After previously examining the big four of NZ politics we now turn our eye to the first of the lesser denizens of the swamp called parliament and look at one species of creature soon to be extinct. Also apologies for the length, I swear I try and keep them short.
If there was a time when ACT was a genuine political party, those days are past. In the late 90s and early 2000s ACT could indeed claim to be a such a thing as it polled respectably and had yet to be tainted by the scandals, squabbling and power struggles which have now left it dead in the polls and relevant only because the Auckland electorate of Epsom has developed a rather strange fetish for it.
The fact that the party has visibly withered in the last decade is almost entirely down to its own deceitful actions and the fact that itâ€™s championing of the neo-liberal agenda and as a mouthpiece for the ultra-rich and corporate entities has gone from distasteful to downright loathsome.
The question that always interested me was in trying to figure out if ACT really believed the gibberish it was spouting or if they were just happy being mouthpieces for one of the most vile ideologies of our time; that of a happy return to feudalism under corporate masters rather than blue bloods.
In the 90s the party happily spouted Business Roundtable platitudes while supporting the National government but it also could claim some degree of moral ground under â€œperk busterâ€ Rodney Hide (who was later busted for abusing the very same system of parliamentary perks and privilege that he had hypocritically been railing against) and having some theoretical pedigree by claiming it was championing individual rights and freedoms.
Today it polls about as popular as a party of pedophiles and its theoretical and political base is worm ridden and compromised (in fact given it currently polls around the 1% mark I see no irony in recognizing the fact that it is has always represented the interests of the 1%). But between 1996 and 2002 it rode high in the polls as part of those heady days of early MMP with a respectable 7%.
The fact that that most of that 7% could be ascribed to the more right wing elements of the National party fleeing in the wake of Nationals dismal results in 1999 and 2002 may have escaped ACT’s attention but despite these high poll results it was never a part of the Labour Government under Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008 (I wonder why?).
But at its simplest ACT was built and commissioned as a vehicle for those who wanted to continue to advance the free market ideology of the 80s into the 90s and beyond.
If my previous analysis of the big four political parties had looked at the failures of each party under the headings of: the party itself (Labour); its individual members (National); personal political advancement (NZ First) and selling out its core values (the Greens: no they havenâ€™t done this yet but thatâ€™s what my post about them was warning against) then my analysis of ACT is a combination of all of the above.
The grim state of the party is a warning to all others in the NZ political sandbox of what happens to those who abandon all morality for greed by peddling themselves to clearly self-serving ideologies that reject even the basic tenants of community and commons.
More technically ACT is clear evidence of what happens when a political party is clearly serving a vested interest and staffed with a rouges gallery of goons and goombahs in the best traditions of the SA.
Yes thatâ€™s right (no pun intended), ACT were to be the brown shirts of right-wing NZ revolution (an odious tradition continued today by bloggers like Cameron Slater over on the Whale Oil), a vanguard of the free market and like the SA are self-destructing in a queasy orgy of criminal and corrupt behavior (although no night of the long knives for ACT, yet).
Itâ€™s worth examining some of the histories of the specters that have made up the party to get a better picture of what exactly went wrong and why the party is no longer a viable entity.
First things first there was Rodger Douglas. In being a key figure in forming a political party the message was crystal clear of what ACT stood for. If you liked the regulatory and free market revolution that his reforms had created for NZ then this was the party for you. Most of the electorate was not a fan but a sizable minority (6%) did vote for the party in 1996 and in part that was on the perceived value of the firm economic policy that ACT seemed to be advocating and the supposed benefits it brought.
In 1996 Douglas was no longer in charge of the economy but with his disciple Ruth Richardson (a known member of the Mont Perlin Society: The John Birch society for accountants) still keeping the ovens going (under a continuation of Rogernomics now termed â€œRuthanasiaâ€) his reforms continued and helped to make 1990s NZ a grim and bleak place to live.
With Labour back in government in 1999 it was clear that ACT was not going to be getting a seat at the table and Douglas, never keen on Hides leadership stepped away from the party in 2004 as ACT languished in opposition for most of the decade.
Then in 2008 Douglas, along with Heather Roy, staged a failed coup attempt on Rodney Hide, who survived due to the timely intervention of John Key. Douglas started to fade after this time as several bills he tried to introduce into parliament failed in the house and in 2011 he called it quits.
His legacy as the architect of so much pain and misery is reflected in things like the growing wealth and inequality gaps, the scandal of poor and hungry children in NZ and a merchant banker (John Key) as PM.
Douglas is the reason why the argument that ACT sold its soul to sing for the devil is false. ACT (and Douglas) never had any soul to begin with; they were catamites from the start and an open vehicle for the free-market agenda that has been exploited by a grubby few to almost everyoneâ€™s disadvantage.
But Douglas is the just the first of many who would make the party look like the criminal rabble it was rapidly turning into and leave it as the soulless husk it is today.
Stalwart party members like John Banks (accused of submitting false electoral returns, shilling for Kim Dotcom and a dangerous level of religious zealotry among his numerous misdeeds); Donna Awatere Huata (tried, sentenced and jailed for fraud); David Garret (stealing the identity of a dead child in an attempt to get a false passport); Rodney Hide (caught abusing the very perks he had built his reputation on); Heather Roy and Ken Shirley (shilling for big pharma); Deborah Coddington (anti-Asian Immigration) and Hillary Calvert (who makes the list for her delightful quote â€œwe care about people ahead of silly little chickensâ€) have been the storm troopers of right wing ideology and policy, who have helped turn ACT into the ship of foolsÂ that it is but also a refuge for misfits, rejects and political mercenaries of all stripes (Don Brash).
If it was just its cast of ugly criminal characters alone then ACT would be no worse than National with its similar scum pool of human misdemeanors but ACT also fails on the Policy front, ala Labour, but much much worse.
On casual perusal, ACT’s policy portfolio seems to have some merit with its claims of freedom and lower taxes for all but as with all policy the devil is in the details and with further reading, as well as knowing ACT’s pedigree and track record, itâ€™s easy to locate the keywords and decipher their actual meaning.
ACT adheres to the political equivalent of creationism, that of small government; low taxes and private provision of public services (charter schools, Serco run prisons, asset sales and letting the kind and benevolent market take care of things).
ACTâ€™s definition of â€œcore functionsâ€ of government ignores the reality that is the highly complex society that we live in and imagines that market functions would be able to contain the anarchy that the market itself has been shown to create (booms, busts, bubbles, cartels, tax havens, corruption, nepotism, market manipulation, offshore trusts and growing wealth and inequality).
At its centerÂ ACTâ€™s intellectual pedigree, albeit diluted and watered down, is no worse than the intellectual foundations on which other parties sit, but unlike National and Labour, which have simply let their policy bases fade away in favor of craven appeals to the policy melting pot of â€œthe middle groundâ€, ACTâ€™s is, and has always been, in the service of those who seek appealing theoretical foundations on which to base their dubious actions.
ACTâ€™s foundations lie in Friedrich Hayek and the Mont Perlin society and more directly the NZ Business Roundtable (now dubbed the New Zealand Initiative). Hayekâ€™s arguments against collectivization were an intense part of my undergrad study in political theory and his was, like many other thinkers, a clear and conscious reaction to the tumult of the first half of the 20th century by attempting to provide solutions to those times problems.
As a political theory this is fine (although I tended to favor the position taken by Polanyi) but its use as a smokescreen for actions by others with agendas which do not really align with the theory they are trumpeting is nothing more than intellectual window dressing for the traveling snake oil show that has been neo-liberalism and its use by global elites to dismantle any organisation or structure which hampers their pursuit of profit and power.
Reading through chunks of policy statements give the impression that ACT is obsessed with saving â€œthe childrenâ€, really hates big government and that lower taxes are the answer to many issues but one also can find references to â€œACTs advisersâ€; a distaste for beneficiaries, the treaty of Waitangi, the RMA; and a host of neo-liberal buzzwords like â€œsignallingâ€, â€œchoiceâ€ and â€œpotentialâ€.
The sum of all of this is that the partiesâ€™ policy prescriptions sound wonderfully empowering and harmless until you realize that these prescriptions have already been enacted around the world and we have been living in the â€œutopiaâ€ promised to us by the smooth talking acolytes of small government and less taxes.
I could go on forever here in pointing out the flaws in these overly elaborate theories which have never been, and never will, be honestly enacted but the point is clear. The message being preached has failed, itâ€™s been tried and it failed, the desperate cries of â€œmore of the sameâ€, by ACT and National, to solve the problems previously created by â€œmore of the sameâ€ now sound like doom cultists chanting.
But what about the current leadership, what about ACTâ€™s philosopher-king David Seymour and his role as free-market mouthpiece?
At first Seymour seems to be a new face for the party but once you dig into his background his links to conservative think tanks, including one which helped shape Stephen Harperâ€™s right wing paradise in Canada (before the inevitable backlash kicked in), it becomes clear and you figure out that someone (read what painfully passes for ACTs brain trust) has been seeking to emulate the safe, white, suit and tie, clean shaven, middle aged male look (ala Key, Cameron, Bush Jnr, Blair et al) but not quite managed to get the facial features right on the identikit robot they ordered from conservativesâ€™Râ€™us.
And with the ACT party webpage now resembling a personal blog (with what appear to be self-written press releases by Seymour about Seymour all over the main page) and his face repeatedly staring back at you with each new post I find myself wondering. His opinions, while few and far between in the press, have given no indication that he has deviated from the party line but perhaps, just perhaps, he realizes its a dead ship he is now captaining and has plans to try and steer it into a safe port for rest and refit.
The odds of that happening rest entirely on Epsom deciding to retain any party candidate as their representative in parliament. Personally If I was Labours campaign manager I would be marshaling forces to get Seymour and Act out of Epsom at all costs even (this could also apply to Peter Dunne in Ohariu) to the point of getting voters to vote National (something that happened in the last election anyway when tactical voting chopped ACTs lead to 6% over National).
Seymour has none of the appeal of Key, personality of Winston or moral integrity of the Greens. Itâ€™s almost like he has no soul (a double possibility given his intellectual and political backgrounds) and I will be watching Epsom 2017 with great interest as if ACT loose their seat then its dead and buried and all the grubby refuse that is the party will be swept away.
ACT, unlike Labour and National, does not have a historical background to fall back on when its actions in the present taint it; nor does it have the charisma and appeal of someone like Winston to work their mojo for the crowds; also it does not have any moral stance to support its positions and arguments (ala the Greens) and protect it from criticism.
ACT has been around just over 20 years and its life is almost over. Truly the flame that burnt as half as long was twice as dull.