NZ POLITICS DAILY: ACT trouble with principles, pragmatism and relevance
New ACT Party leader Jamie Whyte received a short sharp lesson on the unhealthy state of political debate in this country after he gave his view on incest laws last week as part of a Q & A on the Ruminator blog. From his own classically liberal belief system, Whyte made some perfectly logical points about the issue – arguing against the state being involved in what happens in the bedrooms of consenting adults - see the blog post by Tim Batt on The Ruminator: Mr Ryght: An interview with ACT leader: Jamie Whyte. Whyte’s view was, of course, a gift to satirists, as demonstrated by Steve Braunias in The secret diary of Jamie Whyte: ‘What plays in the bedroom, stays in the bedroom. As a philosopher, and also as newly elected leader of the Act Party, I'm proud to guard that bedroom door. That's where you'll find me in election year. When you think of Act, I want you to think of me outside a bedroom in which consenting adults commit acts of incest’.
A case study in pragmatism and populism
The whole incident is a very good case study in how contemporary parliamentary parties have a major problem with juggling principles, pragmatism and relevance. Certainly the Act Party is currently struggling to reinvent itself and decide whether to appeal to principle or pragmatism as a way forward. The party has chosen a new leader who, initially at least, appears to be a fearless and dynamic intellectual determined to revive the ideological foundations of the tired and dying party. For a good indication of this, see Hamish Rutherford’s ACT leader Whyte can't be grey. Other articles have also indicated that Whyte plans to move the party away from populism and social conservatism towards principled neoliberal and social libertarian policies.
Yet much of what came out of the Act Party’s conference at the weekend suggests that the promise of an ideological revival and return to original principles was short-lived. The main issue to come out of the conference was a return to populist law and order policies – see TVNZ’s New Act leader short on detail of three strikes plan. As Russell Brown (@publicaddress) tweeted, ‘Well Jamie Whyte’s Act didn’t take long to go from “classical liberal” to “insane populist sentencing gimmicks”’.
Audrey Young also says today that the conference included little on Whyte’s ‘platform of taking the party back to its fundamentals of low tax and small government’ and ‘there was little emphasis on that in Whyte's speech and more on populist themes, with repeated references to reforming the welfare system and a new policy of three-strikes-and-off-to-prison for repeat burglary offenders’ – see: Too many words and not enough Act.
Instead it’s been long-time party funder Alan Gibbs who has pushed a more radical line – see Audrey Young’s Funder sold on the Singapore way. Whyte has been quick to distance himself from this – see his five minute interview this morning on TV3: Gibbs' comments not ACT policy – Whyte.
On all policy discussion the Act Party has taken a leaf out of the major parties approach and been as vague as possible – see Brook Sabin’s article and 2-minute item ACT announcement lacks clear details. Even on reform or the abolition of Resource Management Act, the new Act Party leader was remarkably vague.
Ex-Act supporter, Will de Cleene, is unimpressed – see: Three Whyte Stripes and the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. He laments that Prebble’s pragmatic influence is already visible with Act’s quick shift back towards populism: ‘It sounds remarkably like policy by anecdote, a remarkably bad way to make law’ and ‘There's nothing new with Act at all. We've had flat tax, three strikes and cousin hopping in the last week. With a bit of luck, they'll try talking up charter schools and education vouchers next week’.
The Act leader did speak in greater detail on his 13-minute Interview with Jamie Whyte on The Nation. For the best summary of the interview – as well a transcript – see the NBR’s ACT promises three-strikes policy for burglars. According to this account ‘The new ACT leader was also asked if he would have voted for the GSCB Bill, which made it legal for the agency to spy on NZ residents and citizen. Here, Dr Whyte took a libertarian bent’. And ‘Asked if he would have buckled under intense political pressure of the sort applied by the government over the GCSB Bill, the ACT leader went on one of his philosophical tangents, telling Mr Shepherd, "I hope I wouldn't. How could I possibility know?"’. See also, Chris Keall’s NBR article, New ACT leader splits with Banks over GCSB Bill, wrestles with UFB and Chorus (paywalled).
New campaign manager, Richard Prebble, has signaled that Act will resurrect its flat tax policy, amongst others. But this hasn’t gone down well – see, for example, the Herald’s editorial, Act needs to come up with fresher ideas than flat tax.
Act might not have much in the way of fresh ideas, but it is clear that the party’s organisational health is improving, with more funding and members coming in. To see more about this, as well as details of the party’s campaign techniques see Audrey Young’s Prebble: Time for Act to start again and Andrea Vance’s ACT's new man Jamie Whyte speaks up.
Is Jamie Whyte now ‘intellectually corrupt’?
The controversy over Jamie Whyte’s beliefs on incest has been a strong test for the new leader. Initially he showed bravery in standing up for his right to hold an intellectual and controversial analysis, condemning other politicians who shied away from political honesty. For example, Adam Bennett reported that Whyte ‘said he was not prepared to avoid difficult questions like that about incest as other politicians might’. Furthermore, Whyte is quoted as pondering whether he should go down the path of being less honest or upfront: ‘Maybe I should, but it seems to me the people who find ways around it and avoid it are being less virtuous than me ... I would have to be inconsistent, I would have to be intellectually corrupt’ – see: Act leader Jamie Whyte: 'Leave incest couples alone'.
It wasn’t long, however, before Whyte capitulated on the issue, expressing regret for his comments and promising to be less philosophical in his approach: ‘I was drawn into a very abstract philosophical conversation about the limits of the state and it's not my job now, I'm now party leader, I'm the leader of ACT, it's not my job to be a philosophy lecturer anymore’ – see: Newswire: ACT leader regrets incest comments.
The incest controversy and Whyte’s back down is reminiscent of the Green Party’s jettisoning of its ‘money printing’ policy. This occurred last year when Green’s co-leader Russel Norman had trouble selling his policy and found the best way to deal with the ridicule he received was to ditch it. Very quickly the party got rid of a policy that they truly believed would benefit the New Zealand economy, simply because it was hard to sell. Electoral pragmatism trumped ideological belief – see my column on this from the time, Is the Green Party losing its soul?
So can New Zealand politicians be intellectual and principled? The Herald’s Liam Dann (@liamdann) tweeted to say ‘Philosophical reality: I think therefore I am. Political reality: Don’t get your name in the same headline as the word’. For more such interesting social media discussion on the topic, see my blog post Top tweets about the Act Party, it’s conference, and Jamie Whyte.
Why can’t politicians discuss controversial ideas and theory?
The Act Party’s opponents – mostly on the left – have seized the opportunity to ridicule and demonise Whyte for his incest gaffe. Some of this has been funny, and some of it plain nasty or moronic. See for example, Scott Yorke’s Politics Explained: It’s all about the kids and The politics of honesty, and Martyn Bradbury’s ACT – Incest and Polygamy – the real issues confronting NZ.
Of course the jibes on Twitter came thick and fast. This led Blaise Drinkwater (@BKDrinkwater) to declare: ‘Won't vote ACT, but far more impressed w/ Jamie Whyte than with his detractors so far – smug and shallow are alive and well in NZ discourse’. Certainly the whole incident reflects very poorly on the other political parties, bloggers, and the media who have sought to opportunistically score points against Whyte and Act on this issue. Most responses to Whyte’s position were markedly anti-intellectual.
One leftwing blogger did take up a defence of Whyte, and complained that ‘I think the response has been largely vile from many (on the left) that attempt to marginalise a very small group of people who choose to enter incestuous relationships’ – see Carrie Stoddart-Smith’s blog post This talk about incest. One part of her argument is worth quoting at length: ‘Moreover, he wasn’t even suggesting it become policy, he seemed to me to be addressing the principle behind why it ought not be illegal, rather than taking direct action to legalise it. Whyte simply answered a question that to be fair, has not (as far as I know) been put to any other politician. In my opinion, he answered the question rationally, the way you’d probably expect from a Philosophy Professor. However, rather than analysing the argument, it was a quick lurch into cousin memes and conflating other sexual crimes with incest. As a left identifying voter I hate that I feel compelled to defend Whyte’s comments’.
Similarly, libertarian economics lecturer Eric Crampton has commented: ‘Same as when the left stomped all over Don Brash for favouring marijuana legalisation. Ha ha ha old guy must smoke weed. Never mind they set legalisation in NZ back a decade by proving that nobody can talk about it. I hate what party politics does to people’.
On the right, David Farrar blogged to say that he found it ‘refreshing that a political leader will stand by his personal views, while making it clear they are not party policy’ – see: Whyte and incest. Writing before Whyte made his U-turn, Farrar said, ‘He should not back away from his views. The media will go for the sensationalist headline, but he should maintain a position of saying “Yes this is my personal belief, but ACT is focusing on a b and c”. Some ACT supporters will be uncomfortable with his views, but the public like someone who is genuine and doesn’t hide behind weasel words’. For some similar thoughts, see Pete George’s Jamie Whyte an interesting ACT to follow.
Gordon Campbell made some of the best points against Whyte’s argument: ‘Given the power dynamics within families – and the difficulties that already exist in establishing consent (and the lack of it) with respect to sexual offending outside the family, Whyte’s proposal would seem to put a new category of people, many of them women, at risk of sexual predation by their kin. Erosion of the consent defence would be a more likely outcome of the legalising of incest’ – see: On ACT’s position on incest. See also, Craig Young’s Why “Consensual Adult Incest” Should Not Be Decriminalised.
The Demonisation of Act, Colin Craig and other minor parties
The marginalisation of both minor parties and their radicalism is also seen in the most recent TVNZ opinion poll. The key aspect of that poll result – entirely uncommented upon – was the fact that it showed the two large parties holding a combined public support of 85%. This massive figure – perhaps the highest since the introduction of MMP – shows just how marginal both minor parties and radicalism is in New Zealand politics. After all, the biggest minor party, the Greens, were on a miserly 8% - surely related not just to its Dotcom gaffe and the apparent shift to the left of Labour, but also because the Greens have become significantly more conventional and bland lately.
Much of the lampooning of the minor parties is possible because they are easy targets. As the NBR’s Rob Hosking (@robhosking) explained on Twitter, the left ‘need a bogey. Demonising Key isn't working for 'em’. It’s also the case that many on the left are seeking to mock, ridicule and demonise Colin Craig’s Conservative Party as an easy way of shoring up their own ‘respectability’. This is explained well in John Moore’s blog post, The Demonisation of Colin Craig.
The media is sometimes blamed for an environment in which colorful politics and radicalism are exploited. Even Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking points the finger at his own industry for Whyte’s problems: ‘Lesson number one in party political leadership - the media are out to kill you until you show them you’re made of something worthy of respect. The media by and large is unfair, unbalanced and driven by a lot of ego. They twist things, they interpret things, they run agendas, they look to score points’ – see: No evidence yet of ACT rising again. Hosking also discusses Act’s supposed revival under Whyte, saying that ‘In the opening weeks of the job, I have no evidence of that happening’.
Others argue that the media is in fact giving too much attention to minor parties like Act. Blogger Danyl MacLauchlan argues that the media is biased in favour of the rightwing party: ‘Search the Herald site for Jamie Whyte and you’ll find dozens of glowing interviews, editorials, features and columns about the new leader of the ACT Party. At this point in the election they’re easily receiving as much coverage as National and Labour. Which is weird because this is a really, really, really tiny party. They only recieved 23,889 votes in the 2011 election. Fewer than the Mana Party. WAY fewer than the Maori Party. Less than a 10th of the support of the Green Party’ – see: Speaking for the 0%.
So, what will happen to Act? According to left-libertarian blogger Carrie Stoddard-Smith, ‘Prebble’s strategy to achieve the 9 MP’s in Parliament, is likely to involve casting aside ACT’s libertarian roots for a few seats in the plutocracy. Abandoning their principles, and making a hypocrite of Jamie Whyte in the process’ – see: The Predicament of the Act Party. And according to right-libertarian blogger Mark Hubbard, Whyte’s U-turn on the incest issue is worrying: ‘in that retraction is a problem, being he's already being turned by the mincing machine of party politics into that thing I despise: a politician. Never lose the principled honesty, Jamie. Don't let an intelligent conversation with the electorate fall to its opposite: electioneering’ –see: The Childishness Surrounding the Debacle over Jamie Whyte's Incest Statement.
Finally, for some recent photos and cartoons on the Act Party, see my blog post Images of the Act Party and Jamie Whyte.
Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): No evidence yet of ACT rising again
Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): ACT leader Whyte can't be grey
Audrey Young (Herald): Act leader wants prison for third burglary
Audrey Young (Herald): Go radical, Act Party told
Audrey Young (Herald): Prebble: Time for Act to start again
Audrey Young (Herald): Act wants Resource Management Act dumped
Andrea Vance (Stuff): ACT's new man Jamie Whyte speaks up
Radio NZ: Prebble says ACT on the mend
Newswire: New ACT leader to front AGM
Steve Braunias (Stuff): The secret diary of . . . Jamie Whyte
Will de Cleene (Gonzo): Three Whyte Stripes and the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles
Brook Sabin (TV3): ACT announcement lacks clear details
Newstalk ZB: ACT leader's address to contain 'no surprises'
Sophia Duckor-Jones (Newstalk ZB): ACT Party talking up its 2014 team
Sophia Duckor-Jones (Newstalk ZB): Fighting talk from ACT's new president
Herald: Incest discussion a mistake
Radio NZ: ACT would repeal RMA says Whyte
Radio NZ: ACT wants '3 strikes' law for burglary
Newswire: ACT's crime strategy criticised
Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): The politics of honesty
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): 3 strikes for burglars – no gripes with incest – welcome to the modern ACT Party
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): ACT – Incest and Polygamy – the real issues confronting NZ
Pete George (Your NZ): Jamie Whyte an interesting ACT to follow
Newswire: New ACT leader to front AGM
Paul Thomas (Herald): Getting it wrong on the right
Rob Hosking (NBR): Prebble: Key is "the most remarkable politician I have ever seen"
Newswire: ACT urged to be more radical
Sophia Duckor-Jones (Newstalk ZB): ACT tells Govt to stay out of people's businesses
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Campaigns that border on kamikaze
Audrey Young (Herald): Funder sold on the Singapore way
Newstalk ZB Staff (Newstalk ZB): Whyte deflects criticism after ACT conference
Patrice Dougan (Herald): Green MP's 800km taxpayer-funded trip questioned
Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): Right Thinking: Thank God for the Taxpayers’ Union
Andrew Geddis (Pundit): Let's all pick on the deaf girl!
Danyl Mclauchlan (Dim-Post): Another question for the Taxpayer Union
Pete George (Your NZ): Taxpayer Union versus Mojo Mathers
Neil Reid (Stuff): Taxman binges $225m on advisors
Sophia Duckor-Jones and Corazon Miller (Newstalk ZB): Social media storm over Mojo Mathers travel comments
Jordan Williams (NBR): Taxpayers' Union did not target deaf Green MP
Matthew Beveridge: Mojo Mathers, The Taxpayers Union and The Herald on Sunday
Dylan Moran (TV3): Taxpayers Union upset over Mojo story
Ellipsister: Musings on the Taxpayers Union
Danyl McLauchlan (Dim-Post): Another question for the Taxpayer Union
Pete George (Your NZ): Taxpayer Union versus Mojo Mathers
Bryce Edwards (Liberation): Top tweets about the Taxpayer Union allegations about Mojo Mathers
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Why does Jordan Williams and the hard right astro-turf Taxpayers ‘union’ hate disabled people so much?
Will de Cleene (gonzo): A Statement from TWAT
Danyl MacLauchlan (Dim-Post): Slightly more thoughts on the Taxpayers’ Union
Pete George (Your NZ): Mathers story seems odd
Third Culture: Mathers doing her job - not ok. Royal visit - all good.
Rob Salmond (Polity): Three ramshackle PR fiascos and you're out
Laura McQuillan (Newstalk ZB): MPs expert defend Mojo Mathers
Matt McCarten (Herald): Now for something similar ...
Rodney Hide (Herald): Fence-sitters watch out
Colin Espiner (Stuff): Let's do the (politics) time warp
Matthew Hooton (NBR): Cunliffe keeps promise to far left
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Election battle lines drawn
John Armstrong (Herald): McCarten taking on one of politics' trickiest jobs
Fran O'Sullivan (Herald): Good keen Matt to get Labour moving
Steven Cowan (Against the current): The Politics of low expectations
Steven Cowan (Against the current): History repeats itself
Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): Political Disorders – Infantile And Geriatric
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Views on McCarten
Mike Treen (Daily Blog): The McCarten Appointment
Brennan McDonald: Lurching Left Won’t Work
Mike Butler (Breaking Views): Labour's lurch to the Left
Pete George (Your NZ): What a Chief of Staff does
Alliance: What Is So Scary About the Far Left?
Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): What McCarten’s appointment really means
The Political Scientist: Foxes, hens, the ‘hard left’ and the myth of the ‘time warp’.
Don Franks (Redline): Labour gains, workers lose
Newswire: Confirmation of Coffey nomination due
Newswire: Tamati Coffey wants to enter politics
Matthew Martin (Herald): Ex-TVNZ star wants to stand for Labour
NBR Staff (NBR): TVNZ regular Tamati Coffey in bid for Labour candidancy
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Another TVNZ staffer seeking a Labour job
Offshore oil and gas
Dominion Post: Editorial: Slick move but public say on oil crucial
Rachel Smalley (Newstalk ZB): Meeting in the middle on oil and gas exploration
Ele Ludemann (Homepaddock): Cunliffe caught out again
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): 36 off shore wells under Labour
Pete Goerge (Your NZ): Adams slams Cunliffe’s claims on offshore drilling
Pete George (Your NZ): Cunliffe and Hughes wrong on public ‘muzzling’
Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Political Report: Labour - misjudging and misreading glaring opportunities
Jody O’Callaghan (Stuff): Labour bids for 'fed up' claimants
Matthew Beveridge: BBQ season on social media: The warning signs of a leadership challenge?
Claire Trevett (Herald): Cunliffe used agent to take donations for campaign
Radio NZ: Labour pledges health funding changes
Tahu Potiki (Stuff): Shane Taurima has 'stuffed up'
Keir Leslie (Progress Report): Christchurch Central Selection
James Dann (Rebuilding Christchurch): Special announcement – why I’m running to be the Labour candidate for Christchurch Central
NBR Staff (NBR): Cunliffe admits he blundered attacking Key as 'out of touch'
Patrick Gower (TV3): David Cunliffe admits mistake in attack on PM's wealth
Brian Edwards (BEM): John Key – ‘There There’ Prime Minister
The Standard: A tale of two journalists
Matthew Beveridge: MPs on Twitter: John Key
Dominion Post: Editorial: Changing of the guard
Vernon Small (Stuff): Minister of loud ties and safe hands
Radio NZ: Dowie endorsed for Invercargill
Newswire: National selects Invercargill candidate
Amy Maas (Herald): Maori veto on water
Bernard Orsman (Herald): Iwi consent rule costly, dangerous, says Shane Jones
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Jones leading again
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Is the Maori Party calling Shane Jones racist?
Mike Butler (Breaking Views): The big land-loss lie
Radio NZ: Six seek Urewera raids compensation
Ian Steward (Stuff): Urewera raids compo bid launched
Media and blogs
Lynley Bilby (Herald): Hosking to the rescue
Paul Little (Herald): Authors of their own misfortune
Frank Macskasy (Daily Blog): “The Nation” – a review
Rob Slamond (Polity): Heads, talking
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Happy 1st Birthday The Daily Blog: UPDATE
Pete Goerge (Your NZ): Congratulations to The Daily Blog
The Standard: Voices and Power
Paid parental leave
Radio NZ: Paid parental leave bill going nowhere
Isaac Davison (Herald): Paid parental leave to grow, but not to 26 weeks
Isaac Davison (Herald): MPs divided on paid parental leave
Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): No deal over paid parental leave
Simon Wong (TV3): PM: English will use veto on parental leave
Radio NZ: Cunliffe calls for party pension accord
Duncan Garner (RadioLIVE): Let’s get some super honesty John
Newstalk ZB: Superannuitants living in poverty underestimated
Greg Presland (The Standard): The retirement age debate
Pete George (Your NZ): Standard retirement age discussion
Timaru Herald: Can you buy justice?
John Minto (Daily Blog): The “satanic mill” at Pike River
Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On the latest NSA spy scandal, and the Pike River pay-off
The Press: The pain of Pike endures
Newswire: NZ calls for restraint in Ukraine
Claire Trevett (Herald): Developments in the Ukraine worrying – McCully
Stacey Kirk (Stuff): McCully calls for caution over Ukraine
Jacqui Stanford (Newstalk ZB): Louisa Wall lays down challenge for Tony Abbott
Radio NZ: Law change a worry for expat Kiwis
Lucy Bennett (Herald): Private prosecution against Len Brown shot down by Solicitor-General
Simon Day (Stuff): Action against Len Brown to continue
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Paul Little calls for protesters to be silenced
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Will the moral crusade against Len Brown end now?
Radio NZ: KiwiRail 'disappointed' at asbestos find
RadioLIVE: NZ First takes aim at Govt over KiwiRail
Corazon Miller (Newstalk ZB): Internet Party to offer online sign-ups
Radio NZ: Internet Party seeks commission approval
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Can the herald really be so high and mighty over Charlotte Dawson?
Peter Aranyi (The Paepae): Internet commenters as psychopaths (also applies to ‘blogsters’)
Gerry Brownlee (Stuff): Brownlee: 'Debunking myths and nonsense'
Lois Cairns and Glenn Conway (Stuff): Brownlee fires salvo
Neil Reid (Stuff): Taxman binges $225m on advisors
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Providers quizzed on high prices
Neesha Bremner (Daily Blog): So this is what a rockstar economy looks like…
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): A is for Adam Smith
Marta Steeman (Stuff): Red ink still flows at Solid Energy
Newswire: Mystery surrounds foreign purchase
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Fallow on tax
Matt Nolan (TVHE): Bleg: Nearing time to restart contributions to the “Cullen Fund”?
Inequality and poverty
Diana Clement (Herald): The trouble with middle-income earners ...
Ross Henderson (Stuff): Trivia drowns out wage outrage
Greg Presland (The Standard): National misleads on child poverty
Steohanie Rodgers (The Standard): How to build better beggars
Rob Salmond (Polity): Nats fast and loose with numbers - again
John Drinnan (Herald): Police PR cops some flak
Dita De Boni (Herald): State owned supermarket idea has critics seeing red
Rob Stock (Stuff): Keeping supermarkets in line
Paul Bucchanan (Kiwipolitico): Dismissing Skullduggery.
Keith Locke (Daily Blog): Is the GCSB breaking the cyberbullying law?
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Royals to spend 9 days in NZ
David Kennedy (Local Bodies): The Government's Gift to the Next Generation.
Mike Smith (The Standard): UK Labour goes OMOV
Will Matthews (Left Estate): Glory Days
Susie Nordqvist (TV3): Playcentres call for more funding
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Golf course owner wants more taxpayer funding
Cherie Howie and Lynly Bilby (Herald): Whining and dining
Radio NZ: Call to pay low-decile teachers more
Newswire: Minister heads to Middle East for trade
Nelson Mail: Technology that adds a different dimension
Glenn Conway (Stuff): Donald the Green behind the scenes
John Edens (Stuff): Key pledges $8m cash boost for cycle trail
Paul Thomas (Herald): Getting it wrong on the right
David Kennedy (Local Bodies): Celebration and Despair
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Local body politicians who aren’t focused on their city or region
Nelson Mail: Get the dose right and reveal all costs
Matthew Dallas (Manwatu Standard): Editorial: Plan better way to approach booze
The Standard: Militarism and the NZ Left?