When something ‘good’ comes out of New Zealand, Australians have an uncanny ability to adopt it with out paying the necessary accolades to it origin. So what about ‘good’ ideas. Is it possible that Australians could learn from ACT New Zealand and change the political landscape in this country. Would we also claim this achievement as our own ? Vern Hughes explores the rise and rise of ACT New Zealand.
The meeting was opened by a Maori woman who deplored the impact of welfare dependency on indigenous people. Roger Douglas then said a few words about tax reform, but talked mostly about welfare. The discussion ranged from race relations to schools to welfare alternatives and mutual aid. It was passionate. Afterwards everyone (converts and sceptics alike) stayed for a cup of tea. Everyone was strangely courteous and friendly in that quirky New Zealand way.
Two things struck me about the evening.
The first was that this could not happen in Australia. We do not have grass-roots political meetings in church halls like this anymore. That died at least twenty years ago. The idea of a senior political figure spending an evening with complete strangers discussing the causes of disadvantage seems unimaginable in our politics.
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The idea of an indigenous woman speaking publicly about the poison of welfare dependency is even harder to contemplate. In Australia, a Noel Pearson can do it (having been a lawyer and native title advocate). But an anonymous indigenous woman, with no law degree, and no offical position in a bureaucracy? I’d like to see that.
The second thing that struck me was the moral tone. I expected hard-nosed economic rationalism – greed is good, tax cuts for me and mine. I didn’t expect the focus on the poor and what is needed to escape being poor. Economic rationalists in Australia don’t talk about this.
ACT New Zealand now has 8 MPs. It was formed to change the culture of New Zealand politics – the sleepy dependence on subsidies and tariffs and the finely-tuned art of pork-barrelling one’s way to statesmanship. It sought to break the control of health and education services by providers and to give consumers a choice. It set out to barrack for competition.
As a new political party, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers set out to break the pattern of political representation in parliament. For decades, New Zealand politics was a contest between two blocs of sectional interests fighting over a honey-pot. Political debate was a ritualised affair. What mattered was one’s skill in using public funds to feed constituents and then selling this as being in the national interest.
ACT’s key themes were personal responsibility rather than paternalism, choice in schooling, health care and social insurance, obligation and reciprocity in welfare, privatisation and competition in utilities and telecommunications, duties as well as rights in private and public life, mass ownership of private property, and an assault on parliamentary stagnation.
Notwithstanding the recent election of Labour’s Helen Clark to the Prime Ministership, New Zealand has made a psychological break with the politics of the pork-barrel. For this ACT deserves a large part of the credit. Australians have still not made this psychological break.
This is what makes ACT New Zealand interesting from an Australian perspective. Our politics is facing a crucial test. Both parties are caught between the imperative of globalisation and competition, and the electoral temptation to use public funds to bail out the interest groups with the loudest voices. There is no check on this temptation. There is no political force to argue for the ethics of keeping one’s hands out of the public till.
We have no political voice in Australia for consumers and taxpayers who object to governments using the public till to win by-elections (read Benalla), and then boasting about their skill in doing it. The major parties cannot mount such an objection, because they both do it.
Changing this culture in New Zealand has been a great achievement. ACT’s task was made more difficult than it need have been by some early strategic mistakes. It was and remains hindered by perceptions that it is a tool of the big end of town. It didn’t move early enough to counter this perception, and still carries some baggage. It was too slow in formulating popular responses to social and cultural issues such as national identity, crime, family and social breakdown. It has been slow to take up the social entrepreneurship agenda from Britain and North America as part of an assault on welfare dependency.
But it has succeeded in establishing itself in the electoral landscape. It now claims to be New Zealand’s most democratic political party. Its governing body – the Board of Trustees – is elected annually by postal ballot of members. It is well placed to pursue a vigorous political reform agenda.
Would that we in Australia had a political option like ACT to bring our political culture into sync with our thinking about the rest of life. The two things cannot remain apart forever.
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ACT NZ website is at www.act.org.nz