The burden of new paradigm politics

At milking time early one morning last week I came across two figures quaffing coffee in an airport lounge, exuding good cheer despite the hour. Wyatt Creech and Nick Smith were hugely pleased with the government.

Why? Because the new tax, ACC and labour laws had reconnected some of National’s core support. Business, they beamed, is shocked. National’s troops have been miraculously energised.

When a government is thrown out, especially if with a very low vote (as National did) and/or after a long spell in office, its first strategic need is to re-cement its core vote.

Labour took until its third term in opposition after 1990 to do this and its 38 per cent in November showed the job was barely complete even as it reclaimed the Treasury benches. If National’s core – particularly small business, which went walkabout last November – reconnects quickly, it can get on to the next stage, building outwards.

National badly needs to build outwards. It has not been above 35 per cent in an election since 1990. Polls taken last week scored it 30 per cent or lower.

Which, ACT thinks, gives ACT a chance. But a chance for what?

ACT is like its polar opposite, the Greens, in one important way: they both see themselves as “new paradigm” parties, promising a new politics and a radical break with present policies.

This gives ACT acolytes a confidence that overcomes adverse indicators such as a disappointing election result and roseate first-100-day poll readings for Labour. This confidence can at times take on an almost religious character: ACT (like the Greens) possesses the secret of salvation.

This is one of the complications in ACT’s relationship with National. ACT paints National as “old politics”, different from Labour and the Alliance only in degree, not in kind.

It was not always so, ACT says. Ruth Richardson is revered like unto a saint by her fellow ACT members for preaching and practising the new paradigm when National’s Minister of Finance in 1990-93.

So ACT condemns National twice, first for moral laxity in failing to pursue the Richardson grail since 1993 both in office and now in opposition, and second for expecting to return to office on the government’s mistakes. “National has gone to sleep,” said Rodney Hide.

This is not exactly true – witness Lockwood Smith’s and Gerry Brownlee’s hyperactivity in the select committee on the ACC bill.

But put Mr Hide’s claim in the context of what ACT has to do electorally. Across the gangway in Parliament the Alliance is a spectre for ACT of what happens to the dreams of a small junior coalition partner. ACT needs a lot more seats than the Alliance if it is to keep the catechism in a coalition cabinet.

Mr Hide again: “It is not enough to have a programme. We have to have a mandate for that programme.”

How to get that mandate has been giving ACT heartburn. Lessons were read to the faithful by Ms Richardson and the arch-prophet, Sir Roger Douglas.

The message: stick to principle. ACT says its own research has shown voters demand that parties do that even when it costs votes. So if ACT is to run policies with a surface populist appeal – for example, last year’s crime, welfare and Treaty of Waitangi policies – they must be contexted in ACT principles of liberty and self-reliance or the benefits will be lost.

New ACT MP Stephen Franks, the once-Labour lawyer, showed his political elders how with a speech tough in content on law and order but in its manner of delivery redolent of oak-panelled elegance and plausibility.

Sir Roger’s prescription is education. There have been only five years of reform, not 15, he said, and National’s pretence of reform while actually sitting on its hands deprived voters of market solutions and convinced them that reform is a waste of time.

So, he argued in his presidential report, “at least half the press statements by ACT MPs in the next three years must focus as an overriding goal on educating people to understand, on the one hand, the self-defeating policies of existing policy and, on the other, why ACT policies can and will deliver.”

Such is the self-imposed burden of new paradigm politics. The next three years will tell how well ACT can bear that burden.