Now for a liberal ACT to follow

The next time Rodney Hide inveighs against “perks” — if there is a next time — there will be a cacophony of “Pipitea Street, Pipitea Street” from opponents.

ACT says what it has been doing is legal, pooling its “electorate office” money for list MPs in a house near Parliament. But “legal” isn’t a defence in politics. Lawyerly niceties don’t wash in the court of public opinion.

In that court ACT once paraded as its slogan “Values. Not Politics”. Some values.

The value the juror in the court of public opinion would expect is that taxpayer payments for offices away from Parliament for list MPs are spent on offices where the MPs live or are based: Whangarei for the relentless Muriel Newman, for example.

The values Newman advances week after week in her columns are those of the work ethic, self-help where possible and reciprocity for state support.

Such values appeal to that large proportion of the population which believes the disadvantaged and unlucky are entitled to succour but also have a duty to those who have helped them. National’s welfare speaker Katherine Rich is heading down this path.

These values will be much paraded this coming weekend at the ACT conference. So will the wealth-creating power of low taxes, the virtues of private ownership and the liberty of the individual — what ACT calls liberalism.

Via interactive video link, conferors will drink from the fountainhead of monetarist wisdom, the economist couple Milton and Rose Friedman who in the late 1950s restarted the economic ideological debate. This was at the very time Daniel Bell published a book trumpeting the “end of ideology” brought about by the triumph of keynesianism, the welfare state and the mixed economy.

On Friday the conference will hear what is being billed as a brilliant speech by Roger Kerr, a leading architect of this country’s 1980s economic reforms, which trace their intellectual origin in part to the Friedmans.

So the conference will be a celebration of ACT liberalism. It will even ponder if ACT should go more explicitly liberal by way of a renaming formula such as “ACT, the liberal party”.

This risks public misunderstanding. “Liberal” is a slippery word.

It can mean, as ACT intends, that the state should stay out of people’s lives, except to ensure individual liberty. That is “classical liberalism” of the eighteenth century.

But in the late nineteenth century “liberal” came to encompass an active state, reducing inequalities of opportunity and misfortune.

One branch of that thinking came down via the Liberal party of the 1890s to the National party. Sir John Marshall, a National prime minister, described himself as “liberal-conservative” and believed that encompassed a limited welfare state.

The other branch of liberal thinking ended up massaging socialism into a welfare-statist variety of social democracy. The equivalents in the United States of this country’s Labour party adherents are called “liberals”.

Neither is what ACT has in mind. In the United States ACT would be called “conservative” or maybe “libertarian” for its suspicion of the state.

Now mark this fact about ACT: its leader and deputy leader were ministers in the fourth Labour government and acquired their politics in the social democratic branch of liberalism. So did ACT’s patron, Sir Roger Douglas, who invoked the spirit of Labour idol Michael Joseph Savage in the preamble to one of his budgets.

Hide was a vaguely leftish lecturer in his youth. Stephen Franks was briefly far left, then briefly in the Labour party. Donna Awatere-Huata was a Maori sovereignty radical.

So a good many of the ACT caucus are “born again” believers in the limited state, not believers from their political birth. By contrast, Derek Quiqley, an ACT founder, was always a believer. So was Patricia Schnauer, a 1996-99 MP. So is Gerry Eckhoff, still in the caucus.

So ACT is a curious mixture. Twenty years ago some MPs were sitting on the opposite side of the political fence from the others.

This divergence persists — which is part of ACT’s problem. While MPs broadly agree on the limited state, Prebble and Hide have also pushed a populist, verging on redneck, version of rightwing politics and Franks’ crime stance has similar undertones.

That mutant form of ACT-ism drove Quigley and Schnauer out in 1999. It also drove away a lot of ACT’s natural support and much of its rich backing.

The result: an unclear public picture and an uncertain place in the electoral spectrum.

Hence current president Catherine Judd’s “liberal project” of the past year or more to restate ACT’s classical liberalism — to members primarily but also to voters. The payoff was survival in an election last year some in ACT feared might bury the party.

That survival lifted optimism and confidence.

Until Awatere-Huata’s disgrace. Until ex-MP Penny Webster’s airpoints drawdown. Until Hide’s barroom verbal brawling. Until Pipitea Street. This weekend ACT has more to rebrand than its ideology.