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ACT: The Liberal Project

The Liberal Project

Catherine Judd Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Articles - Other - The Liberal Project

"This article was published in The Press on Wednesday 1 February 2006."

ACT enters the 11th year of its life in remarkably buoyant spirits, despite suffering its worst ever election result last year (1.5%), the biggest fall of any party in the election (109,000 party votes), and the loss of seven of its nine talented members of parliament.

So why is ACT feeling so optimistic?

The 2005 election result was without doubt a serious setback for the political party that has been New Zealand's most radical and vigorous standard bearer for liberal ideas. But those ideas and the movement for rolling back statism and defending and advancing individual freedom are far from defeated. Indeed liberalism is advancing steadily worldwide and, although its path may be patchy and uneven, there are no apparent moves to reverse it.

There are few more dramatic examples of this than here in New Zealand. The Roger Douglas reforms of the 1980s put a decisive end to the era of big interventionist government in this country, and no political party today is advocating a return to it. ACT-like people - Ruth Richardson, Graham Scott, Derek Quigley, Don Brash - have been at the forefront in bedding those ideas in.

The 2002 election brought the final demise of full-blooded collectivism with the disappearance of the Alliance, and the 2005 election saw the political centre of gravity shift further to the right. It saw a resurgent National Party led by an economic liberal campaigning on ACT slogans. National has now even set up its own 'classical liberal' wing.

The 2005 election also saw the emergence of a bright new star in the form of the Maori Party, advocating low tax and choice in education, and with the protection of private property rights as its policy centrepiece.

And noone is expecting any seriously statist initiatives from the new minority Labour government and its patchwork of supporters. Indeed, Helen Clark's period of government may be recorded by history as the one in which the Douglas reforms became locked in.

Liberal ideas are winning and ACT and its people have played quite a part in that. Its high calibre MPs, a team continually refreshed with new talent by its party, have all been effective parliamentary performers and prolific writers. All have punched well above their weight, providing much of the substance and depth of the Opposition over the past 10 years.

ACT is a vehicle for ideas, not an end in itself, and it will need to reinvent itself for the tasks ahead. The people of Epsom have determined en masse that ACT is needed in parliament, and they will play a part in its future. But its new young guard, one of ACT's strongest assets, will play the key role in determining the party's future shape. Of our 59 candidates, 15 were under 30 years of age. The party's persona is likely to be like its leader: smart, tough, hard-working, young, a never-give-up battler, a hard-wired economic and social liberal. To survive ACT will need to define the next frontier, the radical liberal agenda for the future that is right for New Zealand.

As a party of influence, ACT is likely to remain small, like Ireland's Progressive Democrats, the party most influential in that country's stunning success. What matters is not size, but the influence it can bring to bear. In the longer term ideas have a major influence on the way people think and vote. It is clear that despite numerous aberrations, the freer and more market-oriented countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are achieving greater success than their more statist counterparts in Europe. Australia likewise is pursuing a steady liberal course with further privatisation and a greater role for the private sector in health and education.

Huge forces in future will be China and India which appear set on a steady track to greater economic and political freedom, presenting major, highly competitive challenges to ossified Western economies. Barring disasters, these two countries will be powerful forces in the advancement of liberal ideas worldwide.

In 2002 I had the great privilege, as part of ACT's Liberal Project, of hosting two of the world's most influential and eloquent freedom-fighters, Milton and Rose Friedman. The following is an excerpt from the Epilogue of their 1998 book Two Lucky People: Memoirs:

"Judged by ideas, we have been on the winning side. The public in the United States has increasingly recognised that government is not the universal cure for all ills, that governmental measures taken with good intentions and for good purposes often, if not typically, go astray and do harm instead of good. The growth of government has come to a halt, and seems on the verge of declining as a fraction of the economy. We are in the mainstream of thought, not as we were 50 years ago, members of the derided minority."

Like the Friedmans, I am optimistic about the outlook for liberal ideas. And I am optimistic about the future of ACT. Despite the encouraging spread of liberal ideas in New Zealand, there is much more work to be done, particularly in areas like health and education, and ACT intends to play a part in that.


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