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Communicating the Liberal Vision – Catherine Judd

President's Speech to ACT 2002 Conference -- Catherine Judd, President, ACT New Zealand

President's Speech to ACT 2002 Conference

Monday 18 Mar 2002
Catherine Judd, President, ACT New Zealand
Speeches -- Other -- The Liberal Project


Communicating the Liberal Vision: Speech to ACT 2002 Annual Conference by Catherine Judd, President of ACT New Zealand March 16 2002

Politics is a sunset industry.

So said Sir Roger Douglas in Completing the Circle[1] (1) .

People are cynical about politicians, he said, because they don't deliver.

And why don't they deliver? Because instead of doing what they know is right and needs to be done, they do what the polls tell them to do.

They do this, Sir Roger surmises, because they want to be loved, or admired, or just liked even. Or if all else fails they want to be popular.

And they have overreached themselves. They tried to do too much and their inadequacies have been enormously revealed.

True on all counts. Fortunately politicians and government have much less of a role in people's lives than they used to in this country, although this current Labour government thinks otherwise.

And why is that? Because we have got rid of the worst excesses of statism. The experiments in big government and social engineering that so dominated the past century failed.

And this country was one of the boldest in the world in seeing that failure, in setting about dismantling much of the state's clumsy, extravagant, oppressive efforts to run every aspect of our lives and pursue happiness on our behalves.

We owe much to the small group of people who got us thinking about the liberal ideal, the importance of individual freedom and human dignity, and the set of ideas that has done so much to lead mankind out of the dark ages.

They are with us this weekend; they are the founders and leaders of this party.

As a party we have much to be proud of. We are the only classical liberal party in the world that is in parliament. That is a fantastic achievement.

And we will be back in there with more MPs after the next election.

It could be asked: why are we in parliament when we believe politics is a sunset industry and we have so little faith in the ability of politicians to do the right thing?

The answer is, I believe, that you have to fight fire with fire. We are first and foremost a party of influence. Our mission is to change the way people think about government.

It is a dual role. We must be educators. We must paint and advance the liberal vision - of society organised from the bottom up, with individuals, enterprises and organisations as its driving force, not the state. We must explain why this is the surest way to achieve the full potential of our society and enrich the lives of all its members.

It's the radical's role. As Mark Twain said, "The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them."

We must also be the day-to-day champions of freedom, the guardians of the rights of individuals - ever watchful of, and forever challenging, the never-ending attempts of the government to take that freedom away. We cannot do that from outside the tent.

ACT New Zealand is the political wing of the classical liberal movement in New Zealand. Ours is a parliamentary and campaigning role, especially in election year.

I think we do that part of our job very well.

Our MPs are streets ahead of the rest. We have the best team. Even some of our opponents acknowledge that ACT is the real opposition.

Our recent polling provides some very positive feedback on our MPs. Our potential voters see them as up-front, feisty, and straight talking.

Not a day goes by that I don't get a piece of advice from one of our members or supporters or detractors on what our MPs should be doing or not doing.

One thing ACT New Zealand is not short of is people with ideas. We have heaps of them. It's great. I welcome their ideas. I welcome their advice.

They're not always right, but at least we're a party of thinkers, forthright, outspoken people with ideas and plenty of attitude.

The business community also has plenty of advice for us. I welcome that too. But I say, in the battle that we are facing in this important year, they must add their voice.

They'd all like our MPs to be perfect. Ideally what they'd like is for each MP to have Richard's commitment, Rodney's bite, Stephen's brains, Owen's doggedness, Muriel's diligence, Penny's commonsense (and legs), Ken's knowledge, Gerry's passion and Donna's eloquence and fire.

I say we're very fortunate to have the best, most hard-working team in the House.

Our leader is widely acknowledged as by far the most able, most astute and most talented politician in parliament today. He also gets the prize for sense of humour.

I get lots of advice about what Rodney should do. But I say you can't have a little bit of Rodney. It's all or nothing. He is a tenacious and powerful watchdog of the rights of the little guy, the taxpayer, the worker. If, as Richard remarked the other day, he sometimes bites the postman instead of the burglar, so be it. We are lucky to have him.

The point we need to be clear about is that there's no argument among us about where we are going. It's a matter of how we get there. In this important election year it is critical that we are as "on message" as possible, and I'm sure you'll find our MPs working hard to ensure that every time they speak on an issue they connect it to a core ACT value.

I'm not going to talk about the talents of each MP. They are all exceptional people and one of the privileges I have had as party president is to get to know our MPs.

The party is also made up of exceptional people. We're in good heart. We have a hard core of very hardworking, highly motivated people working for the party. We have Graham Watson heading up our office. We have Brian Nicolle running our campaign. We have John Boscawen running our fundraising - "we're puttin' the band back together, Elroy."

We have activists and volunteers around the country who will be literally delivering our messages to the voters door to door. Currently we send out 30,000 emails a week and our website http://www.act.org.nz (http://www.act.org.nz) is the best political website in the country.

We are standing candidates in all seats to campaign for the party vote.

I challenge any party in New Zealand to be in better heart and shape.

So how do we arm ourselves to communicate ACT's messages?

You will recall that part of the purpose of the Liberal Project was to help us with this task, by reflecting on what ACT New Zealand stands for and where we have come from. I propose to draw some of the strands of that project together for this purpose today.

Before anyone starts questioning the use of the term 'liberal' I should stress that I do appreciate the problems with differing interpretations of the word 'liberal'. When we talk about liberalism we are using it in the European sense - that is, being concerned with the realisation, enlargement, and defence of individual freedom.

I'm not proposing a rebranding of ACT. I am suggesting though that the first step in communicating our vision to voters is to ensure that we keep our commitment to the realisation, enlargement and defence of liberty at the heart of our vision.

Michael Bassett, in setting the scene for our Liberal Project with his speech 'The Conflict of Visions'[2] (2) , made the very salient point that "all too few Kiwis study history, and, sadly, those who do are taught for the most part by people still nurturing out-of-date collectivist agendas".

We're not as a nation given to much reflection on world history - even recent history - and we should factor this reality in as we formulate our communications and create a context for our ideas.

For this reason it's worth our while to explain that political systems are fundamentally broken down according to how much freedom they allow the individual in their society.

Authoritarian regimes do not trust people. Rather they endow elites with powers - including force - to engineer the social environment to achieve some predetermined outcomes based on notions of equality and fairness. They ration freedom.

Liberals on the other hand trust the people, and are suspicious of political power. They believe that a society that puts freedom first, will - as a happy by-product - end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.

Last century was dominated - unlike any previous era - by authoritarian regimes. We must keep alive the lessons and symbols and images from that era.

The Marxist belief in state power and the resulting communist regimes caused untold suffering last century. I saw it first hand living as I did for two years in Soviet Russia in the early 1970s.

Authoritarian governments in Europe under Hitler and Mussolini wiped out individual liberty, devastated Europe and caused massive suffering and loss of life.

South Africa tried a system of social engineering designed to preserve white privilege and create prosperity - apartheid. It destroyed freedom and was a road to serfdom for millions of black workers.

China tried central planning and controls to guarantee economic freedom, a system that led instead to a state-created famine and the deaths by starvation of millions of Chinese.

Nation after nation has learned the hard way that prosperity cannot be created by state intervention. It has been tried and it has not succeeded.

We must not forget, and we must ensure our children, the next generation, understand the human cost of these failed experiments - that collectivist regimes were responsible for the deaths last century of over 100 million people.

For me the most striking image of last century that speaks of the triumph of freedom over all that is the fall of the Berlin Wall. As someone who went through Checkpoint Charlie as I did just on 28 years ago it has a special meaning.

Greg Lindsay, founder and executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia spoke to our Auckland Conference last year. In a speech titled 'The Liberal Vision'[3] (3) , he reminded us that the history of civilisation is the history of freedom. He quoted Sir Erskine May: "The nations which have enjoyed the highest freedom have bequeathed to us the greatest treasures of intellectual wealth."

He explained that - besides the intrinsic value of freedom for people in developing their own individuality and identity - there are good evolutionary reasons why humans like to take control of situations and respond to challenges - because people like that were more likely to survive in hostile environments.

He talked about the institutions of private property, the market, civil society, and limited government. He reminded us that part of the role of parties like ACT is to challenge each new government spending programme. "When interest groups and leftists point to the person or industry worthy of a privilege or subsidy," he said, "it is our job to point out that someone has to pay for it."

Greg Lindsay has devoted his life to the realisation of the liberal vision. He reminded us that it will not advance unless we take the time to advance it. He painted an optimistic vision - "one of free men and free women in free societies, willingly assuming responsibility for themselves and watchful of the never-ending attempts of others to take their freedom away".

Michael Bassett took us through New Zealand's experience as a world leader in finding collectivist solutions to virtually every perceived social problem. He reminded us that today every New Zealander over the age of 35 spent his or her formative years within a jerrybuilt welfare state:

"Such is New Zealanders' conditioning," he said, "that they still incline to the notion that one more experiment here, or a bit more public spending there could be the elusive silver bullet. The depth of faith in collectivism is such that the battle for reality - our battle - won't easily be won. There is too little debate about political ideas and outcomes."

He pointed to practical experience of collectivism - "more than any blinding revelation of the merits of individual liberty - as the greatest educator of people prepared to learn."

And I can vouch for that: there is nothing quite so salutary in this regard as the simple daily experience that I had for a couple of years of trying to buy bread from a shop run by people with no incentive or interest whatsoever either in producing or selling it.

Thinking about this speech reminded me of the time I spent in the 80s writing speeches for Sir Roger Douglas.

I put a lot of effort into looking for stories to illustrate his points - like stories of coal mountains, and ludicrous make-work schemes. And remember the famous lines about how, with sufficient subsidies and protection, you could grow bananas on the top of Mt Cook? In a sense things were simpler then, and explaining them was easier, because both the symptoms and the problems were so glaring.

I was reminded of this just yesterday by a story in the Otago Daily Times about a man in Calcutta who applied for a state government job 34 years ago.

It turns out he finally got an interview call this week.

Unfortunately, he said, he was now too old to take the job. Imagine if this had happened in New Zealand.

For a start he could have claimed he was being discriminated against on the grounds of age. He could lay a claim for the stress suffered waiting for the interview.

He could argue that because of the slow mail service provided he was entitled to government-subsidised broadband internet access.

And while waiting 34 years for an interview he could go on the dole or even the artists' benefit. And during this time he could train to be a TV announcer.

But this is New Zealand in 2002. The situation would never become that ridiculous, would it?

Bryce Wilkinson addressed us on the topic of fairness[4] (4) - fairness as a hallmark of a liberal society and what it is that makes society more or less fair. He argued that state-conferred privileges and paternalistic laws benefit the powerful and put the powerless at risk, while freedom of choice and contract and equality under the law are most beneficial to the poor.

"Collectivists," he said, "treat adults as children who cannot cope with setbacks or fend for themselves; while liberals are optimistic that even ill-educated individuals are likely to look after their own interests better than the state."

He discussed the importance of distinguishing real freedom from freedom from want. "Artists starving in their garrets are not less free than a well-fed slave." He rejected the notion of a 'compassionate state' and argued that voluntary benevolence would be much more focused on preserving human dignity and self-reliance.

I note that Tony Blair is talking a lot about fairness at the moment. I expect we'll be hearing the word a lot from the Labour government here this year.

Ralph Nader said, "Those who set the terminology control the debate."

The language of the left is the natural political discourse in this country. We need to understand how to speak it in our terms.

Since most New Zealanders now believe the economy is heading in the right direction and that the fight for freedom is won, values like fairness that have moved to centre stage. People are now more concerned about the gap between rich and poor, dysfunctional families, the underprivileged, and the undereducated. The egalitarian concerns of New Zealanders have become more salient.

We will need to work hard to ensure our important messages about fairness and equality are heard and understood. This will mean addressing different audiences in different ways.

The following illustration from Jim Peron, co-owner of Aristotle's Bookshop and regular writer and columnist in South African journals, caught my eye[5] (5) .

"A free society will not be one of equality. Once human beings are free, the choices which they inevitably make will change their levels of wealth. Even if we were able to redistribute all wealth equally, once the heavy hand of centralised control is removed, inequality will immediately result.

Imagine a society of complete equality of wealth but one where all people are free to make decisions regarding their own life. If wealth were equal at 8.00am it would be unequal by 8.01am. Some individuals would spend their money while others would invest it. Some would gamble with it or buy pastries. Others would purchase tools for work or buy education or training with it. Each choice will mean that the distribution of the wealth will become unequal.

The only way to prevent this from happening is to strip each individual of the right to make decisions for himself. The destruction of freedom is the only method for implementing equality of results."

Stephen Franks in his address on cultural liberalism[6] (6) had much to say on the topic of tolerance and the rule of law.

"Liberty is state tolerance, and that liberty is eroding with political correctness.

The just wanted the rule of a tolerant law. The law would protect everyone from violent coercion and expropriation.

The law was to protect individual persons and property, but not their feelings; nor was it to try to protect them from their own foolishness...

We must continue to be tolerant. We must be tolerant of much that we abhor. If we are true liberals we will be humble, aware of how little knowledge is certain. We will be charitable, knowing how hard it is to understand a person until we have walked in their shoes...

Ours is the tolerance that says, 'I accept your right to hold those views, to live like that, to look like that, to do things I abhor. But that does not mean I must agree, or decline to judge, or tacitly support you.'...

One colour-blind state, where the law is tolerant, and prevents the State from suppressing individual choice...

Equality of all before a tolerant law."

Jim Cox discussed civil society, philanthropy and the welfare state[7] (7) . He described the reality of 'middle-class welfare' - that around three-quarters of tax revenues in New Zealand today are used to fund the welfare state, and that the tax burden falls disproportionately on certain groups, including younger people and two parent families, depressing their living standards.

He also pointed out that "the quality of government services is often poor, and may not be what people want or need, and that the welfare state encourages dependency and discourages personal responsibility."

An interesting footnote to his address was that "voucher programmes for education have been implemented only in those cities where liberals and business groups have made common cause with minority groups who feel they are disadvantaged by the public school system."

Roger Kerr talked to us about the economic dimension of freedom and its relationship with political and civil freedom[8] (8) . He reminded us that freedom is both an end in itself and a means of achieving other freedoms. He talked about the market, how a free private enterprise economy rests on voluntary cooperation, with "willing buyers entering into transactions with willing sellers that both parties believe will make them better off."

He described economic freedom as being about "freedom of action and exchange and security in person and in rightfully owned possessions".

He pointed to research that clearly shows that the successful nations of the world are those which have granted the maximum amounts of freedom to their citizens.

Discussions on the importance of markets and understanding the price mechanism present us with some good opportunities for illustrating our messages.

Earlier this week I was looking into one of the best, if rather personal, examples of the market at work: the collection of items in my supermarket trolley. It reflects my taste and my peculiar family's needs, so it's different from the collection the man behind me has assembled. But there's some standard stuff: dog food, bananas, a leg of lamb, cereal, bread, and so on. Like all of us I respond instinctively to price signals.

Dog food was on special so I bought up large. The lamb was quite expensive - I hesitated over that. The bananas were slightly down in price. I bought more than I might normally. In short, the prices are sending me a signal. Lamb is in short supply, export prices are up. Bananas are plentiful - maybe things are booming in Ecuador. Who knows? It doesn't matter. But it works.

The mechanisms of the market are at play.

But what if the benevolent government decided that bananas were too important to leave to the market and decided to regulate the price so they couldn't go up? The price signal would be distorted. In the absence of an accurate signal about the demand, the supply could well dry up. What then?

There is another angle to the analogy. If health and education are so important that they cannot be left to the market to provide, why not hand the supply of all food over to the government as well? Surely food is the most fundamental necessity?

So just imagine what my supermarket trolley would look like then. Let's imagine the government provides a standard trolley full per week for each person or family. What would they put in it?

How would they know the only brand of cat food my cat will even consider? How would they know that I personally boycott Dick Hubbard's cereal?

The idea is too stupid to consider, but it is not a bad way of explaining what happens when government does things that people can do for themselves.

Peter Fraser[9] (9) drew the links for us between classical liberal economic thought and Maori aspirations and concepts of tinorangatiratanga.

He discussed the impact on Maori of lack of choice in education and the importance of economic growth, and made the point that "if you are on welfare, your family is on welfare, the rest of the town is on welfare, and this has gone on for generations, then face it, you don't have much tinorangatiratanga."

Deborah Coddington[10] (10) told us where the feminist movement has gone - from wanting equal rights to wanting special rights, and asking government to legislate to give them these.

She pointed out that many women have traded dependence on men for dependence on the state.

"Laws introduced and passed in the interests of women as the collective - minimum wages, parental leave, anti-pornography, prostitution laws - put economic and social barriers up against individual women who seek independence and prosperity. And the women who enforce and support these laws are just as enslaving as the men who, in the past, forced their values on us."

They're like those women Sir Nicholas Fairbairn summed up in a comment on collectivist feminist women MPs. "I can't say I've ever got visually, artistically or sexually excited by any of them. They all look as though they're from the Fifth Kiev Stalinist machine-gun paradists."

But Deborah's most poignant message, in my view, and the one most important for ACT, was about the cruel and dehumanising effects of state welfare and the suffering it inflicts on children.

She reminded us that "families and fathers do matter, that two parents committed to their children are better than one, and that children raised on welfare fail to do as well - in all areas of life - as those raised by parents who work... Our teenage pregnancy rate is the second highest per capita in the OECD. Solo parents in New Zealand are more likely to be Maori, two-thirds have incomes of less than $20,000, have low educational qualifications and live in more deprived parts of the country... Twenty-seven percent of families in this country are headed by only one parent, most of whom are women surviving on welfare."

She asked "how can a welfare cheque take the place of a father at football on Saturdays? Where is the Minister of Social Welfare at four in the morning when the washing machine's broken and the baby is sick and Mum more than anything needs someone to take her in their arms and hold her while she has a good cry?"

"The state can't read bedtime stories," she said, or "teach children to take their first steps, tie shoelaces, wait their turn, save their pocket money, all the nagging parents do to produce reliable, independent, trustworthy adults."

Deborah concluded with a quote from Jennifer Roback Morse about the "mundane world of ordinary chores, ordinary joys, ordinary problems'.

This, she said, "is where any personal philosophy must bear fruit. It does not matter if we have a perfectly consistent and elegant theory worked out on the chalkboard. If our domestic lives and our relationships are not satisfying, if our home life does not work, if our theories do not help us make sense of life's inevitable difficulties and disappointments, then our theories have failed us."

ACT has recently gone up in the polls. That's great news.

Our recent increase in support is welcome. But it's not enough.

Many of us are often frustrated that we aren't attracting more support. Why is this?

Most New Zealanders are busy people. This is particularly true of the people who are potential ACT voters. They've made a deliberate decision not to learn about the things they can do little about.

It's not that they're stupid. On the contrary they're smart. They've decided to devote their time to the things they can do something about.

When it comes to politics they can do little to change government policy so they've decided not to waste time trying to find out. This is termed rational ignorance.

We need to communicate with people who have no real interest in politics.

Each of the Liberal Project papers draws on hard facts that help promote the liberal vision. They paint a picture of a society that not all New Zealanders would recognise or wish to be challenged by.

Lately I've been thinking about what I term striking examples of ACT Facts.

Here's an example: Parole makes liars of judges. Over 78% of all released prisoners are reconvicted within three years.

Our response to this has been ZERO TOLERANCE FOR CRIME.

Here's another fact: Among young New Zealanders under 25 years of age, 51,000 are registered as unemployed - of whom 17,000 have been registered for over a year.

Our message should be that THE ONLY WAY OUT OF POVERTY IS EDUCATION AND WORK.

ACT communications should remind New Zealanders, but particularly our young people, that they should have GREAT EXPECTATIONS. WHY NOT?

We need to impress the New Zealand voter that we are the party of IDEAS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION.

We need to build our profile as primarily a party for the millennium generation who share our values and who are not afraid to face the facts.

A vote is a powerful force for change. And they need to know that a vote for ACT is a voice, it has real value.

I'd like to see these voters portrayed in our communications.

ACT's vision of a liberal and caring society is based on timeless principles of freedom, responsibility and choice. That's a key political goal.

Milton and Rose Friedman said:

"Some people see freedom as the promotion of greed and self interest. But a truly free society is one that releases the energies and creativity and abilities of everyone. It prevents some people from arbitrarily suppressing others.

Most importantly freedom means mobility and diversity. It enables today's disadvantaged to become tomorrow's privileged. And along the way, it enables everyone from top to bottom to enjoy a richer and fuller life."

I say it at every ACT meeting - ACT is a party of influence, not a party of government. It may go into government at some stage but its primary goal is to change the way people think about government and its relationship to individuals.

That's our mission. We can do that from within government or from the crossbenches.

That is our Liberal Project.

_______________________

[1] (1) Completing the Circle, Sir Roger Douglas

[2] (2) The Conflict of Visions About New Zealand, Hon Dr Michael Bassett

[3] (3) The Liberal Vision, Dr Greg Lindsay

[4] (4) Fairness in a Liberal Society, Dr Bryce Wilkinson

[5] (5) The Ideals of Tyranny, Jim Peron

[6] (6) Cultural Liberalism, Stephen Franks MP

[7] (7) The Future of the Welfare State, James Cox

[8] (8) Freedom and Prosperity, Roger Kerr

[9] (9) Classical Liberalism: A Perspective from Maori, Peter Fraser

[10] (10) Liberal Feminism, Deborah Coddington


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