Friday, 19 March 2021

Speech to the Business New Zealand Major Companies Group CEO Forum


Introduction

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I thought this was a great chance for you to meet ACT’s Deputy Leader, Brooke van Velden, and see that ACT is no longer ‘just David.’

In psychology they talk a lot about anchoring. You probably think of ACT as a party of one that’s had an extraordinary result. Regression to the mean tells you ACT’s next result should be poorer than the last one.

Here’s another anchor. Emmanuel Macron founded En Marche on 6 April 2016. He became President Macron on 7 May, 2017. One year, one month, one day later. Macron is an outlier but her reminds us that politics is anarchic, and more so than usual at the moment.

Last week Labor in Western Australia just won 50 out of 60 seats. I heard the first phone call was from Vladimir Putin, asking how they did it.

In ACT our goal is to double again in two-and-a-half years’ time. If you take the outside view, there’s no reason we cannot become the Government in two and a half years’ time.

Honest conversations

One of our greatest assets is our purpose. We exist to ensure New Zealand has the best public policy in the world. Every ACT MP has this up in their office.

It goes on to say that: “We represent New Zealanders who believe in personal freedom. We raise the standard of lawmaking by holding Government accountable and proposing better solutions. We focus on voters’ concerns and aspirations, not other politicians.”

ACT believes New Zealand is sorely lacking in honest conversations. It’s not just here, either. According to people who measure these things, such as Freedom House, democracy is in decline around the world. Authoritarianism is back, and if you lived your whole life thinking liberal democracy had won, it’s frankly terrifying.

Just this morning I heard Sir Peter Gluckman on the radio, saying democratically elected local councilors are totally ill-equipped to make any technical decision. He was talking about fluoridation, and he may be right on this issue. However, his casual and unchallenged dismissal of democracy was an extraordinary sign of the times.

There seems to be a difficulty with processing critical information through the democratic process. New Zealand’s COVID response and the political response to it are a classic example of category error.

New Zealand’s results are exceptional, almost peerless. However, the credit voters gave the Government for its response is out of all proportion to the effectiveness of the response.

I won’t rehearse all the reasons why the New Zealand Government had an easier job than others. Suffice to say that, when I challenged the COVID Response Minister to name a country that went into the pandemic with greater initial advantages, he couldn’t.

I’ll also spare you the reasons why I don’t think the Government’s response was particularly effective. One example should suffice. Contact tracing performance during the Valentine’s Day outbreak, that is end-to-end tracing from identifying, to testing, to decommissioning a contact, was at around 50 per cent in four days. It’s short of the 80 per cent target and was no better than the outbreak last August.

The problem with COVID is an extreme case of the disconnect between political popularity and measured results. We know from recent experience that a Government can oversee:

  • Anemic productivity growth
  • Plummeting scores in international student assessments (despite rising domestic pass rates)
  • A massive infrastructure deficit in terms of both maintenance and capacity
  • A runaway housing market consuming the poorest people’s income, unless they are homeless
  • A healthcare system with flatlining productivity and scarcely first world access to pharmaceuticals
  • Totally unsustainable fiscal commitments and no will to confront them

All this with no credible strategy to improve. In some cases the Prime Minister can be openly dismissive of the problem, or in others make it even worse.

And that was just the Key Government.

Now things are getting worse faster.

The missing market

The real problem is an old one. There is a missing market for honest conversations in politics.

Imagine you go to a restaurant, look at the menu, choose carefully, then get something totally different. That’s how we roll, the waiter explains. You don’t get your choice. Everyone gets the most popular choice.

The next time you go back you pick the first thing you see, sit back, and try to enjoy whatever you get.

You go back one last time and there are no menus. ‘Well, nobody seemed to care about their choice, so we stopped offering choices.’

That in a nutshell is public choice economics. The customer is the voter, the menu is the policy manifesto, the waiter is the candidate, the food is the policy, and the results are not as good as they could be.

I know about the missing market. Only one outlet covered my book on public policy. When I dance, play basketball and jump out of planes, every media outlet covers it.

Eggshell culture

The missing market has been with us a long time, but what I call eggshell culture seems to be making it worse.

I heard someone last week sum up something I think a lot of people are feeling. She said: “It’s supposed to be a time of enlightenment, but you have to walk on eggshells with everything you say.”

Our researcher, whose job it is to coax focus group participants into revealing their true feelings, tells us that it’s never been harder work. People feel each other out for longer, seeking pre-approval for their views.

Free speech is a human right, but it is also a critical tool for a society to work through its problems. If the Government does introduce so-called Hate Speech laws, that will only exacerbate the problems.

I don’t fully understand what is driving eggshell culture. What I do know is that so long as we believe identity is more important than action, so long as we are formed into a hierarchy of victimhood, then we are going to find it much more difficult to solve problems collectively.

So, what now?

If we want better public policy, then we face some challenges. There’s a missing market for the honest conversations we need, and more and more people are too scared to have any conversation at all.

ACT’s proposition is that we can win politically with a mantra of honest conversations. We have proven it by the fact we’re here in greater numbers.

We were honest about the Government’s rushed firearm laws. It wasn’t about guns. It was about the law.

We were honest about free speech. Sometimes people who say odious and offensive things deserve our protection because protecting their freedom to speak protects all of ours.

We were honest about the suffering some New Zealanders face at the end of their life, and made change. Now New Zealanders suffering at the end of their life have the choice of going on their terms with their timing.

We were honest brokers throughout the COVID crisis, saying the opposition’s role is to give constructive criticisms when necessary and helpful suggestions where possible.

The interesting thing is it worked, and I think there’s a lot more ACT votes to come.

Our campaign director, who is foreign, was shocked by our exit polling. We cleared five per cent in every Territorial Local Authority except Wellington, where we got 4.8. We cleared five in almost every demographic. Age, race, region – we did it.

Our support does not look like the profile of a small right-wing party but the foundation of a big tent with multiple growth opportunities. Anecdotally I feel it in the diversity of people who come up to me.

A scenario

The most plausible way to change the Government is for ACT and National to pick up 18 seats and pull back a 61-33 deficit. We are prepared to do the heavy lifting on this.

People think ACT can only attract votes from people who used to vote National. That’s wrong. In the Epsom electorate, a quarter of people who gave their Party Vote to Labour gave their Electorate Vote to ACT.

I think ACT can do well, but how does the right overall do well. I think it could happen easily and unexpectedly.

I have known Jacinda Ardern for a decade. She is warm and genuine. She sincerely wants to help every person she meets. The only problem is, she doesn’t know how.

When times are good, it doesn’t matter. For her tenure, interest rates have been falling and unemployment has been low. Even if those factors had been bad, there’s always been crisis management to fall back on.

More importantly, there is no better communicator in world politics today. The problem is, when your mortgage is getting expensive or you don’t have a job, and the crisis is over everywhere except here, all that communication is just irritating.

After that, there’s little other depth, and things could move very rapidly.

But for what?

From the perspective of someone who wants change, there are two things that can go wrong. The first is that the incumbent Government gets reelected. The second, and this is far more common in our history, is that there’s a change in Government but it is merely a change in personnel with no change in direction.

ACT exists to fix both problems. We’re here to change the Government and the direction.

What would a Government with a lot more ACT in it look like? In short, honest conversations culminate in properly defined problems and real reform. What does that look like?

  • A shift from redistribution to productivity as the underlying policy focus, e.g.
    • Labour law
    • Housing
  • Regulatory reform with a referendum on the Regulatory Standards Bill
  • Structural reform in education and mental health funding
  • Foreign Direct Investment liberalisation
  • First principles reform of resource management law
  • Climate policy based on markets and individual choice rather than central planning, because the latter is unsustainable

Conclusion

My job is to give you a real choice of representation. If you want to vote for people with a proven track record of real change made with almost no resources, here we are.

We understand the underlying problem of getting complex policy change in the democratic marketplace. We know that it’s harder now than usual thanks to eggshell culture.

But we’re also hugely ambitious. We feel so lucky to have been born in this country at this time. We think New Zealand’s policy settings are worth investing in. We need to keep the golden goose laying.

If you feel the same, then I hope you will vote ACT.

ENDS