Friday, 13 October 2017

Dear Stephen Franks: It was not ACT’s principles that killed the party, it was its people [updated]

Dear Stephen

You write at your blog about the ACT Party’s future, if it has one, about which your headline makes the promise to explain why no libertarian party rules (or thrives) anywhere.

Your headline is incorrect, and in relation to the ACT Party, irrelevant. But it seems to me that answering you helps explain what it is about ACT's approach that hasn't worked.

I will always respect you as being the only person in Parliament who argued against the Architects Institute maintaining their legal monopoly over a word. But as you yourself made clear on many occasions then and since, you yourself were not a libertarian, and neither, it’s clear were many other ACT MPs.

It’s not even clear that that party itself is libertarian — as David Seymour reminded me sharply a week before the election, instead it's something called “centre-right,” whatever that ill-defined term might mean.

You say, Stephen, that libertarians are "zealots [who] ignore and deplore what drives normal humans”; and that voters “will never trust a party, and people, who do not understand and reflect our collective impulses.” This, you imply, is to answer the promise of your headline.

Where to begin?

Perhaps, to start at the very beginning, you need to be reminded, Stephen, that the United States of America, one of the greatest nations on this earth, was founded on those very values you say are so ignored and abhorred. Yet, in the estimation of many of us, it was those very values that made America great, and their abandonment that has condemned it to the slow death we have all observed. If America is ever become great again, it will need to rediscover those values, and to embrace them.

Frankly, Mr Franks, it was not the ideas that disgraced the party’s people; it was the people who disgraced the ideas they purported to represent — a succession of both major and minor disgraces with which the honesty and integrity of everyone associated with the party are now tainted.

It was the party’s people who made the party toxic, not the principles they claimed to represent.

The abandonment of those principles began at the party’s very founding, the man who composed those fine words — that individuals are the rightful owners of their own lives and therefore have inherent freedoms and responsibilities; that the proper purpose of government is to protect such freedoms and not to assume such responsibilities — running from the party he helped form when he saw there was very little interest from party bearers in upholding them.

Today those words are nowhere to be found on the party website, replaced instead with heaping helpings of blancmange.

If the party’s own people frequently appear too embarrassed to uphold the principles they claim to follow, why indeed should the voting public take them seriously?

And just look at those who purported to uphold them.

Rodney Hide, allegedly a proponent of small government, dropped whatever principles he may have had when a Ministerial limousine beckoned, and promptly ran amok in Auckland — a city in which he can still no longer even show his face.

John Banks, presented to the party by Don Brash as a gift that just kept not giving, a man who never knew a principle even when he fell over one, was instead taken by the public to represent them, and as he fell so too did the party’s reputation.

It has never recovered.

A small party may may have survived one of these oafs. It could never survive them both. A short story is representative of many: One of the few announcements made by the party in recent years squarely based on its principles, Don Brash’s clarion call to legalise marijuana, was scuttled very public when Banks himself opposed it. The party quickly dropped the policy. It should have dropped the politician. The public, those who had already begun to embrace the policy, saw where things were going and dropped the party.

It was the people that let the principles down, not the principles themselves.

And it was not just the luminaries, and not just in recent years. The behaviour of the party’s minor figures over many years has also seemed to suggest that integrity is the very least of things to expect from this party’s people — or at least have allowed the media to present that notion this way.

Owen Jennings, for example, let his office be used for a madcap Get Rich Quick pyramid scam, after which he disappeared from public life.

Donna Aware-Huata distinguished herself before selection for nothing more than selling Maori stick games to government departments, and once near power for little more than putting her fingers into her charity’s till.

David Garrett: best known not as he might suppose for the three strikes legislation he introduced, but instead for acquiring a passport derived from a viewing of a dead baby’s grave. (“Can't say I blame David Garrett for creating a false identity,” responded one wag. "His real one is hardly something to be proud of.”)

And Deborah Coddington who, in her first year, made such a splash she was awarded accolades for being the most effective debutante in the Parliament, went —after achieving such wide public notice — off to Oxford for a year to pursue a programme of private study while still taking the taxpayer's dime. (And she was not the first ACT Party MP to so openly enjoy the parliamentary perks to which the party is supposed to be opposed, was she.)

These are only some of the minor constellation of party luminaries who have appeared in the public eye and given continual ammunition to the growing view that to be a classical liberal in these times must also to be a cocksmack. A succession of these ghastly people have made the party grate.

Even the founders - Quigley, Prebble and Douglas — are known in the public mind at least as turncoats. The whiff of Muldoonism never left Derek Quigley, nor the memory of how many years he purported to believe things to which his behaviour in government said otherwise. And Prebble and Douglas ... whatever you may think of the policies they carried out as Labour ministers, it’s fair to say that in their first round at least the public was entitled to wonder why they were never properly presented to them at election time. It seemed to suggest that to promote what its opponents call “neoliberalism” is somehow to necessitate duplicity in the policies’ promotion. (That the then-Labour MPs’ policy salesman himself, David Lange, resiled from the selling only seemed to reinforce this impression, particularly since neither Douglas nor Prebble themselves ever seemed to fully acquire this very necessary political skill.)

This miasma of betrayal also sadly infects Ruth Richardson who, in the estimation of many of us, did great things as Finance Minister — but did them without the previous imprimatur of having first presented them to public vote, the public instead feeling they had voted for something else and rebelling when they were offered ‘Ruthenasia’ (the public description) instead. (Her boss, Bolger, being far less gifted at selling the policies, and with even less interest in the principles represented, rarely even bothered to make a case.)

No, Stephen, it’s not the ideas the ACT party claims to hold to which the public appear implacably opposed*. It’s very possible the public don’t even know or understand what the party stands for at all. It was not even clear this election that all the party’s candidates did.

What the voting public do despise however is that the party seems associated not with principles and powerful persuasion but with duplicity and deception.

Is it any wonder the general public now associates the ideas with which the party sometimes dabbles, what their opponents call "neoliberal,” with these self-same toxins? With so powerful a toxicity that it drags down even the good principled people the party did and does still contain. No wonder Jamie and David could never build a real fire under the party.

Even the one principled thing at which the party did once achieve serious traction, its very public perk busting, was disgraced by Douglas and Hide themselves in loudly and proudly embracing the concept of sucking up expensive travel perks for themselves and their whanau for the period of their natural existence. “I’m entitled,” they both whined when found out.

What a disgraceful pair.

No wonder the voting public despises them.

They have, all of these entities, disgraced the ideas with which the voters associate the party. And very clearly, Stephen, it is that way around — there is no need for yet another party to reflect what you allege to be "most people’s need and respect for altruism, nationalism and other expressions of the social and collectivist part of our nature."

What there is a desperate need for however is a party of principle that can sell individualism to the public — sell those principles written for the party’s founding — and sell them untainted by these toxic monstrosities from the past.

It needs a top-to-toe transformation if it is to survive as a real force instead of as a limp and occasionally useful appendage to the Blue Team.

If it is ever to be able to slay dragons, it needs to kill the ghosts first.

* * * * *

* Indeed, the public in their ill-informed wooly way seem to the think the Blue Team which has already won three terms is some kind of soft representative of those free-marketish ideas. Strange, but true.

UPDATE: As part of his excellent post-election analysis, Liberty Scott writes:

ACT lost badly in part due to the Nats successfully scaring voters on the right to voting National, but also because David Seymour moved too far away from having a coherent position on issues.  He was seen as backing National, but whether it was too hard for him to get traction on multiple issues or he lacked ground support to campaign, the only policy that got a lot of publicity was in increasing teacher pay.  ACT once had a coherent less government, lower tax position that promoted more competition in public services, was tough on law and order and rejected identity politics.  Yet Seymour couldn't break through with such a message.  The brand is mixed, he made statements about abortion which would alienate some, but he tried hard.  ACT needs to work out who it is targeting and what message it is giving.   There is a gap on the right, one that will open up large when a certain Maori ex. National MP finally retires.  ACT can't fill much of that gap, but it sure can grab some of it...
And what now?
ACT needs to refocus

For those who think government does too much, who think individuals alone or with others should have more power and responsibility to find solutions to the problems of today, there is little to offer.   The best hope might be for ACT to be in Opposition, regardless.  To campaign more clearly on principles, which should be around private property rights, everyone being equal under the law (including the abolition of Maori-only political representation), opening up education to choice and diversity, tackling the culture of welfare dependency, opposing state subsidies for business, more taxation and more state ownership.  ACT should firmly come down on limiting the scope and powers   of local government, on ridding central government of wasteful politically-correct bureaucracies and taking on identity politics.   Yes it should support other parties when it comes to victimless crimes, but there should not be a unified view on abortion.  It should be tough on real crime, tough on parental responsibility, but also take on measures that governments have done that increase the cost of living.  This includes the constraining of housing supply, and immigration policies that mean new migrants utilise the capital of taxpayer funded infrastructure, without actually paying for it.

What Winston does as his possible swan song is of minor interest, what matters is there being a party that stands up for something different.  For now, only ACT can do that.