FDP success was no accident

David Seymour MP
Insights Newsletter
9 March, 2018

In last week’s Insights, Oliver Hartwich argued that ACT can learn little from Germany’s FDP. As ACT’s Leader, I am grateful for the right to reply.

Oliver’s main point was that the FDP’s turnaround from 2013-2017 was driven entirely by external factors. And so, the argument goes, New Zealanders might follow the Germans in an exodus to third parties in 2020 but it won’t be caused by me studying the FDP.

In any case, let’s first look at the New Zealand scene. I believe the political environment is improving for ACT, for two reasons.

First, the end of the Key/English era helps ACT. I doubt that Simon Bridges can replicate the exceptional popularity of John Key. Second, our populist left-wing Government threatens the economic policy fundamentals ACT defends. This can only mean that ACT’s role becomes more important.

Now to Oliver’s points. I agree with him that the FDP is not a free-market party by New Zealand standards. Germany’s policy settings are about where the Greens wants us to be, and their FDP is somewhere between Labour and National. So why study them?

The relevant part of the FDP revival is the internal story. The party was broken after a tough time as a minor party in Government. It had lost its identity. Potential voters did not know what it stood for. Worse still, those who thought they knew did not like it very much.

I regret to admit that is roughly where ACT is now.

What the FDP showed is how a party can reorganise itself to succeed. They accepted that what they had done had failed. Then they started again from scratch.

The German Free Democrats sincerely asked why Germany needed them. Rather than trying to deceive the public into voting for something they did not want, the FDP set out to find its role in Germany’s future.

Ultimately, the FDP produced what ACT needs: A new purpose and identity that can be summarised on one page. It fit under the heading Mehr Chancen durch mehr Freiheit: “more chances through more freedom”.

They stuck consistently to the formula. And the Germans liked it and voted for them.

ACT is now undertaking the same process. We must shed the barnacles that have stuck to the ship over two decades. We must define a new streamlined identity and purpose for the party, then stick to it.

That’s what the FDP taught me this summer. In 2020 I plan to go back to Berlin and thank them for inspiring our success. 

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