ACT’s party vote dropped to a record low of 0.5% this election, and leader David Seymour will again be ACT’s sole representative in parliament. So is there still a place for a right-wing, classically liberal party in New Zealand? Somewhat unsurprisingly, Seymour argues there is.
The Spinoff asked me to write a sober reflection on the election. ACT didn’t do very well, and that’s putting it charitably, so where to next? Well, let’s address both. ACT polled poorly on September 23 for two basic reasons. The first is external, that no small party can control, and the second is internal, that ACT could have controlled.
Before the election there were five small parties with 30 seats. In the new parliament, there will be three small parties with 18 seats. Every small party found itself squeezed out of the airwaves by a media-manufactured two-horse race. The narrative became that of a US presidential election, where only two personalities mattered: Bill and Jacinda.
This was reflected in media exposure. Take morning radio. Between them, the three morning shows (Mike Hosking Breakfast, The AM Show, and Morning Report) had me on once in the final five weeks of the campaign. It would be a miracle if ACT had grown its parliamentary representation against this headwind. In fact, we can truly, if not usefully, say we were the only small party that didn’t lose seats.
But there aren’t many successful people who got that way by blaming, excusing, and denying, so what about the things we can control? That we carried a brand tarnished by various shenanigans from 2009-14 certainly didn’t help. Perhaps we should have rebranded, as the party seriously considered after the last election. Perhaps we still should. As a first term MP I found myself competing with leaders who had up to forty years’ experience and I made some mistakes. I’d decided ACT could appeal to millennials concerned about housing, superannuation, and tax, but it’s difficult and perhaps unwise to court a new audience so quickly.
Based on market research, we ultimately narrowed our campaign toward issues of housing, education, youth crime, and government waste. But there simply wasn’t enough of a match between the existing brand, our new and old audiences, and our selected campaign issues to lock in votes.
Moreover, ACT didn’t react quickly enough to the fact that, regardless of the policy issues we considered important for the country’s future, the only question that mattered for likely ACT voters was ‘how to stop Jacinda?’ and they reasoned (incorrectly) that voting for a larger party was the only way to do that.
I hope that in three years I’ll lead ACT in a different strategic environment that is kinder to smaller parties, with twice as much experience. No small party has ever grown while in government, but the cross benches where ACT will be are a growth area for small parties.
Immediate circumstances aside, is there a role for a liberal party in New Zealand politics? I think there is. Liberalism is a proud tradition of challenge and change that stretches back hundreds of years. We are the opposite of conservatives, whose great drawback is that, by definition, they cannot offer any alternative to the status quo. When the prevailing dogmas that said your role in life depended on your religion, your race, your class, your gender or your sexuality, it was liberals who fought for equality under the rule of law.
New Zealand’s always been a liberal place. The Treaty of Waitangi was an extraordinary document for its time, giving all people in a young colony ‘the same rights and duties as citizens of England’ and the right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property. Kate Sheppard’s groundbreaking efforts are part of this tradition, which has continued throughout our history.
The original welfare state of the first Labour government was not about buying votes and subsidising lifestyles, but ensured everyone had access to an education, health insurance, and income insurance. It was only later that politicians worked out that the welfare state could be used to target money at people who didn’t need it but would vote for it all the same.
The fourth Labour government broke down the dogmas of command and control where every economic activity, right down to the purchase of foreign magazines, was tightly regulated. That government, ACT’s ancestor, is still maligned both by the old left who should know better and a new generation who never lived under Muldoon, but sober history will judge it well.
At the heart of liberalism is the idea that every person should have the opportunity to flourish in self chosen ways. The role of government is to protect that opportunity, without squashing it. Every dollar a government spends is one that can’t be spent by the person who earned it. That makes working, saving, and investing less attractive. Every regulation that protects one interest rules out myriad other opportunities for human flourishing. Just about every liberal cause from free trade to marriage equality comes back to reducing the reach of politics into our lives.
All of the above roughly paraphrases of my maiden speech to parliament three years ago. Nothing that I’ve said, or that ACT’s campaigned on, since has wandered far from it.
Today we face dogmas ripe for liberals to challenge. They include our over-regulated housing market, our infertile education sector, and our out of control regulations and entitlements.
On housing, Eric Crampton did a great job explaining the problem on The Spinoff last year. The short version is that it’s not the foreigners, the tax system, or the speculators. The problem, which undercuts all those concerns, is that we now build half as many homes per capita as we did in the ’70s.
We know the constraints are artificial because real constraints have weakened since the ‘70s. They barely had nail guns, whereas we have vastly superior technology for building homes and infrastructure today. But our land use regulations, infrastructure deficits, and building consent laws block developers from building affordable homes at a quality they desire in locations that are useful.
As a liberal, the solution is to break down the dogmas. Free up land, widen the legally allowable means of funding infrastructure, and simplify quality assurance on new builds.
Where do the other parties stand? National: Nothing to see here. Labour: the government will build homes (on what land, with what infrastructure?). The Greens: even more of the rule-and-regulate thinking that delivered this mess. New Zealand First: Foreigners are bad (even when working in the construction industry). And all of them tout taxpayer money so their favoured group can further bid up prices on the same inadequate housing stock. It’s madness.
We don’t have a shortage of anything provided on an open market but housing, the most regulated of all markets in New Zealand, is our biggest source of trouble.
Another area hopelessly monopolized by government is education. We pump in $13b each year, and yet the results are hopeless.
Ninety thousand young adults who benefited from this generous scheme are NEETS (not in employment, education, or training). The most vociferous opponents of changing this (if you’re a liberal, you’ll have guessed it) are the incumbent providers, the people responsible for poor service to the consumer. It’s another dogma in need of breakdown.
One solution is ACT’s Partnership Schools. Beneath the union smear campaigns that Partnership Schools are underfunded/overfunded, are failures/have unfair advantages, have unskilled teachers/are poaching the best teachers, and many other self-contradictory attacks, the schools are working. Kids totally disengaged in the state system are going to university via Partnership Schools. Talented educators are given the space to create new opportunities for disengaged kids. Critics who visit these schools have their opposition shaken to its core of vested interests masquerading as moral principle.
Then there’s the welfare state. Once, it was about solving a real market failure with social insurance. The idea was that anyone about to be born without knowing their fortune would buy ‘insurance’ that paid out against misfortune, giving them an education, healthcare, and a level of income if their luck was bad. But the unborn can’t buy insurance so it’s provided on advance credit, repaid through taxes.
That scheme has been perverted by eight decades of politics. It now means one in five New Zealand children is born to parents dependent on a benefit. It means that the young will be taxed hard for superannuation they themselves are unlikely to receive. It means that the comfortable will receive virtually free tertiary education and yet earn a premium of millions over their lifetime. It means that families on six figure incomes receive working for families payments. Altogether, it penalises the behavior that made our society wealthy and rewards dependency and social ruin. If you’re not in line for any of this largesse, you may still find half of your next pay rise taken as income tax, company tax, GST and excise taxes. The politicians who enable it happily clip the ticket as they go.
It’s another dogma. Even if you truly agree with the current level of entitlements, you might want someone in parliament who questions the endless procession of promises to expand them that pass for election campaigns in the current political environment.
ACT is needed to challenge these dogmas. We’re here to say we needn’t choose between free markets and equality, that they go together. Disadvantage in New Zealand is not caused by free markets, we all get the same level of service from Pak ‘n Save. It’s caused by government strangulation of markets for the things people really need: a home, an education, and an income we can spend without it being requisitioned to fund advance auctions in stolen goods (AKA elections).
Those are the dogmas for liberals to break down in 2020. It’s always harder being a liberal, but success is a lot more rewarding. To have your say on how we’ll reach this success, there’s a party you can join right now.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.