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President Speech: Creating a Credible Alternative

President’s Speech: Creating a Credible Alternative to Labour

Catherine Judd, President, ACT New Zealand. Speech to ACT Wellington regional conference 2003

Thank you for attending today. We begin this round of conferences in good heart, albeit with a growing sense of urgency about the task ahead.

Our mission is to advance liberalism - that is the realisation, enlargement and defence of liberty and individual freedom, subject to the rule of law and moral standards. ACT wants the state to perform its important roles - above all, to protect individuals and their property - but we want to restrict the powers and functions of government so as to give full scope for individuals, families and enterprises to thrive and prosper. We want to change the way people think about government and its relationship to individuals.

That is our mission, and that means that ACT is a party of influence, not a party of government. We can pursue our mission from the cross benches or from within government, or from alongside it.

There are I believe three broad challenges we need to overcome in pursuing this mission and I would like to touch on each of these today and offer some suggestions as to how we might address them.

First, there is what David Henderson describes in his excellent book The Changing Fortunes of Economic Liberalism as liberalism's `chronic weakness'. That is that the conscious adherents of liberalism are so limited in numbers. Liberalism, he says, has no solid basis of general support, and there are few if any countries in which there is a well-supported political party or movement which openly and consistently makes classical liberalism its central body of doctrine, its raison d'etre.

He notes in fact that ACT New Zealand is the only such party in parliament in the world. That is an accomplishment of which we should be extremely proud.

Since David's book was published some other true liberal parties have sprung into life, but only in the former Eastern bloc, in countries such as Estonia which having suffered under the Soviet regime, now prizes freedom and truly understands its meaning and value as the only alternative to big authoritarian government.

David Henderson's point is that we are mistaken if we think the battle of ideas has been won for the liberal cause. The battle of ideas is in fact far from over, nor is there an end in sight. My point to you and all supporters of ACT is that we are small and we have few allies. It is good to spend time as we are today debating and testing ideas. In this regard I'm delighted that we have Ruth Richardson with us to day to talk about the Reform Britain project that she and our co-funder Sir Roger Douglas have been working on.

But the real battle is happening out there, preparing for the next general election. We need to muster more support, we need to work continuously to raise money, recruit members, build electorates, identify outstanding candidates, organise meetings, get more direct mail out, build our databases - all the basic, unglamorous, practical `stuff' that makes up an effective grassroots campaign machine. We are engaged in a battle, and these are the only weapons with which we can slowly but surely make incremental gains.

My second point is about how we can show that ACT cares. Getting across the human, compassionate face of ACT and its policies and our vision of a civil society and what it would be like, remains one of our greatest challenges.

This week in parliament, speaking in support of the Death with Dignity Bill, Rodney Hide spoke of his friend, Martin Hames. Martin a powerful thinker and writer, economist, former economic advisor to Ruth Richardson, passionate fellow freedom fighter, and sufferer of Huntingdon's disease, who took his own life just on a year ago. Shortly before his death Martin published his last book, The Crisis in New Zealand Schools, in the foreword of which he included the following note of dedication. He wrote:

"I cannot resist adding a more personal biographical note. In the course of writing this book I was diagnosed with a degenerative and ultimately terminal neurological disease. The kindness subsequently shown to me on a personal level utterly belies the caricature too often presented of `the New Right' as heartless people preaching a heartless view of our human obligations. Having moved in market liberal circles, I have come to know personally many of the people, or classes of people, most demonised by many on the political left. I number among my closest friends shocking characters like Treasury officers, Reserve Bankers, certain hated politicians, ACT New Zealand members - even employees of the Business Roundtable. If what we owe one another is merely what can be written down in a contract, as some critics allege we believe, what explains the concern that so many have shown me? After all, I will not in the future be contributing much to the market liberal cause, or indeed to any cause except myself. Shouldn't I have expected to find these people suddenly doing a rapid and ruthless cost-benefit calculation and deciding no longer to return my phone calls? Of course it has not worked out that way. I am not an emotional person, but I do get emotional when I consider the kindness and very genuine support given. At such moments, I almost feel, with the poet Yeats, that:

My body of a sudden blazed;

And twenty minutes more or less

It seemed, so great my happiness

That I was blessed and could bless.

I can think of no more eloquent portrayal of or tribute to the true compassion of liberals.

While we can and must continue to find smart ways of presenting our ideas simply and imaginatively, I suspect there is no better way of overcoming the image of the heartless `New Right' than through our people, our members and candidates but in particular our MPs. It's in the way they relate to ordinary people, the way they talk, the lives they lead and have led, their integrity, their commitment, their humour, their passion, their warmth, the human stories they can tell to illustrate our ideas - this, our human talent, is the most powerful tool of all.

Having the most able, most `real', most hard-working team in Parliament is a great asset of which we should all be immensely proud. They are a critical part of our liberal brand and our message and we must be mindful of this as we look for more candidates to represent ACT in the next general election campaign.

The third pressing challenge we face in pursuing our mission is how to work in an MMP environment with other opposition parties to present a credible, coherent, appealing alternative to the current authoritarian Labour coalition government.

ACT was established as an MMP party and I believe has been one of the most successful parties at understanding and campaigning in this environment.

Like it or not, MMP is going to be our electoral system for the foreseeable future and parties of the centre right need to embrace this reality. That means not just paying it lip service but substantially changing the way we all operate. Let's face it: National isn't going to get 50% of the vote in the near future and NZ First isn't going to disappear. All three parties have legitimate constituencies and a rightful place on the political spectrum.

ACT wants to be a party of influence, not only in opposition, but also by ensuring that the centre right doesn't languish in opposition forever. Anyone who thinks that can't happen should remember that's exactly what happened to the Labour Party here during the 1960s. Even worse, in Australia the Labour Party spent 23 years out in the cold in opposition.

We don't want to end up in the position of some European countries where there is one major reigning party, generally a Labour-look-alike, and a bunch of non-cooperative right-leaning parties competing for opposition status or at best minority coalition partner.

So let's get moving. We need to remind ourselves that, as the old saying goes, "politics is won in the centre", and around 70% of the New Zealand electorate resides in the centre. This means there is a large amount of the vote that can be moved.

National has an important part to play in providing leadership to the centre right and taking it forward, and our primary relationship will be with them. However New Zealand First does share some common ground with us. Winston Peters voted for Ruth Richardson's Employment Relations Act, and New Zealand First and ACT share some common ground on law and order. Quite significantly all three parties are running a joint campaign to secure a referendum on the abolition of the Privy Council.

I'd like to float some suggestions for a strategy to help the centre right regain some ground. The ACT board hasn't yet discussed these ideas and they are not our official position, but I will be interested in your thoughts and reactions.

The strategy is based around the premise that we on the non-authoritarian side of the political spectrum must present a viable, credible alternative to the authoritarian Labour government. The strategy has three basic elements.

One, cooperation in Parliament so voters can see the parties working together constructively in the House. Murray McCully will talk about what is happening on this front today.

Two, a sensible, rational strategy for the centre right to win constituency seats.

And finally, centre right "coalition" messages, particular in the general election campaign.

Returning to my second point, to regain the Treasury benches the centre right must win constituency seats - remember that Labour holds 45 seats compared to National's 21. Of course ACT will actively and vigorously compete with all other parties for the party vote and particularly in Auckland and Wellington. But we need National to win electorate seats. For more than a generation National used to win the provinces - we would like to help them do that again. But it will take more than ACT. It would also take the votes of NZ First supporters, and, if they recognised reality, United Future would look after its supporters and join the non-authoritarian side of the spectrum.

One approach would be to run centre right `banner' candidates. Let's for example take Waimakariri - and it's only an example at this point - which is currently held by Labour's Clayton Cosgrove. It could be that ACT and National support Ron Mark, who is a New Zealand First MP, as the candidate for the centre right, with the three parties urging voters of the centre right to vote for Ron in the constituency.

This strategy could be utilised to help National win back or start to win back a number of provincial seats. Take Whanganui, as another example. Currently Labour's Jill Pettis holds this seat and has done so since 1993. However at the last election the seat actually swung towards National, resulting in a significant drop in Labour's majority, from 4000 votes in 1999 to 2000 in 2002.

If National chose a credible candidate early we could work together to promote that person as the centre right banner candidate and have a chance of defeating Jill Pettis.

This approach would make the race in the constituencies much more interesting and relevant. There would be real contests and voters would have a real alternative.

On top of the constituency strategy we could add what could be called the "coalition campaign messages". This would be an agreed set of centre right positions that voters would get by voting centre right - policies that these parties agree on and will be delivered.

As an example of such a message, the ACT, National and New Zealand First positions on the Treaty of Waitangi are now very similar and all three parties could run on a No raced-based law type message. There is also scope in other areas, with messages such as Education choice and standards, A fair go for those who work, No parole, and Work for the dole. These are messages that surely all the parties of the centre right can sign up to. Labour certainly can't, and we need to show that this group of parties is closer to the values of New Zealanders than the PC and tax and bribe nature of the current Labour government.

None of these proposed strategies would undermine ACT's established Party Vote election campaign position. Indeed in some instances it may be the ACT candidate who is the centre right electorate candidate, allowing us the opportunity to gain constituency seats.

ACT is no longer prepared to be a `tactical appendage' of the National Party. ACT has to some extent already become the powerhouse of ideas for the centre right, witnessed by the fact that National and New Zealand First have adopted many of our positions.

Our aim is to become the strategic apex of the centre right, providing the intellectual weight and rigour, generating new ideas, defending personal responsibility and freedom and dealing with the hard questions that need debate. This is a pivotal role in putting forward a credible alternative government that seeks both to represent commonsense New Zealand values and aspirations and provide a fresh sense of direction and inspiration for the country.

I would like to close by emphasising that ACT is committed to its independence, identity and principles. We are happy to work with other parties who share our ideas on particular issues, but we will never surrender our principles for short-term populist votes, and we will not sell our souls for cabinet positions or for seats on the plush green leather of the Treasury benches.

Thank you.

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