Finally waking up from both his long political slumbers and his taxpaid weight-watcher's programme, in his first speech for the year ahead (which is helpfully titled "The Year Ahead" so it won't be confused with other years about which he might be talking) Rodney Hide appears to have been taking policy lessons from John Key.
In a speech that shows every sign of setting the direction for the ACT party's last year in parliament, Hide claims ACT "has the opportunity to change the country's direction," and the goal "to get into a position where our vote is needed to form a government."
I'll let the voters themselves decide whether the latter is likely, but I was interested to see him declare that "to get [ACT] MPs elected we need to drive decent policy -- and to announce and campaign on policy that will make a difference to how the country is run."
Naturally curious what these policies might be, especially since ACT's website shows precious little sign of either announcing or campaigning on any such things -- and having a fair idea of what such policies might look like -- I scoured the speech like a schoolboy through a box of chocolate assortments to find those tempting policy treats from ACT that, as promised, "will make a difference to how the country is run." I came up short. For a start, this promised box of goodies has only three treats within -- those covering "the key areas we have been working on," says Hide, which are "Health, Education and the Economy" -- and while each one is wrapped in a tasty coating of criticism of the current state of play in each "key" area, there's little of substance to show why Rodney Hide's party is the answer should he ever get into a position where his vote is needed to form a government.
To put it bluntly, despite the narrow focus -- and despite "working on" these keys to "making a difference" for some time -- there's precious few goodies here to show for it. After removing the wrapper on Health, for example, we find just this small soft centre:
What Health desperately needs [says Hide] is greater transparency and accountability. Patients need to know what they're entitled to and what they can expect. Taxpayers need to know what their tax dollars are buying and that they're getting value for money. That alone would be a good first step in a sector where political success is still determined by money spent rather than results achieved.
Sounds like marshmallow to me, I'm afraid, and that's all the policy you're going to hear on one of the three "key" policies on which he's been working. Just those two buzzwords of "transparency" and "accountability." Buzzwords abound too in the second "key" area, Education. On removing the wrapper on this shy treat we find an even softer centre than before:
ACT [says Hide] is working on exciting policy in education that will improve vastly the opportunities for young New Zealanders and their families. We can make a big difference in education. And by making a big difference in Education, we can make a big difference to our country's future success.
This is clearly a policy that's big, exciting and different all at the same time (please pause for a moment to recover your breath from cheering), but one looks in vain to find out how, or why it's any one of these. Once again our hunger is unfulfilled, but in the meantime at least there's there's plenty of cliches in the places where real delights should be.
Maybe all the time spent "working on key areas" has been spent on the chocolate labelled 'Economy'? On that there's much more of a hard centre, and what's said is allright ... as far as it goes ... but as policies these sure do put the "micro" into economics.
Hide talks hopefully about his Regulatory Responsibility Bill putting "a bonfire under mindless red-tape" and about ACT's Taxpayers Rights Bill "capping taxes to what they are now" Fond hopes, I suspect. And he talks fondly, once again, about his strangely obnoxious concept of "High Performance Government" -- an idea both frightening and oxymoronic at the same time.
He talks too, like all opposition politicians do at this time in the election cycle, of the "need to cut red tape" and to "cut taxes to boost the incentive to work and to invest." True enough, but when even Hard Labour are using that line, the reawaked Rodney Hide starts to look somewhat like a time-worn Rip van Winkle who's awoken to find that the world has moved on around him, and he hasn't yet caught up. Time for radicalism, man, not soporific soft-soap and the resounding echo of me-tooisms.
At at a time when there IS no parliamentary opposition, this is a time for real radicalism, not cliches, buzzwords and promises to announce something later that other parties are already promising to promise.
If this speech was a bid to announce Hide's intention to campaign on detailed policies that will make a genuine difference to "how the country is run," then it might have been better in my view to have fronted up with some.
To give the same policy advice I'd give to National's policy directors, if you're truly genuine about policies that change the country's direction then you'd better start campaigning with some policies. And you wouldn't be worrying about those policies being stolen, because if they are and you're genuine about changing the country's direction, then you'd know that you'd just done that. You'd cheer every time they're stolen, and then you'd go even further out on your road to making your final goal nearer.
That's what you'd do if you were really genuine, in this year and in every year.
It's worth repeating this for the record: if National aren't the answer, then on this sort of evidence neither is ACT.