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Sir Roger Douglas’ ACT - National on steroids

Sir Roger Douglas’ ACT - National on steroids

Sun, Oct 26 2008Sir Roger Douglas was “working” Hawke’s Bay recently on behalf of ACT, and BayBuzz had a chat with him and ACT’s Tukituki candidate, Duncan Lennox.

Douglas is #3 on the ACT list. Assuming Rodney Hide wins his Epsom electorate and ACT polls 2.5% or so nationally (they’re a bit shy of that percent as I write), Douglas will find himself a backbencher soon … a far cry from his heady days in the ’80s in Cabinet.ACT’s erstwhile partner, John Key, has ruled out any ministerial position for Douglas, trying mightily to distance National from any taint of the “Rogernomics” — elimination of state subsidies and trade protections, privatisation, reliance on the free market — that Sir Roger championed as a Labour Finance Minister, to the dismay of the left-wing of that party.

After an hour or so listening to Douglas discuss his views, most of which condense one way or the other to a starkly minimalist view of government’s role, I commented that Douglas seemed to articulate policies that John Key only dreams he could voice during this campaign. Douglas responded with a smile.
“National has to stay in the center,” says Sir John, “but ACT has the economic and social program on the table that will get New Zealand up the ladder economically and therefore socially.” I asked: “Would you accept a characterisation of ACT being to National what the Greens are to Labour? His reply: “Fair enough … though our policies are sensible and I wouldn’t say that about the Green Party.”

Whatever aspect of government policy he discusses, Sir Roger, like any practised ideologue (a term I don’t use pejoratively), is exquisitely consistent in applying first principles to the issue at hand. As he puts it, he and ACT stand for “trusting people to do more things for themselves … this differentiates us from all the other parties.” And when the state gets involved in providing services, he says, “politics gets substituted for the market” … implying of course, with unsatisfactory outcomes. He asserts: “We share many of the objectives of National, and Labour, but we believe competition and market solutions are the way to get there, not central planning and bureaucrats.” And: “I always start with the goal … Labour starts with the ‘how’ … state delivery of health and education.”

When it comes to the environment, Douglas says: “Our party is more about property rights” … while calling the RMA and the emissions trading scheme “man-made obstacles to growth.” Ugh! On the other hand, he speaks of eliminating subsidies that can draw land into inappropriate farming uses, and how assigning a market value to fishing rights can reduce over-fishing.

In a way, it’s a pleasure to talk issues with a politician who is so intellectually consistent … there’s never a doubt as to where he coming from or headed to. Interestingly, though, until I asserted my perception that ACT agenda-wise was a “one trick pony” — referring to it being the toughest party on law & order — Douglas never mentioned that issue at all. His response to my “one trick pony” charge was to declare that ACT indeed has a comprehensive set of policy proposals, adding: “I should know, I wrote most of them.”

Sir Roger wants to cut taxes dramatically and hold spending growth to the inflation rate plus adjusting for population growth. He asserts that this formula can allow within ten years a top personal tax rate of 12.5% for those earning below $20,000 and 15% for those earning more. Corporate and GST rates would also drop.

Yet, presumably to reconcile with Rodney, he’s allowed one exception to his economic stringency … $1 billion extra for law & order!

Honestly, I find it hard to imagine the newly reconciled Rodney and Roger co-existing in their tiny parliamentary caucus! Rodney, the populist sometime-dancer in the canary yellow jacket, and the reserved philosopher Sir Roger, who looks and acts the part of the urbane banker.

I find it equally difficult to imagine a 70-year-old politician as energetic and passionate about his views as Sir Roger serving in quiet contentment for three years on the far back bench of Parliament. Asked about that, Sir Roger responds, “You don’t get to play the game if you don’t have a seat at the table … I’ll manage to cause some trouble … good trouble.”

Without question, Sir Roger adds depth to the ACT bench. And, admirably, he is fronting up for his beliefs, when he could easily spend his time otherwise, because he fervently believes the times call for his kind of disciplined principles. It could be great spectacle watching him harass the next Finance Minister … either Cullen for going too far to empower the state, or English for not going far enough to obliterate it.

But, for me, that’s where my admiration ends. ACT is National on steroids. Douglas puts far too much trust in the unbridled marketplace for my taste. So, while I’d welcome Sir Roger as a stimulating dinner guest, someone else will have to write his invitation for another go in Parliament.

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