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ACT - New Zealand's Liberal Party

ACT - New Zealand's Liberal Party

Opening address to the Wellington ACT Regional Conference, November 10 2002.

`Welcome fellow freedom fighters'.

I read this week that Keith Holyoake once opened a National conference with that phrase and as the commentators said - only the ACT party today could credibly make that claim - I thought I would.

ACT is a new political movement. In my lifetime there has not been a party like ACT, so the commentators struggle to know how to label us.

Last year in the ACT New Zealand regional conferences, President Catherine Judd launched what we called the Liberal Project. Catherine was pointing out that ACT is a classical liberal party - that liberals believe that it is the citizen who has rights and obligations, not the collective.

A free society is one where citizens have free speech, the right to vote, are equal before the law, have the right to own property, to enter contracts freely and have the right to life or as the US constitution, that great liberal charter, put it - the right to pursue happiness.

ACT alone in parliament stands four square for these freedoms.

Last year in our regional conference we invited speakers to outline the liberal approach to the great issues in the economy, justice and education. In this conference we are continuing to examine how liberals approach issues. Sir Roger Douglas, our co-founder, is examining today how liberals can approach the issues of healthcare, education and superannuation.

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I want to explain why we are not National.

There is a public perception that ACT is sort of a more right-wing version of National. That National and ACT are in coalition, that we share a common approach. Not so, ACT has never been in coalition with National. It is populist New Zealand First and the ever flexible United that have been in coalition with National. ACT declined to join the Shipley National Government because we had very significant differences with the last National Government's big spending, high taxes programme and failure to promote freedom.

The public confusion about our two parties is understandable.

Both National and ACT have opposed Labour's radical and collectivist programme. ACT and National have strongly fought the re-nationalisation of ACC, the empowering of unions by the Employment Relations Act, the envy taxes that increasing income tax represents, and the other extensions of state power such as the OSH Amendment's $500,000 fines, that Labour promotes.

So voters and commentators assume that ACT and National are similar parties. Not so. ACT is as I explained a classic liberal party.

National is a conservative party. National, so far as it has a programme, supports the status quo, things as they are, and opposes change.

We who seek to promote change need to make out our case.

I know I am associated with a dramatic period of change. Change that was necessary. But drastic and radical change is not my preference. My sympathy has always been with the hardworking New Zealanders whose lives were turned upside down by drastic change. It was not the fault of the railway shunter, who did an honest day's work, that successive politicians had used the railways as some sort of giant employment scheme.

Any sensible leader's preference is for change to be well signalled and to be done at a pace that does not destroy the lifetime work of what Mike Moore used to call the `little people'. So I do not condemn National's conservatism and opposition to change. They have an important role in the democratic debate.

Having said that, ACTs liberal programme in many ways differs just as much from National's conservatism as we do from Labour's state collectivist approach.

It was Hayek in his famous article "Why I am not a Conservative" (whose argument I am paraphrasing) who pointed out the inadequacy of the conservative approach. Conservatism, "by its very nature, cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving".

There is a lot of criticism of Bill English and his National MPs for failing to stand for anything. A great deal of the criticism is unfair.

When did the National Party ever stand for an alternative programme? National's record is to oppose whatever Labour proposes and then move leftward to adopt Labour's programme. National Governments have got elected by promising to manage better whatever Labour has put in place.

The National Opposition opposed the creation of the welfare state and then the Holland National Government adopted it.

Holyoake fought the black budget with its import controls and then a Holyoake government ran a highly interventionist government. Rob Muldoon fought Norm Kirk's superannuation scheme and then put in place a much more expensive version.

One can even make the same observation regarding Jim Bolger and Ruth Richardson. National opposed Rogernomics and then for three years ran a Rogernomics programme.

Last election, National insofar as it had a programme, entered into a bidding war with Labour on who would pay teachers more.

Neither of the old parties wanted to face the issues that caused our teachers to strike, and so many good teachers to leave the profession - a monopoly state system where bad teachers get paid the same as good.

Teachers were driven to strike because of the incredible bureaucratic paper war that is the NCEA which is replacing School Certificate.

ACT alone has opposed the dumbing down of education standards represented by the NCEA. All of ACT's criticisms are coming true.

ACT has a vision of lifting education standards. We strongly endorse the thirty secondary schools which are now offering Cambridge University School Certificate.

ACT as a liberal party has campaigned for school choice. Why should pupils not attend the school that suits their needs - public or independent? Why not allow a talented student the right to sit the internationally recognised highest standard exams? Only by comparing our students honestly in external exams will we lift standards. It is every child's right to be able to have the best education for them, and let's leave no child behind.

National has no "Great Idea" like the one ACT expresses in education. The National party has always feared ideas and we liberals welcome them, but let me return to this in a moment.

Conservatives both in and out of government fear change. This is where the liberal and the conservative part company.

We liberals have much greater belief in the market. That the market is self-regulatory, self-adjusting and has capacity for meeting new circumstances. The National party has no belief in the dynamic powers of free enterprise to solve problems and so has frequently made use of the coercive regulatory powers of the state in an attempt to prevent change.

If we look at National's record, National governments have been - especially in agriculture - more socialist than Labour.

Sir Robert Muldoon may have been an extreme example, but he was not the aberration, as National likes to claim. It was National politicians who resisted the ending of statutory marketing boards and supported the Labour government in exempting Fonterra from the Commerce Commission.

The fundamental problem with National, as Hayek put it, "the conservative lacks principles".

Hayek hastened to add that this is not to say that conservatives have no moral values. Bill English is a very moral man. When he says he cares about New Zealand, that care is genuine.

But the history of the National party is that it is just as willing to use the coercive powers of the state to impose its views on fellow citizens as any Labour government.

It is no accident that National and Labour introduced the Resource Management Act, the biggest ever attack on property rights.

National lacks understanding of the greatest and most successful conservationist force - private property. Private property owners have and always will protect and conserve their property far better than the poverty and desecration of the commons.

The most devastating criticism of the two old parties' Resource Management Act is that for all its compliance cost, regulations and army of bureaucrats the Act has failed to conserve the environment.

The National party does not object to Labour's use of government power but that it is Helen Clark doing it. The OSH Act that National and ACT are fighting to prevent being amended, was a National government law. No liberal would ever have supported the original bill.

It is fair to observe that it is ACT that provides in parliament the intellectual rigour to the opposition to Labour's programme. One wonders what real opposition there would be if ACT was not in parliament. It certainly wouldn't come from Mr Peters.

(I note as an aside that NZ First is holding its annual convention today and in their press release they state their principal policy debate will be whether to adopt a policy of "zero tolerance to crime". Further proof, if you need it, that where ACT leads others follow.)

The liberal says that there are clear limits to government power. We do not believe that state should do for citizens what citizens can and should do for themselves.

In some ways in parliament ACT is between the conservatives and the socialists. Make no mistake. Margaret Wilson, Helen Clark, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, Rod Donald, and Jim Anderton are lifestyle socialists.

The Social Welfare (Working Towards Employment) Bill, the first bill passed by the re-elected Labour government - supported by all the government parties - is a bill to reconstruct our social institutions, in this case the family.

Under that bill a woman can go on the DPB and stay on it until her youngest child is 18 years of age. The bill removed the requirement to seek work. The concept that all adults have a duty to, as much as they are able, be self-supporting, is directly attacked in the bill. The social devastation that unlimited welfare has caused to this country is well established.

It is ironic that the United party elected on family values should, as its first action in parliament, support a bill that attacks the values that underpin out society.

While we in ACT oppose Labour's social engineering we do not agree with the social conservatives in parliament who also wish to impose their views on society.

While many in ACT have strong religious views we do not believe we have the right to impose our views on others. In that sense ACT is between the conservatives on the right and the socialists on the left.

But let me come to what really marks out ACT and the liberal approach.

The liberal does not fear new ideas. We liberals have great faith in the power of ideas. We welcome open, free debate and dialogue because we believe it is out of the contest of ideas that we make progress.

That's why an ACT Regional Conference is like no other party's. You will hear new ideas, new solutions, and fresh approaches at this conference.

We in ACT are not afraid of the future. We enjoy the intellectual vigour of well-reasoned argument. Even our critics admit that ACT is a party of great influence because of our willingness to welcome fresh ideas and to promote new practical, positive solutions.

So in this liberal tradition, enjoy this conference, confident in the knowledge there is nothing more powerful than a new idea whose time has come.

We live in the knowledge age. The world of computers, the internet, of individuals having at their fingertips whole encyclopaedias of knowledge. The party that confidently rides the knowledge wave is the Liberal party.

Liberalism is the great political force of the 21^st Century.

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