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Heather Roy's Diary - 13 October 2006

Heather Roy's Diary


ACT's First Decade

Thursday 12 October was the 10th anniversary of MMP, and as the only new party to be elected under the new electoral system, it was also the 10th anniversary of ACT's election to parliament. ACT MPs and members celebrated at a dinner in Auckland. Anniversaries are often a time for reflection, but also a time to look to the future. Rodney Hide delivered a speech talking about ACT's unfinished business - it can be found at http://www.act.org.nz/boldnewstart

ACT's European Trip

During the recent parliamentary recess ACT Leader Rodney Hide and I went to Europe to visit other parties like ACT. There aren't many classical liberal parties around, and it was very refreshing to discuss issues such as lower, flatter taxes and free trade with like-minded sister parties - and interesting also to 'compare notes' on the difficulties these small parties face in the broader political spectrum of their own countries.

We were particularly interested in two political parties - the Progressive Democrats in Ireland and the FDP (Free Democratic Party) in Germany. Both are considered to be classical liberal parties and have enjoyed relevant and productive relationships with bigger parties in government - something ACT has not, as yet, achieved. In particular, they have been successful in driving taxation down, with both advocating smaller government and less bureaucracy.

Ireland's Progressive Democrats

In the last 20 years Ireland has gone from being an economic basket case to the "Celtic Tiger" with economic growth rates higher than any other European state. Only the "Tiger Economies" of East Asia have managed to keep pace.

Ireland's rags to riches story is in large measure due to the remarkable Progressive Democrats who have consistently pushed a line of economic free enterprise and social liberalism - they have a philosophy that draws from the same well as ACT. They are a small party of liberals swimming with the big fish, but they have been very influential due to their ability to form coalition governments with both sides of the Irish parliament.

We were lucky enough to meet Mary Harney, who is currently Ireland's Minister of Health and who was, until recently, leader of the Progressive Democrats and deputy Prime Minister. Mrs Harney originally came to parliament as a member of the Fianna Fa'il party but was expelled for supporting the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. The agreement was to work together to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland, which seems reasonable enough, but it did not go down well with the conservative elements of Fianna Fa'il. However, Mary Harney bounced back, and with some of the other expelled members formed a liberal party of their own.

The Progressive Democrats policies of low taxation, combined with caution in public spending and use of the private sector, have made Ireland a runaway success. They have had a pivotal role in the making of the new Ireland in their 20 years of existence. Ireland elects its Members of Parliament under the STV (Single Transferable Vote) System - meaning each MP has a constituency. It currently has 8 MPs and 5 Senators, gaining 4% of the vote in the last election.

Germany's FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei or Free Democratic Party)

The FDP was founded in December 1948 with the aim of promoting economic and social liberalism. The party's motto aptly describes its philosophy - "as much state as necessary, as little state as possible."

In recent times the FDP has gained between 5.8% and 12.8% of votes in Federal Elections. At present they hold 61 of the 614 seats in the Bundestag, Germany's Lower House of Representatives. Germany operates under MMP, the same political system New Zealand has had for the past decade.

All of the FDP's seats are list seats. Since 1949 the party has only been out of government for about 15 years, having been in coalition with the bigger parties of both the political left and right. At the moment the FDP is the major opposition party to the grand coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and CDU/CSU (a Christian coalition).

During our visit to the Bundestag we met several FDP Members of Parliament, including Chairman (Leader) Dr Guido Westerwelle, and spent time with party organisers and strategists. Recent campaigns have centred on decreasing unemployment - which in some areas is running at around 20%. Fiscal policy looks to lowering taxation and reducing national debt. Education has featured as an election issue for the FDP with emphasis on greater choice and charging tuition fees at universities. The party has always taken a strong stance on foreign policy, and has had Foreign Ministers since its foundation, with the best known and longest serving being Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The FDP supports European Integration (common foreign and security policy) and transatlantic partnership.

When meeting with the party organiser we happened to mention that at every election ACT is written off by the media. "Ha", he exclaimed, "they have been doing that to us in Germany for 60 years!" Given the FDP's past success in being part of government and making significant policy gains, this gives us in ACT great hope!

Thanks to Guest Columnists

My grateful thanks to Mike Bridge and Jack Edmonds, who each wrote a column for the Diary while I was in Europe. Judging by readers' comments, their contributions were well received.

ENDS

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