I have been somewhat surprised at how amateurish the attempted ACT coup has been. In fact, I’d go further and say it somewhat resembles a cluster fuck. I’ll explain where I think mistakes were made, and what I would have done differently.
But first I should make clear that I am in fact highly supportive of the aims or “ends” of Don Brash. I just don’t think the means have been well chosen.
- I most definitely want a coalition partner for National that is economically more reformist than National, and can attract enough support to survive the tidal ebbs and flows of politics.
- I have been worried for some time that National’s long-term prospects (post Key) could be somewhat bleak as if ACT (and United once Dunne retires) disappears there are no partners for National. Over time I expect the Maori Party will go with Labour more often than it does with National.
- I would like National to be more economically reformist. I doubt I disagree with Don Brash on many significant economic issues. However I do believe you have to take the electorate with you – otherwise you get thrown out and all your reforms get reversed. It is only by getting re-elected for multiple terms can your reforms become too entrenched to reverse
So in principle I’m supportive of what Don is trying to achieve – a more popular and hopefully permanent coalition partner for National, that will lead to more economic reform (which will help close the gap with Australia).
But I think the campaign to try and bludgeon ACT into handing over the leadership to Don has been clumsy, not thought through, and has in fact significantly damaged Don’s brand, and hence the brand of any new party he sets up. My criticisms are:
- Demanding the sole leadership, not even co-leadership, while not even a member of the party. This makes it look like you see the party as purely a vehicle for your ambitions.
- Openly threatening to destroy the party if they do not make you sole leader. This not only pisses off ACT party members, but also damages your standing with voters.
- Negotiating through the media. Never a good strategy.
- Not leaving room for a dignified compromise. By publicly demanding that the leadership be handed over to you, or you will destroy the party you place the board and caucus in a position where if they then agree they get left with no dignity. In politics you should always be thinking about how to make something look like a win-win (even if it isn’t).
- Only commissioned polling data after you launch your public bid for the job. This should have been commissioned weeks ago.
So what would I have done if I was advising Don
- Negotiate privately with ACT to see if there is a suitable role.
- If no agreement can be reached, then start the work on forming your own party. Do not publicly demand ACT hand over the leadership or you will destroy them.
- Announce you are creating a new party.
- When media asked why not join ACT, then reveal you tried to, but no agreement could be reached. Then explain that you are doing a new party because you think at best ACT will only be able to win up to five seats again and that you want to win at least 10 seats, so you’ll have more influence on economic policy.
- If they ask about the ACT leadership, reply that there is no vacancy there. If they ask whether you considered challenging Rodney, reply that you and Rodney have been friends for over 15 years, and you would never challenge him. Also make clear that you will not stand in Epsom.
- Announce you will be standing in Tamaki but your aim is to win 5%. However if Tamaki voters want him as their local MP he would be happy to do so.
- Differentiate the new party from ACT by saying the party will be primarily focused on just two areas – economic reform and choice in education. Say that you hope ACT and your party will both be in Parliament to help drive better policies, but that you believe you can attract the most support based on the doubling of National’s vote in 2005.
By demanding ACT hand the leadership over to him or be destroyed, Don has pissed off the very activists that his new party would want to attract. He’s made it a Rodney v Don issue, rather than an issue of how to get better economic reform.
Don’s tactics in 2011 are very similar to his 2003 coup. Coups are normally done behind closed doors and with no media statements. But the key difference is that in 2003 Don was already in caucus. It is different when you are not even a member of the party you seek to lead.
As I said at the beginning, I support what Don is trying to achieve. And I agree with most of what Don says economically. But I don’t think the way he has gone about it has put him in a good light, and hence actually lessens his chances of being able to achieve his goals.
Unless something dramatically changes, it looks like he will not be leading ACT, and he will presumably set up his new party. This is more complicated than one might think. You need a set of rules. You need an initial board. You need rules on who selects candidates, who elects the board, who elects the leader etc. You need principles and policies. You need offices and staff. You need members and activists – and you need money. The last should not be a problem from the sounds of it.