What to do with a party like ACT? It's a question that I've been pondering since the 2017 election, and I'm yet to find and adequate solution. I also suspect that ACT itself might be in the same bind.
In many ways, 2018 should present itself as an ideal year for David Seymour and ACT. With the End of Life Choice Bill going through Parliament, and likely to end up with a public referendum, David Seymour is going to be at the forefront of the debate on that issue. It's an issue that lines up with what is at the heart of ACT's raison d'être - giving individuals more control over their lives.
But that's also part of the problem for ACT. With the significant economic and government reforms of the 1980s and 1990s done and dusted, the economic libertarianism that gave rise to ACT has largely dissipated. Even by the time of its formation, most of the battles on that front had already been won. This is largely why for most of the past 20 plus years ACT has had a rather interesting combination of public spending watchdog (e.g. Perk Buster Rodney Hide) and, somewhat oddly for a libertarian party, and an advocate of punitive, rather than rehabilitative, law and order policies (think Richard Prebble and John Banks).
In many ways ACT's dilemma of identity was best illustrated during the conscience vote on Civil Unions, where five ACT MPs voted for the bill and four against it. ACT was effectively made up of a socially progressive libertarian wing and a socially conservative libertarian wing (the latter of which has always struck me as an odd position for a libertarian party. Surely they want the government out of both their wallets and their bedrooms?).
That problem of identity for ACT is what has led it down a path where it increasingly had to rely on the personas of leaders to get it over the line, rather than policies. David Seymour is something of a departure from that model. He didn't come to the leadership with the same benefit of name recognition that Prebble and Hide did before him. In many ways that's both benefitted and hurt ACT's fortunes. And while Seymour has carved a niche for himself in New Zealand politics, I don't think the same can be said for ACT as a party.
That's why I think the challenge lies for ACT and David Seymour in 2018. As Seymour is working to get the End of Life Choice Bill through Parliament, and campaigning in the subsequent referendum that seems likely to happen, he needs to use that additional exposure he gets as a springboard for ACT after the referendum.
That being said, Seymour has to be careful to keep party politics out of the debate around the End of LIfe Choice Bill. While the Bill fits nicely with Seymour's personal ideology, to ensure the success of both the bill and the referendum, Seymour's advocacy of the issue, and his work to rejuvenate ACT with the additional attention he'll get need to kept separate lest Seymour alienates potential supporters of the legislation.
In many respects the End of Life Choice Bill does point to a way forward for ACT in terms of growing its support. Seymour could well steer ACT towards a form of libertarianism that's and minimising, or checking undue Government regulation in both people's personal and economic affairs. Seymour has already touched on this when he successfully got liquor licensing laws modified around the Rugby World Cup. If he can continue to find similar issues where regulations are creating seemingly heavy hand responses to common sense issues, he could carve out a far more productive niche for ACT than the perk busting years of Rodney Hide.
Fixing liquor licensing laws around public holidays (e.g. the requirement that you have to order a meal in order to have a drink on certain days) could be a similar issue that Seymour could pursue going forward that would put ACT in front of a pool of voters they might not ordinarily reach. Likewise, there's no doubt other regulatory headaches lurking around for homeowners and small businesses that Seymour might also find fruitful to work on which could also provide easy wins for the Labour-led government.
With National already weighing up plans on how it can best address its own looming issue of finding support partners to form government with after the next election, Seymour's ability to build a formidable public profile and rejuvenate ACT could turn 2018 into a make or break year for the party.
With Parliament getting back underway next week, I thought it'd be useful to briefly take a look at some of the strategies that each of the opposition parties might use over the coming months. These ideally play to the strengths, and avoid the weaknesses that each party has.
National is in the interesting position of dominating the opposition benches in a way no opposition party has in the MMP era. With only David Seymour in ACT to share the benches with, they won't face the issues that Labour did in opposition where they were frequently outshone by New Zealand First or the Green Party. There were plenty of times when Winston Peters, Russel Norman, Metiria Turei, and more recently James Shaw, all seemed to be more effective leaders of the opposition than whoever was at the helm for Labour.
With that in mind, National still does need to stick to its knitting - the economy, law and order, and supporting provincial New Zealand. With mixed messages already coming out of the Labour-led government about the future of the economy and their spending plans, National needs to seize on these inconsistencies, and any bad economic news that might arise, and stick it squarely on the Labour-led government and it policies.
National also needs to be ready to identify inconsistencies in policy positions between the three parties in government and pounce on these to fuel the internal tensions with the government and the parties themselves. With the Green Party and New Zealand First diametrically opposed in many policy areas, there should be plenty of opportunities to highlight these differences, especially in Question Time. They should have particular fun in finding contradictory statements from the Green Party and New Zealand First, then forcing the relevant Labour Minister, or the Prime Minister herself, to pick sides in these disagreements.
With a view to the 2020 election, National also needs to take the fight to New Zealand First and Labour in rural and provincial New Zealand. With more than half of New Zealand First's vote coming from extremely strong National Party seats, National should be able to take enough support from New Zealand First to ensure they're not in Parliament after the next election. Going after Winston Peters' Provincial Pork Barrel will be difficult, unless the entire thing ends up as a series of useless white elephants.
Where National can do well is by picking its battles in the provinces. For example, if there's a provincial roading project that's shovel ready and construction was due to start soon, the local National MP, should be leading a campaign to save that project from the review of all projects that is party of Labour's policy platform. These have to be projects that have either just, or are about to, start construction, or are going through the resource consent process already, instead of ones that were still very much on the drawing board.
The local MP should be looking to run petitions, ask both written and oral questions in Parliament, and work the hell out of the Official Information Act to ensure that if a project is cancelled in their electorate, they've forced the government to expend the maximum amount of political capital in doing so.
National does, however, need to pick its battles. Issues like Auckland's Regional Fuel Tax might be better left to go through to the keeper, given there seems to be relatively widespread support for it. Likewise, National should generally be supportive of the social initiatives that Labour is looking to rollout to try and solve child poverty, while encouraging them to make use of the Social Investment approach that was gaining traction.
In terms of the House, where National could play Labour, the Green Party, and New Zealand First off against each other to progress legislation in a relatively quick manner over the past three terms, as well as to get progress on issues on the Business Committee, Labour doesn't quite have the same option this time, with National able to decide how fast, or slow, it wants legislation to progress in the House and through Select Committees. Though National will need to be careful it doesn't end up looking more like the US Republicans if it does so.
Also, while it might be tempting, National has to avoid Labour's mistake of barking at every passing car, or overplaying the hand they're given by a government mistake. Being in a perpetual state of outrage over every little indiscretion didn't get Labour anywhere fast, and National needs to remember that and stay focused on the major issues.
With that in mind, while they're busy battling away on the above, National also has to be working on developing bold and innovative policies that they can take to the 2020 election. Labour's "Future of Work" roadshow offers a model of how to do this, though obviously National has to avoid the mistakes Labour made when it came to launching the final results of it. Instead, National needs to go around New Zealand, listen to people, hear their concerns, their ideas, and their dreams, and then come up with, or look overseas for, policies that can help address those things.
Because while National may hope for the best - that is either New Zealand First or the Green Party implodes before 2020 - they should prepare for the worse - that the government makes it through the term in reasonable shape and that they'll be campaigning against a popular, charismatic, and much more experienced Jacinda Ardern than the one who tripped over several times this past campaign. Unless National can find their own personality solution to match Jacinda Ardern, their best option is to take innovative and exciting policies to the 2020 election.
If ACT is to survive it needs to reinvent itself, and fast. David Seymour looks set to get one question every three weeks in Question Time, which is hardly going to make things easy to score zingers in the House. Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill will help with his profile as he champions an extremely important and topical issue, and he may even get helped if it does go to a public referendum too, as it'll provide even more profile for Seymour's role in helping make this happen.
Seymour will also fight tooth and nail to save Partnership Schools from being closed, and that's sure to provide a lot of ammunition for him as Chris Hipkins is forced to confront parents whose children have been failed by state schools.
Rodney Hide's old hat of Perk Buster has also sat largely untouched since he left Parliament, and it's possible that Seymour could gain some traction and headlines out of that. There look to be several government ministers and policies that will be implemented that could be ripe pickings for Seymour if he goes down this tract. And with little to do during Question Time, Seymour would do well to target this as an area of opportunity, especially as it will help differentiate him from National.
But outside of that, Seymour needs to fundamentally change ACT. I don't think New Zealand culture has ever particularly warmed to the very libertarian ideas that ACT has come to represent, or even it's name for that matter! Instead, Seymour and ACT need to find a way to put a Kiwi flavour into that approach. They need to accept, for instance, that New Zealanders seem relatively comfortable with the government's role in our economy and society being roughly where it is now, somewhere in the order of 30% of GDP.
While it's also good that ACT has moved away from its previous flat tax rate positions, it's still proposing some quite drastic cuts. Where ACT might do better is building on Seymour's previous work around tax bracket creep, where wage inflation means that more and more people progressively end up in higher tax brackets, and instead focus on matching increases in the tax brackets with inflation instead to ensure people don't find their wage increases progressively eroded.
So where does that leave ACT? I think the Partnership Schools issue might be the nucleus of where ACT can invent its own Kiwi flavoured libertarianism, one that accepts that the government does, by virtue of our small size, have a role to play in New Zealand's economy and society, but that the government should use its role to enable New Zealanders to have choices about how they interact with that.
Partnership Schools are, in essence, about giving families choices to help their children get an education where state schools have failed them. How this might translate to other sectors it's hard to say, for instance you're hardly going to have a choice of police forces. But in health, for instances, you might be to get rid of the crazy system of having to enrol at a GP practice, and instead enable people to go to whichever GP they choose for the same price. I can't pretend to be a policy expert on this, but it's clear that ACT's libertarian approach as it stands needs to be changed to better reflect Kiwi values.