On Thursday, I flew down to Christchurch to attend the Orientation Week for Canterbury University.
My goal was to promote ACT on Campus. Currently, ACT has no presence there. Surrounded by the thriving and active youth wings of National, Labour and the Greens, I thought I was in for a hard day.
I was wrong.
A constant stream of young, intelligent, passionate and mostly female students approached the ACT on Campus stall.
They wanted to be engaged with politics.
They liked what we had to say.
The shared our values of less government intervention, personal responsibility, and freedom.
There is a clear market for ACT on Canterbury University. How is it that we have no presence there?
ACT is seen as a party of old, white, business men.
We need to overcome this if we want to be successful.
One of the challenges facing ACT is in trying to show that we have a vital and active role in New Zealand politics and not just for old, white, businessmen.
My postgraduate degree was in understanding the psychology of political groups. The goal of my research last year was to find out why some political groups thrive when they offer nothing to their supporters and why ACT continually struggles despite sharing the values of so many New Zealanders.
What my research showed was that we should be working harder to provide a public presence and doing more to build stronger relationships within the party.
Empirical research shows that the tribe that plays together stays together.
In rituals, this includes coming up with innovative ways to signal to others in your group that you’re a committed member. For example, wearing particular clothes and colours, or performing certain behaviours. Appearance identifies you as a member of the group. Groups that can easily identify who their members are, have a tendency to survive longer.
One reason for this is because in a competitive environment, like being exposed to rival political groups, it helps to know who you can trust to support the team. You can be reasonably certain that the individuals flaunting their commitment can be relied on to have the group’s best interests at heart. Because of its small size in a sparsely populated country, this kind of signalling is immediately more difficult for ACT than other parties.
The focus of my research was on the television show Backbenches as an example of a political event that has ritualistic elements which helps to keep political groups functioning, particularly because of its competitive nature.
If you’ve seen an intense show for Backbenches the first thing you notice is the noise. There’s cheering, there’s clapping, there’s throwing insults and politicians you don’t like. You drown at the people you don’t like and you drown out the people you do.
If we take anything from the kind of behaviours we see at Back Benches, it’s that it’s not all about what you say. What is more important is providing visible support to emphasise the relevance of your group. It’s a good way to foster cohesion within the group because it helps to identify who your supporters are. It also helps to create the perception that a party is successful and has a relevant role in New Zealand politics.
This easy when you’re a large party because larger parties tend to have more supporters and find it easier to have a dominant place in the audience. Unfortunately for ACT, it’s difficult to build a sense of solidarity when our members are dispersed all over the country.
However, NZ First is a small party, but also a successful one. No one knows what their policies are. Winston Peter’s doesn’t know what his policies are. How did they get eight MPs in the last election?
Few people vote based solely on policy. They don’t have the time to do all the research.
No one votes for NZ First. They vote for Winston. NZ First is a personality cult – with a personality cult.
United Future is also a personality cult – but without a personality. Without their personality, these parties will disappear.
We do have good policies. But we need a stronger public image. We also want to be known for our values and policies, not just a leader. As a party, you develop a strong public image by each member showing their commitment.
It’s easy to show your commitment in a large party because you have the luxury of safety in numbers. Because of ACT’s size, we have to rely more on individuals.
Using Backbenches as an example, we know that it’s vital to have a clear presence in the audience. When you’re in a competitive environment it’s hard to get your point across.
We want to be seen as calm, cool and collected when we engage with people. We want people to know what we’re talking about. But it’s hard to be heard, especially when you’re a small party.
That’s why it’s important to also be seen.
We have to rely more on individual efforts. The people who put the most effort in often have the strongest attachment to the group and the greatest commitment to the ideologies of the party.
The fact that there are individuals in this party who do everything they can to make sure New Zealand knows we exist is probably one of the things that keep us alive. It also keeps us together.
So thank you to the people who act as a yellow beacon in a sea of people who want to drown us.
We have one great advantage: Our philosophy is moving in the right direction.
My trip to Christchurch told me that there is a market for ACT. We need to show those students at Canterbury University, and the rest of New Zealand, that we are a party worthy of their support.
If we want to be successful as a group then everyone needs to stand out as people proud to be a supporter of the ACT party and supportive of the people who do their best to fight for our ideologies.
If you want your values of smaller government, personal responsibility and the freedom to achieve to survive, then it’s your responsibility to come up with innovative ways show your commitment to ACT.
Speech by Amy Richardson to ACT 2013 Annual Conference, Saturday, February 23.