The lazy explanation is that the party simply profited from a series of National Party disasters. The truth is more complex and more interesting, writes David Seymour in the latest in a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Politics in a Pandemic.
After sinking to the worst result in its history in 2017 – 0.5% of the party vote – Act achieved its best ever result in 2020. Act’s share of the party vote – 7.6% – delivered 10 times as many MPs as in 2017, and was also fractionally better than its previous high-water mark of 7.1% in 2002.
Perhaps most significantly, the support was widespread. Act broke the 5% threshold in every territorial local authority except Wellington and Hutt City. Exit polling showed support nearly constant across age, location type, employment and income, with strong support from European, Chinese and Māori voters but less support from Pacific and Indian voters. Act’s support dos not look like the profile of a “niche party: with a particular support base so much as the foundation of a big tent. Act’s 2020 result promises a second Act after the halcyon period of 1996–2005 and the long winter of 2005–2020.1
How did it happen? The lazy narrative is that an extraordinary series of disasters within the rival National Party has temporarily helped Act. National’s woes were certainly a factor. However, Act’s result occurred against the tide of a massive swing to incumbency as voters credited the government for New Zealand’s performance through Covid-19. Furthermore, exit polls show only a bare majority of Act’s new support coming from former National voters. The real story is far more interesting. It involves an array of talented people coming together, mostly voluntarily, to execute a sound strategy like clockwork. That was only possible because of a sustained build up over three years.
Core to Act’s overall strategy was holding the Auckland seat of Epsom. Holding a seat meant that we could claim, accurately, that every party vote for Act would count regardless of whether Act’s total party votes reached 5%. The strategy in Epsom was, as in previous elections, to appeal to voters that a candidate vote for Act would add more MPs to the right and that the candidate would be a good local MP.
The most important work was done over the preceding three years on the second premise. Helping even five constituents a day means that 10% of voters have had direct contact with the candidate or his office since the last election. Our research showed that even among voters who did not favour the first message, the candidate was widely respected as a good local MP. Furthermore, a combination of three factors – the tide going out on National, the remoteness of a single seat making a major difference to the election result, and Act exceeding the 5% threshold in polls for months before the election – all reduced the effectiveness of the first message. This sentiment showed up in 23% of Labour Party votes and 10% of Green Party votes being split with Act candidate votes.
Polling as early as June 2020 showed the Act candidate 31 points ahead of the nearest rival. Even so, the Epsom campaign was still vigorous. We used direct mail, geotargeted online videos, and held 47 hugely popular street corner meetings, with some attended by more than 100 people. This fitted our theme of hearing the voter, with each meeting starting with brief comments and an invitation for comments and questions. Beyond actual attendees, we received a lot of positive feedback on the concept, for going out to meet and hear from residents.
In the previous edition of this series, Stardust and Substance, I told the story of why Act failed in 2017. A quick review of it is a useful background for the path from 0.5% to 7.6%. In 2017, the campaign pursued too many voters, who were often mutually antagonistic, with policy prescriptions that were too complex, and without a clearly recognised brand of its own to fall back on. That year’s campaign also failed to gain sufficient coverage for voters to be aware of, let alone understand it, and it relied far too much on old technology in the form of direct mail. In early 2018 I knew we needed to do things differently. I travelled to Berlin where I was hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a charity affiliated to the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP), with a mission of promoting democracy in Germany and around the world. The FDP had faced similar difficulties, having exited the Bundestag in 2013, the first time since their post-war formation. They rebounded to win 10.7% of the vote in an election held on 24 September, the day after New Zealand’s 2017 ballot. More than anything else, I learned from them that recovery was possible. I also learned that it required innovation and that it required having a positive programme. Over the past three years Act has adopted both of these lessons, in some cases borrowing directly from the FDP.
We gave the party a clear programme: Act, for Freedom. We copied the FDP’s approach to party conferences, as a performance in an auditorium. A rapid-fire series of speeches, over in two hours, replaced a two-day ordeal tolerable only for the hardiest political enthusiasts. Like us, the FDP’s yellow-and-blue colour scheme had become fatigued. We followed their introduction of magenta, giving a scheme of three colours that make a combination, spaced equidistantly around a colour spectrum wheel. I recognised that, despite being sporadically in the political news for three years, few people outside of the Epsom electorate knew me. Appearing on Dancing with the Stars changed that beyond anything I could have imagined. Although fewer than 10% of New Zealanders watched the show on any given Sunday or Monday night, nearly everyone was conscious of it at some level.
With the marketing, purpose and name recognition all set, the rest of the parliamentary term was left to what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan described as “events”. The government’s responses to the March 2019 Christchurch terror attacks and the Covid-19 epidemic would give Act an opportunity to reach more voters than had heard the party’s message in a decade.
The terrible tragedy in Christchurch required, and still requires, a sound policy response to its underlying causes. The failings were a broken firearms licensing system and a failure of focus on the part of security and intelligence services. The government’s responses were not only ineffective but divisive, opening them up to criticisms that many New Zealanders felt were needed. Inexplicably, the government responded to an attack on democracy by throwing away its normal lawmaking process and rushing through ultimately ineffective laws that marginalised – almost blamed – licensed firearms owners. For Act, it was natural to draw on long-held principles of property rights, due process and a primary focus on public policy and oppose rushed firearms laws in the wake of March 15. This opposition had obvious appeal to licensed firearms owners, but we also started to detect in focus groups a perception that Act would do hard things and stand on principle. A second policy where the government promised, but in this case did not deliver, involved restricting speech. The irony of responding to an attack on our free society this way was not lost on a wider range of voters than those affected by the firearms laws. Once again, it was natural for Act to stand for basic personal liberties, even if it meant standing alone in New Zealand politics.
These stances increased Act’s attention, but polling by November 2019 was still not much more than 1%. However, there were more events to come. November also featured saturation coverage of Act’s long march to pass End of Life Choice legislation, an effort ending with success. This achievement, which would be ratified after a referendum campaign concurrent with the 2020 general election, complemented Act’s position as a party that could take on hard issues. Whatever New Zealand First’s motivations were for insisting the bill be ratified by referendum, it helped that the election was accompanied by an issue that I and our deputy leader were closely associated with. The law also positioned me as one of the few politicians in the 2017–2020 term who had made a positive change. Even government ministers were wracked by failures in KiwiBuild, light rail, and measles vaccination, among other examples.
However, none of these events moved the dial as much as the government’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic. The closure of parliament and the establishment of an Epidemic Response Select Committee meant that I went from being one of 57 opposition MPs to one of six. Furthermore, the committee’s meetings were livestreamed across the country to people who were at home, in lockdown, effectively under house arrest.
These circumstances allowed me to execute Act’s mantra of “offering constructive criticism where necessary, helpful suggestions where possible, and asking questions that needed answers”. The positive feedback from these sessions was overwhelming, and Act’s polling began to rise steadily towards the election. We were fortunate that Act has always been a party of great faith in its mission. We stood 57 candidates, many of whom signed up for the party’s School of Practical Politics programme in June 2019, long before our polling began to rise. The party’s membership managed to rival National and Labour in the laborious job of erecting hoardings, even in sparsely populated parts of the country.
Among the broken play of Covid-19 began a campaign that would start mid-year, only to stop for a three-week lockdown in August, have the election date delayed, and finally end in mid-October. Act’s strategy was to represent voters from a range of sectors which had been affected by the government’s regulatory largesse. These not only included licensed firearms owners and people concerned about free speech, but farmers, landlords, employers and small business owners. It especially included those affected by Covid-19, such as tourist operators and small business owners not favoured by the government’s seemingly arbitrary restrictions. It also pointed to the enormous amounts of debt that the government promised to take on in battling Covid. During the Covid period, Treasury forecast that interest on public debt would exceed expenditure on education in years to come, and there was considerable concern that the government was simply using the cushion of cheap debt to cover inadequacies in its performance at managing the pandemic.
Act’s message was that while the impact of Covid seemed impossibly hard, it was possible to rebuild from it a country we could be truly proud of, by electing a genuinely independent team to hold them all accountable. It built on Act’s track record of standing up for people and finding a better way forward in difficult times. Discipline on message was a key feature of the campaign: rebuilding after Covid, managing debt and improving mental health services, as well as Act’s pledge that the party’s MPs would sit on the cross benches and hold them all accountable.
Tactically, Act had far greater options than previously. The final campaign budget was roughly twice what had been spent in 2017, but there was also a major boost in volunteers in general and skilled volunteers in particular. Act had been building momentum over several years, and more and more people wanted to come to the party. Among many other volunteers and paid staff, we had a supporter who was a professional videographer to capture the campaign as it happened; a market researcher giving invaluable research advice; a volunteer who worked on databases professionally, volunteering his skills full time; another, prior to beginning university, who constructed alternative budgets better than National’s, working with only a spreadsheet.
Direct mail, apart from Epsom, was out. Digital campaigning was in. Public and street corner meetings, as part of a nationwide bus tour, were in. So was building a wider team. When we put the faces of eight candidates on the side of our bus, we thought it was daring. The election night result far exceeded our early expectations.
Our research involved extensive focus groups – many done by Zoom in a Covid world – and two major polls tested voter sentiment and issues. Being able to do research throughout the campaign meant that we were able to refine our message to connect our policy offerings with voters’ issue agendas. We knew we were making progress when a female focus-group participant said: “National only cares about money, Act cares about people.” This was a major reversal of prior expectations.
Public meetings followed the same format as street corner meetings but were larger in attendance and longer in duration. The bus travelled literally from Cape Reinga in the far north to Tiwai Point on the South Island’s southern coast, stopping for over 140 public meetings. The largest of these meetings was attended by over 300 people; altogether we engaged literally thousands of people. When over 100 people turned up to a public meeting in Te Anau, in Fiordland, by the South Island’s largest lake, we knew the momentum was with us.
Our digital campaign involved extensive online and social media advertising, on platforms from Snapchat to Google Ads. Expenditure on these rivalled our 2017 campaign’s entire spending. They allowed us to reach voters regardless of the mainstream media’s issue agenda and appeared to drive much of Act’s polling increase. Our digital team was excellent; volunteers often created shareable relevant content better and faster than more polished agency-produced content.
Earned media was much more forthcoming. As Act’s polling increased so did our coverage, although we certainly faced long weeks with little or no television coverage early in the campaign. For a long time New Zealand First appeared far more frequently on television, not because they were doing anything reportable but because journalists were following them in anticipation of a decision by the Serious Fraud Office about alleged donation irregularities. However, we also changed our tactics in recognition of how to get coverage. I jumped out of a plane over the Mackenzie Country, by the Southern Alps, and both networks had cameras waiting when I landed. One commentator breathlessly told a morning talk show that he “just couldn’t stop watching because he wondered what I was going to do next” (I drove the campaign bus around a racetrack). In my previous chapter in this book series, I lamented the lack of coverage; this time, we figured, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Act’s campaign (and its rise from one to 10 seats) would have been the political story of 2020 had it not been for two other exceptional achievements: Labour gained the first outright majority in the MMP era and the Greens survived a term as a confidence and supply partner to increase their share of the vote. The context does not change Act’s achievement, though. More than anything, it shows that a long commitment to executing a strategy, and a little luck along the way, can achieve results in politics.
This is an edited extract from Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)
Read the party leaders’ reflections on the 2017 election, from Stardust and Substance, here