Opinion: The ACT Party’s “First 100 Days” plan of action should it form a coalition government with National after the next election is breathtaking in its ambition and bold in its sweep. Many of the items are familiar ACT policy themes, while others are issues that National would likely tackle anyway.
The real purpose in setting them out was more to enthuse the true believers, present at the party conference, until the general election next year, than capture widespread public attention. To that extent, ACT’s announcements were about what could be expected at this stage of the electoral cycle.
However, their uncompromising fervour and tone was also a chilling reminder that ACT is likely to be just as obstinate, “bigger than its boots” and unreasonable a coalition partner for National as New Zealand First was in coalition, first with National in 1996-98 and then Labour from 2017 to 2020. While ACT leader David Seymour does not suffer from the extreme narcissism and insufferable arrogance of his New Zealand First counterpart, his uncompromising self-belief that only ACT’s message has merit poses just as big a risk to the functioning of stable government as New Zealand First’s egotistical erraticism did.
Except for the current unusual term, coalitions and support party arrangements are an inherent part of government under MMP. To operate successfully, however, they require a measure of give and take between the parties involved. The major party of government has a reasonable right to expect it will be able to implement the policies it was elected on, while, in return for supporting those, coalition and support partners should also be able to count on support for the issues important to them. An inevitable measure of compromise is involved to achieve this balance.
At the same time, coalition arrangements and support agreements do not work, or survive very long, if the minor party in effect acts as a veto on everything the major party promotes and becomes the tail wagging the dog. The not unreasonable public expectation is that coalition and support parties will exercise influence in rough proportion to their numerical strength within the governing arrangement. New Zealand First too frequently and determinedly held Labour to ransom, under the guise of being the handbrake, on many issues during the last term of Parliament. Voters quickly tired of these tactics, so simply removed it altogether from Parliament at the 2020 election. ACT, with its more euphemistic commitment to “sharing power”, would be wise to learn from this.
Nevertheless, Seymour makes the valid point that National still needs to learn how to work with partners. A standard feature of every governing arrangement since the advent of MMP has been that National and Labour have been very poor at publicly acknowledging the contributions of coalition and support partners. In general, both have always been quick to claim for themselves popular policies advanced by partners, and just as quick to blame partners for unpopular policies, or those that do not work out as intended. To that extent, Seymour’s determination to mark out ACT’s ground early is understandable, but without subsequent compromise and mature recognition of relative party size, he risks leaving his party no more credible than New Zealand First.
One area of ACT’s plan that does resonate and has the potential of wider cross-party appeal is its call for an inquiry “into all aspects of the Covid-19 response – from the lockdowns to the Reserve Bank’s response – and the impact it had on New Zealand’s society and economy”. Already, National has responded with a promise to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Covid-19 response, within 100 days of taking office.
In the early days of the pandemic, the government also talked of a full inquiry at the appropriate time, but as the months and years have marched by, it has become more resistant to such a move. While there were many good things about our Covid-19 response that should be acknowledged, there were also things that were not done so well. An inquiry should ensure the country learns from these recent experiences and is better prepared next time a crisis of this magnitude emerges.
An inquiry needs to look at preparedness, and why the Ministry of Health’s Influenza Pandemic Action Plan of August 2017 was ignored. The official response so far that the plan focused on an influenza pandemic, not a coronavirus pandemic, is a little too cute. After all, it could have been quickly modified for the new circumstances, rather than starting from scratch as the government did, losing valuable time in the process. Why was that allowed to happen?
And then there is the question why a whole-of-government approach was not taken from the outset, rather than the sole, narrow reliance on public health advisers. Many of the subsequent problems surrounding cumbersome border entry policies, the inequitable MIQ system and the costs to businesses, especially the manufacturing and hospitality sectors, could have been avoided or mitigated through a wider approach. Again, why did it not happen?
ACT’s success over the past two years has been built on its willingness to be the sometimes fearless, sometimes unpopular, and outrageous critic of what is going on. In a world where meek conformity is in danger of becoming the new, post-Covid-19 norm, there is a role for ACT as “resident sceptic” within a future National-led government, holding National firm to its policies and principles. But, as it does so, it will need, for its own sake, to avoid falling prey to personal vanities, and self-delusions about its role, which derailed New Zealand First whenever it was part of government.
No matter how well it does at the next election – and the better National does, the worse ACT will do – the uncomfortable truth ACT needs to remember is that at best it will be a coalition or support partner for an incoming government. It will not be the star of the show.