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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - Column

Why we should have zero tolerance for Act

[This column was submitted to the New Zealand Herald on 8 September 2020, following a Newstalk ZB interview with Richard Prebble discussing ways to 'clean up our politics.' My column wasn't published. Instead, the Herald ran a Richard Prebble column originally titled "Where is the excitement? We're being bored by this election", which has since been retitled.]

[Here is my unpublished column.]

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that if problems aren’t addressed early, they can snowball. I learned that the hard way during the time I worked for the Act Party.

Young Act's Vice President resigns. Twitter.

Recently, it emerged that the Act Party still didn’t have a procedure to address complaints of bullying and sexual harassment. Other political parties and organisations, such as law firms, had problematic cultures so introduced grievance systems. The Act Party could have followed but didn’t.

The Act Party once prided itself at having ‘Zero Tolerance’ to offending and being the ‘Toughest on Crime.’ When I worked for Act, they were anything but.

Act Billboard, June 2002.

In 2002, Act was polling well. Then it hired Graham Watson as its party manager.

Watson had a dubious reputation but Act hired him anyway. A former president of the Auckland University Students’ Association and pro-cannabis NORML activist, he was also a bully.

I was a Parliamentary staffer seconded to the party’s head office in Newmarket to work on a campaign against school zoning legislation. The idea was to target Epsom voters who lived outside the proposed ‘Double Grammar’ zone. It was a relatively straight forward campaign.

Watson, however, was disruptive. He’d turn up around midday high, paranoid, and waste staffers’ time.

During a drive between meetings, Watson made a detour to his ‘place’, which was an overgrown Mount Eden back section littered with previous cars he’d written off.

Walking down the driveway, he explained that he couldn’t get car insurance due to a number of drug-driving convictions. Once inside, he offered me a range of illegal drugs, which I declined. As he puffed away on his crack pipe with his boilersuit-wearing ‘mates’, I could see hydroponics and laboratory equipment set up throughout the house.

The next day, I told Donna Awatere Huata that I wasn’t comfortable working around a recalcitrant stoner. She told Watson to behave himself. In retaliation, Watson sabotaged my work.

I fled and returned to work in Parliament. Instead of empathy, the Act Constituency Manager, John Bishop, told me, “I would have sacked you!”

Caucus, staff, the party president and board members didn’t want to know. Richard Prebble and Graham Watson then confronted me. I was threatened to not complain to Parliamentary Services or the police. The next day, I handed in my resignation.

I was selfish and cowardly to escape a problem rather than to confront it. I have been the victim of bullying before and should have known better. Instead, the culture of bullying, drug abuse and condoning criminal conduct compounded.

Despite many in Act knowing about Donna Awatere Huata’s fraudulent activities as early as 2001, it was covered up throughout the 2002 election campaign. She was expelled from the Act Party in 2003 only when the media found out.

Similarly, in 2010, David Garrett’s criminal history was used in a plot to roll him and eventually Rodney Hide.

On 7 August 2012, Graham Watson got high on methamphetamine. Not wearing a seatbelt and using a mobile phone, he drove a borrowed car under a truck on the Southern Motorway. He was killed instantly. Fortunately, he didn’t injure others.

Police crash scene photo, 7 August 2001.

David Seymour described Watson as an “absolute legend” and “great company.” Fellow NORML activist Metiria Turei described him as “hilarious and bad and incorrigible and terrifying.” An Act stalwart said his “potential was sadly undermined by his few but significant weaknesses.”

A significant weakness in the argument for the decriminalising of cannabis is the potential for the substance to be a gateway to harder drugs. Graham Watson is evidence of that. He should be the poster boy of what’s wrong with cannabis.

Act, however, would prefer we focus on the theory that, by decriminalising cannabis, the health effects could be addressed and crime will drop. As Graham Watson demonstrated, drugs should be a criminal issue, not a health issue.

Don’t expect Act to sort out its act. When Heather Roy laid a complaint alleging serious misconduct by Rodney Hide in 2010, her complaint was leaked, she was smeared, demoted from the deputy leadership and stripped of her ministerial portfolios.

Don't expect Act to keep National honest either. When Rodney Hide was election campaigning in 2008, he wanted examples of council abuses. At the time, I wrote a nationally-circulated column and provided him with examples of - what Act would later describe as - "Little Hitlers." Following his appointment as Local Government Minister, I lodged a complaint about several under-performing councils. Environment Canterbury and the Far North District Council were sacked but the third was overlooked. When pressed, Hide's advisors - Andrew Falloon and Stuart Wilson - said that Rodney "didn't want to rock the boat." Apparently, one of the problematic councillors was a policy chair in the National Party.

Act's Campaign Manager, Stuart Wilson (left) with David Seymour (right)

on the 2020 campaign trail. (Courtesy TVNZ.)

Act now wants David Seymour to be perceived as a 'fresh face' and a clean slate. No he isn’t. He’s been around Act since I can remember. I remember him as being good mates with disgraced former National MP Andrew Falloon when Falloon was Rodney Hide’s creepy staffer. Seymour was then John Banks' Ministerial Advisor while John Banks was being prosecuted.

The same old faces are behind the 'fresh face' of Act. (Courtesy TVNZ.)

Many who condoned the serious misconduct I’ve described are still active in the organisation. Seymour’s distancing from sexual harassment problems within Act’s youth wing is symptomatic of a party which places more importance on public perception rather than addressing the reality of its toxic culture.

But Act expects voters to have short memories. Seymour talks tough on 'gangs' when he and his party acted like one throughout its history. There are no signs that he will be any different as he tries to lure a new generation of voters.

VIDEO: David Seymour talks tough on 'gangs.' (courtesy Stuff)

Act’s campaign slogan once claimed that the party had ‘The Guts To Do What’s Right.’ From my experience, Act is gutless.

Act's campaign slogan, 2008.

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