Monday, May 19, 2008

Breaking news...

Some breaking news for ACT watchers:

Overnight on Monday, ACT has sent out an e-mail promoting a new "pledge card". The text also appears on the homepage of the party website. On clicking the link one is taken to a PDF with a "20 point plan" of what policy measures ACT supports. There we also see a new party logo - ACT's fourth since launching as a political party in 1994. The 2008 version dispenses with the blue-green mix in place since 1996, replacing it with a solid sky-blue colour, while retaining the tick device in the yellow colour which it has been since 2003. The new logo includes the slogan debated at some length at the conference in March - "The Guts To Do What's Right".

The pledge card is classic ACT - lengthy discussion giving reasons why its policies are needed in New Zealand. Not only that, each policy is accompanied with calculations claiming how much growth it would stimulate and by how many dollars each New Zealander would, on average, be better off for it.

In short: it's the 2008 revised and condensed edition of Douglas's 1993 book Unfinished Business.

As an example, the ACT policy for health as set out in the pledge card is the following:
ACT Policy: Create competitive market.
Countries where similar policy works well: Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Germany,
Sweden (Stockholm)
Benefit: Hospitals cure more patients, sooner. (State gives health policies to all. Patients choose hospitals. Doctors, not bureaucrats, drive healthcare.)
Boosts NZ annual growth by... 1/4%
Boosts NZ average weekly pay by...$25.00
My first observations of today's news are the following:
  1. This has all the hallmarks of Sir Roger Douglas - no shortage of policy detail and solutions all tied up in a grandiose step-by-step plan.

  2. But barring the new slogan, few genuinely saleable messages needed for sound-bites to get VOTES - the prerequisite for implementing even one of the 20 points.

  3. If this is sent out as a mail drop (and presumably it will be), who will take the time to read the fine print?

  4. The new slogan "The Guts To Do What's Right" is undoubtedly an improvement than the previous one ("The Liberal Party", which confused the few who noticed it), but even so, its merits are contested by even members themselves, mainly due to the view that it will be seen as too harsh.

  5. Back to 1996 and the return of "mentors" who will "teach parenting and life skills" - a Douglas idea from the party's inaugural election manifesto "Values. Not Politics".
But the most significant point builds upon my last post. ACT clearly has a death wish. A referendum on MMP and the reduction of MPs to 100 are included amongst the pledges. We know that figures in ACT have always had a reluctant attitude to MMP. Party strategist Brian Nicolle and other ACT figures like Peter Shirtcliffe actively campaigned against it in 1993. Douglas has never believed it is conducive to the "big-picture" changes he thinks New Zealand needs and started ACT with the aim of it replacing National as the major centre-right party.

I have always considered the party's history with MMP somewhat ironic, but thought that ACT figures had long since decided that their best option was to "grin and bear it" and work within the system now in place as a "truly independent MMP party" (according to party president Garry Mallett in 2007). Searching through ACT manifestos from 1996-2005 which are included as appendices in my dissertation, I did not find a single reference to MMP apart from a desire to abolish the Maori seats, included in the manifestos for 2002 and 2005.

The reason for shutting up about MMP was obvious: campaigning to review the system of proportional representation which put ACT in Parliament makes as much sense as turkeys voting to have Christmas twice a year. So the idea of ACT explicitly wanting to debate the future of MMP is unprecedented.

Does it make sense? Here's a conundrum to think about: let's say ACT boosted the number of MPs to its target of 7 or 8 this year (an unlikely scenario on present polling). After getting Douglas elected as Minister of Finance (another unlikely scenario), would it really, seriously campaign to vote itself out of existence at the next election by supporting John Key's referendum on MMP?

Picture credit:

Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for a save MMP campaign?

I think it was when I showed my NZ studies course students the latest Herald-DigiPoll that the absurdity of the whole situation really hit me. New Zealand must be the only country in the world which has a government coalition partner (the Progressive Party) with absolutely no popular support. From the 1000 voters polled, not one named the Progressives as the preferred recipient of their party vote. Please don't get me wrong: this certainly isn't intended as a criticism of Jim Anderton's party per se. ACT itself had just 0.4% - "translated" (as Guyon Espiner would say), this means just 4 voters of the thousand polled selected ACT.

Noting this, the post I could write now is that Douglas's return is not having the desired effect. But the problem is a macro, not micro one. Small parties, whatever the colour, are faring poorly. Put together, the two major parties in New Zealand now have 89.3% of the party vote, according to the Herald poll. This leaves just 10.7% to be divvied up amongst all the other parties. Flashback to the 1996 General Election: then, Labour and National captured just 62.1% of the party vote. Small parties now have just a quarter of the vote they did a decade ago to share amongst themselves.

Is this the fault of the small parties? To some extent, certainly. The loophole in NZ's version of proportional representation which allows parties to circumvent the 5% threshold if they have an MP win a constituency seat has led to parties becoming personality-driven, rather than seeking to develop new cleavages amongst voters. Small parties have largely not adapted since 1996: Winston Peters is still Winston Peters, saying the same old things. Not surprisingly, New Zealand First's utterances against immigration seem tired now after fifteen years of reciting them. There is still a constituency for his party's messages, but it is a shrinking one. The same might be said of ACT, which as a party driven by ideology cannot adapt its policies beyond making cosmetic changes to the packaging (the dressing up of education vouchers as "scholarships" is but this year's incarnation). Put it this way: would the Jim Bolger National Party, saying the same things it did in 1996, still appeal in 2008?

But blaming the small parties for their own misfortune is too simple. In fact, there is a massive structural problem at work. From the beginning, MMP has always been treated as some "funny-money" system by the news media and by many voters themselves. I am sick of hearing people who say that "List MPs aren't elected MPs". They are. Now recall the silly (but much heralded) petition in 1999 to reduce the number of MPs to 99 - by slashing the number of List MPs to such an extent that the proportional system would no longer function properly. Then there is Bernard Hickey, who now seems to have joined the ranks of the self-important "commentators" who live in Auckland and can get to TVNZ's studios on a Sunday morning for Agenda. Quizzing Sir Roger on Agenda some weeks ago, Hickey pronounced that New Zealand's productivity gap could be explained by the introduction of MMP in 1996, after which he said productivity growth had begun to decline (see the piece on his own blog).

Hello? MMP is proportional representation, the fairest and moreover, most common form of democracy around the world. If political system had anything to do with wealth, why have countries such as Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Germany continued to outstrip New Zealand in terms of productivity and above all GDP per capita? The Swiss example might be particularly illuminating for Mr Hickey - few systems could be as regulated as the Alpine republic's version of proportional representation, working as it does on a complex formula designed to carefully distribute power amongst the Cantons and the four main ethnic groups. Hickey's citing of MMP as the fault for NZ's economic lag behind the rest of the world is as spurious as saying that the rise of the internet from the mid-1990s must have stinted productivity growth. It is simply a spurious and unfounded correlation.

Then there is the news media's habit of focusing almost exclusively on the main parties. How can small parties hope to perform when they are seldom treated as genuine alternatives for voters? The simple fact that they are called "minor" parties illustrates the contempt in which they are held. In other proportional representation countries, such as Germany, parties are never referred to in this way, but are instead given reasonable opportunity to put their views across to voters. Not so for the NZ media, which in reporting of political polls often do not even mention the plight of parties other than Labour or National. This is the "Presidentialisation" of politics: the "battle" between Helen Clark and John Key is the only theme up for discussion.

However, I wonder if New Zealand's current small parties have reached the end of the line. In Germany (on whose system New Zealand's MMP is based), it took around 15 years after the introduction of a revised proportional system (following World War II) for a permanent third party to become established. This was the Free Democrats (FDP) - the party with which ACT likes to compare itself. It took another 20 years after this for the Green Party to become Germany's fourth party, in the 1980s. And another 20 years after that for Germany to become a five party system, with the entry of Die Linke ("The Left") in 2005 and it subsequent consolidation of support.

What the German example shows is that the small parties which have lasted have been driven by support for substantive themes and not merely personalities: a free-market economy (FDP), the environment (Greens) or an expansion of the welfare state (Die Linke). Although its place in Parliament is far from secure, perhaps the Greens will become New Zealand's only viable third party, for now, while the others will fall by the wayside. Of course, ACT itself ought to have a chance, stressing as it does its adherence to ideology. But ACT is too rooted in time and space: in its present form it will never shake off the 1980s - and the return of Douglas to the party seems to indicate that it may not want to. This image problem is without question ACT's chief problem, as I have noted time and time again.

But none of this should mean we, as voters, should give up on supporting all the small parties currently, or not currently, in Parliament. Why bother having a proportional system of representation if a de facto two party system is simply going to take hold? My argument for greater support of small parties is similar to the argument put forward for free speech. You may not necessarily agree with what the small parties say, but you should defend their right to say it.