The ACT Party has found new relevance, reaching seven percent in a recent poll. But most of the explanations offered up for why the party’s actions have led to electoral success don’t add up, Liam Hehir writes

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where a bear wanders into a residential area, creating a panic. Demanding something be done, despite the rarity of the occurrence, the city government institutes an expensive ‘Bear Patrol’ service. Satisfied with the outcome, Homer notes the new service is working. 

Trying to point out the flaws in this reasoning, Lisa suggests to her father that a rock she’s holding keeps tigers away. When Homer asks for an explanation, she points out that even though “it doesn’t work – it’s just a stupid rock”, there are no tigers around. Homer then offers to buy the rock, and a dejected Lisa reluctantly takes his money. 

So it seems to be with the fortunes of the ACT Party. After a decade in the doldrums, the party has found itself relevant once more. In the last Colmar Brunton survey for 1 News, the party polled seven percent – the third-best result of any party. 

Various explanations have been proffered. Many of them involve some action or stand the party has taken, of which the party’s new intended voters have approved. Few of these have held up. 

For example, in the wake of the mass murder in Christchurch last year, ACT was the lone holdout against new gun laws. Those who appreciated that stand, therefore, have been quick to ascribe it as having some significance for its rise in the polls. But this makes little sense when you consider that the big changes to the law happened in April last year, with ACT’s opposition not really registering at that time. 

The likeliest explanation is the simplest

In a similar vein, it has been argued that party leader David Seymour’s close association with the assisted suicide law we are about to vote on has boosted his profile. But Seymour has been the face of assisted suicide for years now. The issue has been more to the fore of public discourse in the past, and we did not see any serious bump in support for ACT then.

Have ACT become more populist? Maybe. But forays into that playing field have been tried and failed before. Remember the New Zealand values test for immigrants? Reducing the size of Parliament to 99 MPs? 

Maybe it’s just about having a leader who says what he means and means what he says. This might make some sense if Todd Muller was still leading National instead of Judith Collins. And ACT hardly prospered when National was under the more circumspect leadership of John Key and Bill English anyway. 

It may be that the party has improved its campaigning. Back in 2014 there was a strong focus on things like boozy student union debates and other events which were fun but not necessarily rich in vote potential. If a new, more disciplined approach is being taken now, that would be all to the good, but would it explain the difference between 13,075 party votes in the last election and more than ten times that this year? 

It seems doubtful. The likeliest explanation seems to be the simplest one. In elections where National has a chance of winning, ACT does very poorly. When they are perceived to have no chance, ACT does (comparatively) well. It’s not a hard pattern to spot.

It’s a bit like choosing your last meal before facing a firing squad: why worry about the cholesterol? 

So it would seem fairly safe to assume the vast majority of people now saying they will vote for Seymour’s party will do so as “situational” ACT voters, rather than converts to the tribe. The perception that National will lose even with Collins as leader means 2020 provides something of a free pass to harder-edged National voters. It’s a consequence-free choice for them this year. 

It’s a bit like choosing your last meal before facing a firing squad: why worry about the cholesterol? 

Now, in theory, it shouldn’t matter too much under MMP what the exact make-up of the alternative governing blocs are. National on forty-five percent and ACT on three should be no different to National in thirty-eight and ACT on ten. That, however, is just not how things work in the real world. 

When National starts to get its groove back, the first people on the bandwagon will be those newly minted ACT voters. People like the idea of backing a winner and a very popular centre-right party is just going to suck away votes from one with more niche appeal. So in practice ACT will find it very hard to sustain this level of support in any election year where the centre-right look likely to win. 

We all like to think of ourselves as having the ability to exert some control over events. When good things happen, we like to attribute it to something we’ve done rather than forces and trends acting on us. And, at the margins, we can make a difference. 

But only at the margins. 

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

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