Firstly, thank you to Not PC for the linking through to this blog on this liberal debate. I examine the differing meanings of liberal most fully in my dissertation, but for a lighter introduction to or refresher on the subject I suggest reading Dr. Bryce Edwards's excellent recent post on the "Drinking Liberally" gatherings and the differing interpretations of the concept.
This time, the liberal debate has resurfaced over ACT's "three strikes" bill, which seeks to automatically imprison offenders who commit three violent offences from a defined list, and ACT's agreement to support a National bill to ban gang patches. Before reading my humble opinions, I recommend reading Lindsay Mitchell's various posts criticising and critiquing the bills and ACT's views on them. My commentary here will generally sidestep here the merits of the bills themselves. There are others better qualified to comment on the specifics - such as Graeme Edgeler's legal assessment of the three strikes bill at Public Address.
What is the debate about? Briefly, what I will simplify here as ACT's social liberals feel uneasy about David Garrett's gung-ho attitude to the three strikes bill. Taking Lindsay Mitchell and supportive commenters as a yard-stick, they have both concerns about the bill itself and particularly with Garrett's answer to the Attorney-General's evaluation that the bill could breach the Human Rights Act: "Alter the Bill of Rights Act. We've got too hung up on people's rights".
A related dispute is over a "deal" between ACT and National which will see the parties supporting each other's crime bills. National intends to ban gang patches and expects ACT's support for this in return for itself advancing the three strikes bill. Mitchell and supporters argue that the anti-gang patches bill goes against what they see as a core ACT tenet: freedom of expression.
Again taking Mitchell and the various commenters as a straw poll on the liberal debate, it seems that some have problems with both bills, just the gang patches bill or just Garrett's statement on the Human Rights Act. The issue here is whether the debate is vociferous enough to lead to a break up of ACT, in a way that support for the invasion of Afghanistan led to an implosion of the Alliance in 2002. I think not, for several reasons.
- Although I don't have any formal evidence to prove this, my gut feeling is that a clear majority of ACT supporters are natural social conservatives. There are plenty in the party who agree whole-heartedly that criminals should be treated harshly. David Garrett is representative of more the rule than the exception. The acceptance of Garrett and the granting to him of such a high list position to a candidate so strongly connected to the Sensible Sentencing Trust emphasises this.
- Even if list-ranking is something conducted at a party level (led by the party president), both Rodney Hide and Sir Roger Douglas must have approved of Garrett. Douglas's support is significant, as he became disgruntled over ACT's pursuit over more pragmatic issues in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly Hide's "perk-busting". However, while a hardline stance on crime might not be Douglas's first priority (that's the economy), that doesn't mean he disagrees with it. A hardline stance on crime is more substantial than perk-busting.
Moreover, Garrett's suggestion to change the Human Rights Act is not dissimilar to Douglas's traditional view that reforms should be pushed through on a large-scale and quickly, to prevent opposition from interest groups (giving little time for criticism and review). Both Garrett and Douglas are thus comfortable with (to put it mildly) accelerating the legislative process. The ACT caucus is clearly supportive of Garrett and the party's actions on the two bills. I would also put down ACT President Garry Mallett as a social conservative, if only for his negative comments (admittedly somewhat backpedalled later on) regarding homosexuals on assuming the ACT presidency. These are powerful supporters to have in a party which with a decline in regional organisation has been managed increasingly from the top down over the past decade.
- The socially liberal grouping in ACT is by far the weaker one, both in numbers and in personalities. The social liberals in ACT include both younger supporters, often associated with the ACT on Campus group (which has vigorously campaigned against the raising of the drinking age, for example) and the traditionally principled supporters such as Mitchell. To Mitchell we could add the likes of Andrew Fulford, an ACT board member who resigned in 2006 to start his own party (which never eventuated), or perhaps Peter Cresswell of the Not PC blog.* (EDIT: Cresswell states at Not PC that he "for the record, has never been an ACT supporter". My apologies for this misinterpretation.) These figures might be prolific in the blogosphere, but they are not office-holders in ACT and lack the power to implement their ideas.
Even then, it is important to note that the social liberal "faction" (which is too strong a word, the group are united more in a vaguer intellectual fashion) is not a coherent beast (neither is the socially conservative grouping, for that matter). Mitchell's own blog promotes welfare reform, for example, something which would normally be seen as a socially conservative cause (and in ACT formerly under the patronage of Muriel Newman).
I would estimate the balance between generally social conservatives and generally social liberals at about 70-30 in favour of the former.
- The liberal debate in ACT is nothing new! The three strikes bill is really the latest variation on a theme. ACT has advocated a tough stance on crime since at least 1999 and indeed in 2002 campaigned vociferously for "Zero Tolerance for Crime" (along with much more potent socially conservative causes, such as "One Law for All"). Essentially, ACT has zig-zagged along the political railway tracks for the past decade, emphasising and deemphasising socially conservative issues at will according to voters' moods. If you're a genuinely social liberal and you don't like ACT's position on these issues, you should and you would have left the party a long time ago, as many have done.
- A hardline stance on crime is easily the least controversial socially conservative issue, because tougher sentences for criminals have become accepted across the political spectrum. ACT's position on the three strikes bill is hardly that shocking (indeed, it sent out a newsletter to members several weeks ago pointing out that it actually wasn't as punitive as it had been characterised). ACT has emphasised far more controversial socially conservative issues in the past, from a tough stance on social welfare (promoted especially by Muriel Newman), to anti-affirmative action views. The three-strikes bill is really pretty mild in comparison and while in new packaging, certainly nothing we haven't really heard of before.
ACT could pick up far more controversial socially conservative issues, but now deliberately chooses not to. For instance, a constituency for anti-immigration calls is clearly under-served with the absence of New Zealand First and in a recession the topic could be ripe for picking, but ACT has never protested immigration (the reasons for this are covered in my dissertation). If it ever did, a few more social liberals might come out of the woodwork in ACT.
But new supporters will find the tough crime stance appealing, not least the supporters of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. And others who are not so enthralled will tend to look past Garrett to the meat on the bones - ACT's economic policies - and see "three strikes" as the grist for the mill which ACT has to also provide to stay politically alive.