasp it: of slipping back into the old ways ……………..

  • LesGeo
  • June 7th, 2011
  • 7:36 pm  is a site many readers on here may well appreciate.

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