ACT: when principled is populist

This week Rodney Hide is due to table his Regulatory Standards Bill. His deputy, John Boscawen, is nearing the end of a far-reaching review of consumer law. These are important measures and ACT has the portfolios.

Hide’s bill will aim to legislate more rigour in lawmaking. National leans in that direction but does not want to be as prescriptive as ACT wants. The bill will go to a select committee for hearings but will not be passed this year, though there is a good chance a milder version will pass next year.

The consumer law rewrite is the culmination of work Heather Roy oversaw before ACT decommissioned her. She issued a discussion document last June aiming to telescope nine acts into three. Her aim was principles-based law which leaves it up to people to decide how to comply and to the courts to decide detail, coupled with redress of the seller-consumer asymmetry of information and power.

This is not the self-regulation which market-liberal parties like ACT extol. But it fits the Adam Smith principle that for markets to operate well they need rules. Roy’s aim was a “competitive business environment”.

Very worthy and likely, with tweaking, to survive changes of government. But how many votes will these sorts of initiatives attract to ACT on November 26?

None, if you listen to Darryl Parsons, the guy who thought up the 42 Below vodka ads. The media stories voters notice are those wrapped around personalities, good and bad, he told ACT’s conference on Saturday.

Fairly high on such a list for ACT over the past 18 months would be Rodney Hide’s European holiday with his lover, now wife, David Garrett’s court problems and Roy’s messy ousting as deputy leader — none exactly a vote winner. In fact, those tales, plus some recent polling, have encouraged some on the right of politics to think they can knock Hide out of Epsom and so finish ACT off.

ACT says its recent focus group research has been finding much residual goodwill toward Hide in Epsom as an effective local MP. But it acknowledges he has been seen less around the electorate since he became a minister and that has a price.

Winning Epsom is critical to ACT’s future because it has shown little sign since 2002 of being able to clear 5 per cent on the party vote. It has not replicated the Greens’ assembly of a core support around its programme: as Parsons put it, people vote Green not because they like Russel Norman or Metiria Turei but because they like trees.

There is not right now a 5 per cent core vote for free markets, though some in ACT believe that when in 2008 Hide brought back Sir Roger Douglas, the man who most personifies free markets, at least for the over 40s, that was a factor in lifting the party vote from 2005’s 1.5 per cent to 3.7 per cent.

Sir Roger, who on Saturday labelled Act’s National “pollitician” friends “cowards” full of “bullshit”, will not be such a card in ACT’s pack on November 26 because he is retiring again.

The next best thing to get ACT’s vote up is to swim in a populist current. In 2008 Hide brought in Garrett to push “three strikes” and portray ACT as tougher on law and order than any other party. That probably lifted ACT’s vote.

Moreover, it could be presented as consistent with ACT principle. Stephen Franks, when an ACT MP, used to argue for tougher sentencing on the principle of securing individual liberties: criminals undermine others’ liberties.

Franks used also to argue that there were no such things as group rights, only individual rights. That line was aired in some vigorous but mostly respectful questioning on Saturday of Willie Jackson who told the conference that history conferred on Maori the right to special treatment as the indigenous people.

That takes us to the foreshore. This week ACT will join Labour and the Greens in filibustering the replacement law, the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, each for a different reason. There is wide scope for a filibuster since the government alone has tabled 69 pages of amendments (so far).

Boscawen has tramped the country arguing against the bill as potentially conferring sweeping rights on iwi or hapu that will interfere with the general public’s access and other property rights.

Boscawen insists his is a principled position and not the populist pitch of the Coastal Coalition, in which former ACT deputy leader Muriel Newman is active. But that his point of principle also has populist appeal might well secure ACT votes.

Expect ACT to pump “one law for all”: it is a cardinal principle of individual liberty; and it rings a populist bell.

The foundations of society in ACT’s world are laid by individual liberty coupled with responsibility. A society composed entirely of such paragons could get by with the limited regulation Act values.

But only around 70 turned up to argue it at the annual conference at the weekend. If ACT is to build back over 5 per cent, it will need a bigger show than that. Regulatory reform, worthy as it is, is not enough.