David Seymour: Distractions have allowed the Govt to quietly create radical policy

Opinion 01/02/2019
Photo: Getty.

By David Seymour, ACT Party leader

OPINION: "A fisherman sees another fisherman from afar," drawls Michael Douglas after ripping off a competitor in Wall Street II. If it takes one to know one, then ACT has an insight into the current Government that others don’t see. It goes like this: Far from a listless group of kids, they are ideologues with a serious agenda, and a quiet determination to change New Zealand.

The mainstream criticism of the Government is that it consists of children, barely out of lecture theatres, and certainly out of their depth running an $100 billion-dollar organisation. If you measure a government solely by its day-to-day management, then things like Karel Sroubek really matter. Forget that it’s one guy whom the judicial system assessed for risk and put in minimum security. It’s a measure of administrative competence and worth attacking for two months.

The alternative view is that politics is actually about better policy.

Public policy is the one thing we can change. We can’t change our population in the short term, or move closer to the rest of the world and natural resources are what they are. If there were any big gold mines in these islands, we probably would have found them by now. But we can choose our policies.

From this point of view, the Government’s working groups aren’t a sign of floundering incompetence, but quiet policy determination. To borrow a phrase, these folks are not here to f**k spiders. If you like free markets and individual rights, this is a much less comfortable view of where New Zealand is headed, but it’s more likely the correct one.

A Government powerful enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have.

The day-to-day management school of politics tells us entering Parliament young is a bad idea. Much better, the story goes, to have life experience so you can ‘run the country like a business'. But what about the politicians who’ve really done the business?

Almost all of the great reformers entered politics at a young age. Richard Prebble entered Parliament at 27. Sir Roger Douglas (32), Ruth Richardson (31), and Margaret Thatcher (34) were all elected before they turned 35. On the other hand, Stephen Joyce (45) talked about being remembered in history in his valedictory statement, and how he negotiated to make the Waterview Tunnel one lane wider. John Key, 41, said that his biggest regret after eight years as Prime Minister was not changing the flag.

Of course, there are exceptions.

Ronald Reagan was old enough to enrol at a Ryman Village by the time he entered the White House. Winston Peters looks likely to leave Parliament without a durable legacy despite being first elected at 34. Nonetheless, politicians who start early have more chance of learning the ropes and affecting change before their careers are out.

Iain-Lees Galloway was criticised for a residency decision.

Viewed in this light, those at the core of this Government are lifetime professional politicians. Jacinda Ardern, who entered Parliament at 28, Grant Robertson (37), Iain Lees-Galloway (30), and Chris Hipkins (30) are not here for the spiders. We’ve already seen it in the Muldoon-like eradication of charter schools and the ban on oil and gas exploration, but the real evidence is in the very area that mainstream critics point to as a sign of weakness.

The working groups show a deeply ideological and determined Government. The Tomorrow’s Schools Review proposes to throw out competition, choice and community participation. In their place, politically-appointed governors will manage 125 schools at a time, moving teachers, principals, students and resources in and out of schools for their version of the greater good.

The capital gains tax that will almost certainly come out of the Tax Working Group is double taxation. Capital assets are only worth the income they produce, and that income is already taxed. If your capital asset appreciates, so does the future income and the tax due on it. No matter, this Government wants a tax on the asset value as well. It is an envy tax designed to punish those who accumulate capital.

Then there are the labour law reforms, effectively promising to bring back national awards with whole industries negotiating their pay on a nationwide basis. No longer will work be based on individual effort and reward. The policy is supposed to start in just a couple of industries, but this is a cop-out. If it’s a good idea, why not make it universal? If it’s not a good idea, why do it at all?

The next Budget is touted to be the first ‘wellbeing’ budget. No longer will the budget be Parliament giving the Government permission to spend taxpayer money on delivering services, but an all-encompassing assessment of whether citizens are living good lives. The Budget will have concern for your sense of personal identity and happiness. It is worth remembering that a Government powerful enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have.

The Government is probably quite pleased that the main criticisms of it have been about day-to-day operations. The distraction has given them cover to quietly develop a radical agenda to reverse all of the world-leading free market reforms they grew up watching their party carry out. It is time for lovers of personal freedom to go beyond day-to-day politics and stand up for our values.

David Seymour is the leader of the ACT Party.