Saturday 16 September 2023

Act’s Message: Cheerfully Libertarian? Or, Radically Right-Wing?

Mr Pushmepullyou: Pushed by the need for votes, Act's leader, David Seymour, like Richard Prebble before him, has reached out to the dark side of the New Zealand electorate. Much as he would prefer to pull in support on the strength of Act's sunny libertarianism, there just ain't enough Eighteenth Century liberals living in New Zealand to make such a party a viable electoral proposition. Although, God knows, Act has tried!

DAVID SEYMOUR IS DISCOVERING what Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley learned in 1994 – the first year of Acts’s existence. That the sort of supporters the party wants are pathetically few in number – far fewer than the sort of supporters it doesn’t want.

From the moment it was formed, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers had everything a political movement needs to succeed: leaders and spokespeople who were well known; a coherent political ideology; a detailed economic programme; access to large audiences of potential supporters; and money – lots and lots of money. In Act’s first year, it has been estimated that the millionaire entrepreneur, Craig Heatley, spent one million dollars introducing the new political party to the New Zealand electorate.

On paper, Act should have succeeded, but it did not. After a year of touring the country. After a year of free media, and a million dollars’ worth of ads and pamphlets, the opinion polls showed Act hovering just below, or just over, 1 percent. Not enough. No matter how many factory owners obligingly “invited” their employees to hear Douglas’s pitch; no matter how many university campuses Quigley visited; the result was the same. At the point-of-sale, Act lacked the one thing a political movement must have to succeed: a message people want to hear.

Act’s message was liberal in the classical, eighteenth century, sense. Douglas and Quigley preached the gospel of the sovereign, self-actualising, utility-maximising individual, and located him in an economic and cultural environment where state interference is reduced to the absolute minimum. The principle Act subscribed to most enthusiastically was laissez-faire. The doctrine of laissez-faire – “allow to do” – embraced more than free markets, it looked forward to a world without bullies and/or busy-bodies. A permissive world based on the “freedom to” become the best person you can be. A libertarian world.

Or not. New Zealand’s leading Libertarian, Lindsay Perigo, walked out of the founding Act conference, denouncing its refusal to declare total war on the state, and insisting that what Douglas and Quigley were proposing was anything but libertarian. Perigo was free to split ideological hairs because he, unlike Douglas and Quigley, had no real experience of down-and-dirty retail politics. Purity and practical politics don’t mix.

Also present at Act’s founding conference, even if she had no intention of taking part, was the redoubtable left-wing activist, Sue Bradford. With considerably more political savvy than Perigo, Bradford denounced Act as an extreme right-wing party dedicated to finishing the job which Douglas had started. This description of Act was picked up by the news media and repeated ad nauseum. No matter how hard it tried, the Act Party was never able to convince the nation that Bradford’s definition was mistaken. She had branded Act for life.

Not that the “extreme right-wing” brand bothered Richard Prebble all that much. Watching from the sidelines, he was content to let Douglas discover the hard way how very few votes there were in the philosophical doctrines of the Eighteenth Century, or, for that matter, in Ayn Rand’s Objectivist fantasies of the 1940s and 50s. Prebble knew where to go looking for the votes Act needed: exactly which stones, in which dark places, it would be necessary to lift up.

Prebble understood better than just about anybody what MMP was making possible. Parties of the far-Left and the far-Right had never prospered in New Zealand for the very simple reason that the First-Past-the-Post electoral system (which the country had just discarded) made it virtually impossible for such parties to win seats. The one party which had succeeded in doing so was the Social Credit Political League, but only when popular hostility to both National and Labour was strong enough to transform Social Credit into a repository for “protest votes”. Even then, Social Credit was never able to win more than 2 seats.

Prebble was well aware that in the most propitious of political circumstances upwards of 20 percent of the electorate could be susceptible to the blandishments of a third party. Since Act could not expect many votes from the Left (not with Jim Anderton’s Alliance competing so successfully against Labour) the votes he needed belonged to those right-wing New Zealanders who believed that on matters relating to Māori, law-and-order, public morality, women, gays, unions and the environment, the National Party had aligned itself far too closely with Labour. Where is the advantage, Prebble asked his Act colleagues, in allowing Winston Peters to go on sweeping up all these votes?

Taking his inspiration from the right-wing of the US Republican Party, Prebble set about transforming Act into a far-right populist party – albeit one represented by carefully chosen neoliberal/libertarian candidates whose personal beliefs were often at odds with the prejudices of the ideological troglodytes who voted for them. Perhaps the best historical analogy is with the “Dixiecrats” of the southern US states. From the 1940s to the 1970s, outstanding political leaders – like Senator William Fullbright – owed their seats to the votes of unapologetic white supremacists.

While Prebble led Act (1996-2004) the party polled between 6-7 percent of the Party Vote. With his departure in 2004, however, the party’s fortunes plummeted. To 1.5 percent in 2005, recovering slightly to 3.5 percent in 2008, back to 1 percent in 2011, and then to 0.7 percent under the cheerfully libertarian Jamie Whyte in 2014. In 2017, under the stewardship of Act’s incumbent leader, David Seymour, the party won just 0.5 percent of the Party Vote.

Kept in Parliament by its “Epsom Deal” with the National Party, Act seemed likely to fade into obscurity as a one-MP “appendage party”. Then, like so many aspects of New Zealand society, it was transformed by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. With National a fractious political hulk lying low in the water, many right-wing voters cast an angry protest vote for Act. From a risible 13,000 party votes in 2017, David Seymour’s party garnered a remarkable 219,000 votes in 2020 – beating Prebble’s best result (7 percent) by half a percentage point.

Seymour’s stewardship of the Act Party since 2020 has for the most part been exemplary. The party’s 9 additional MPs have presented themselves as a disciplined and competent team – offering voters a stark contrast to the bad behaviour afflicting all the other parliamentary parties. Act’s staunch defence of Free Speech, and its resolute opposition to much of the so-called “woke agenda” – especially co-governance – has pushed its numbers up and over 10 percent in the opinion polls. Not even National’s recovery under Christopher Luxon has been sufficient to seriously undermine Act’s support.

What does pose a threat to Act’s projected success on 14 October, is Seymour’s failure to be guided by Prebble’s thinking on candidate selection. Given the deeply conservative character of  Act’s newfound support – much of it subscribing to the dangerous conspiracy theories growing out of the Covid-19 crisis – the need to scrutinize the party’s prospective candidates within an inch of their lives was urgent. It was absolutely vital that Act’s next ten MPs were (to continue the American analogy) William Fullbrights – not Marjorie Taylor Greenes.

The withdrawal and/or resignation of five Act candidates over recent weeks – a number of them for making claims alarmingly similar to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s – has the potential to give voters pause. Some, perhaps many, will ask themselves just how much they really know about Act and what it stands for.

Here’s a clue: it ain’t libertarianism.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 11 September 2023.


The Barron said...

I think there is a mistake to confuse opportunism for a coherent political philosophy. Greed remains a vice, not a virtue. All else is self or societal justification for protecting and promoting their position by consolidating inequality. ACT is an unsustainable world view that promotes division as social policy and economic disparity. There is every analysis that their policies will led to actual and irreversible harm on the vulnerable in our communities, yet they shamelessly promote this. Their gun policy as an example has been shown by police and other experts to be one that will lead to inevitable death of innocents, including a greater risk factor for those first responders protecting society, yet this remains policy because victims can be out of sight out of mind. The stigmatization of the at risk is central to their manipulation of the public against their fellow citizens.

Justification of greed and harm is not philosophy, it is the empowered using their social privilege to rob the disempowered.

Archduke Piccolo said...

It's something of a puzzle to figure out what, if anything, ACT - the Association of Crooks and Tax-dodgers as I been inclined to call them - stands for. If it is still pushing the 'Economic man' line - the 'sovereign, self-actualising, utility-maximising individual' - then ACT is dreaming. That individual doesn't - can not - exist, even if he thinks he does. Ain't no such animal. The Chicago School economic 'theory' touted by Milton Friedman and which form the foundation of ACT's ideology is simply a nonsense with no relation to the real world, real people and real commerce.

I have been forced to conclude that the reason it took such a hold was that its underlying 'licence to loot the Common Weal' was just too much for most of the already rich to pass up. I'm no fan of Sue Bradford, but I reckon she was right ion the money. 'Trickle Down' was/is just weasel words for a more accurate, earlier description that can be summed up as 'Let 'em Eat Shit' economics.

Ion A. Dowman

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that history. Helpful.

Anonymous said...

Chris, it’s tiresome to see you write about “dangerous conspiracy theories” concerning Covid-19 without explicitly stating what they are. No doubt one or two exist, but in reality any opposition to the Covid-19 vaccines and the mandates has been dismissed as “conspiracy theory” as a means of cancelation designed to end conversation and reasonable debate. Just stop it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm not one for handing out patronising praise for columns, but this is really good. Or perhaps it just fits in with my prejudices. 😁

But so much could be said about libertarianism and the people who embrace it. All due respect to Seymour, but they do tend to be nongs. Lindsay Perigo was a case in point. Although to be fair, he was better than many – just arrogant. I'm pretty sure he would have known where or indeed what, Aleppo was for instance, and would have been able to name a world leader that he admires. And he certainly had a lot more sense than Mike Hosking.

Libertarian experiments are not necessarily common for obvious reasons, but those that have taken place have AFAIK all ultimately failed. Those that are interested could Google them I suppose, I've posted links in the past.

It is worrying though that both Peters and Seymour seem to be courting the anti-vaxx crowd. To be fair to Seymour, he seems to be getting rid of the worst of them, but Peters knows exactly what he's doing, and is simply chasing votes.

Those people are beyond reason, and in my mind quite scary. I've jousted with them in the past, and put one of my favourite questions to them quite often. "I know what would change my mind, evidence that vaccinations either did active harm or no good. What would change yours?" The answer is almost inevitably "I won't change my mind because I know I'm right." There's no arguing with these people, all you can do is present the evidence and hope that ordinary sensible people will follow that rather than the lunacy. Unfortunately, lunacy has its attractions.

Which of course brings us back to some of the consequences of free speech which all you free-speech absolutists tend to ignore. It has consequences in the real world, and sometimes these consequences are dead people.

Gary Peters said...

In my opinion neither, merely a typical politician in the mold of Winston prepared to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds depending on the way the political wind is blowing.

His goal is not our betterment, in my opinion.

chris prudence said...

Chris Prudence September 14, 2023 at 6:54 am
Labour party devalued the currency out at the mangere bridge hotel as Bernard Galvin from the reserve bank met Lange and Douglas.State assets were sold in the second half of the 87 Govt.

Charles September 14, 2023 at 1:16 pm
And ramped up by Bolger and Shipley…

John September 14, 2023 at 8:57 am
I guess we first need to define “workers” and “rich scroungers.”

Bob the first also known as John. September 14, 2023 at 5:50 pm
How do you define it Bob?

Chris Prudence September 14, 2023 at 10:21 am
Correction.It was treasury from whence Bernie Galvin came and Spencer Russell from the reserve bank but Rod Deane had a bit role as his deputy.

christian prudence September 15, 2023 at 12:16 am
Floating the dollar and devaluation by twenty percent amounted to the same thing a run on the dollar.That was a manufactured crises that allowed rich students to make a couple of hundred dollars buying $US dollars and selling them back after the election as signalled by douglas beforehand.Then came privatisation and the biggest sale of them all telecom to bell atlantic for four billion a record at the time.The rest of the world stood by and watched as we reduced tariffs and import protections and we were left standing naked as aussie and canada watched the firesale ensue.

christian prudence September 17, 2023 at 2:13 pm
Willy Jackson still has time to save the Labour party.He should have bailed out the left wingish Today FM and reigned in the right wing media bias now showing up in the polls.Bring back Tova.

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John Hurley said...

I don't see conspiracy theorists in the essentialised way you seem to do Chris.
You could call Jordan Peterson a crazy global warming denying nutter by that. I think they are attracted by Acts contrarian status.
I watched Counterspin Media and the first thing he mentioned was oil and the abiotic theory as a fact. If Act's candidates are just ignorant that's another matter.
But what about Max Harris? I watched him and Liz Gunn the arrow that sent me there was questioning her credentials. She may have just been practising a chatty supportive style but Max Harris spouts mashed vegetables (for want of a more appropriate metaphor).

John Hurley said...

I voted Act when they first started. To me Act meant a reaction to the gap between what people want and what poiticians dish up. I feel though that the libertarianism is just formula but devoid of the missing ingredient which is that (as Jon Haidt says) people are deeply intuitive creatures and gut instinct guides their thinking. They look for a figure who is Our Father (think of Muldoon and the Black Power tribute).
I had a discussion with a former Act member who was scathing of James McKenzie for breaking up the great estates. What parent would not intervene to "let the small man on the land". I'm an admirer of Stephan Franks but on Twitter he was upset at Act over sunlight. People should not have a right to sunlight.
I sit here in Chch; it is nor-west and I'm watching planes flying in to Chch Airport. That view (and sunlight) is now on death row. David Seymour mentioned that in Queenstown but it wasn't on Slack Tames agenda because Gated Institutional Narrative

Madame Blavatsky said...

"Given the deeply conservative character of Act’s newfound support – much of it subscribing to the dangerous conspiracy theories growing out of the Covid-19 crisis – the need to scrutinize the party’s prospective candidates within an inch of their lives was urgent."

I wonder, Chris, if you could take a few minutes to outline for your readers the substance of the "dangerous conspiracy theories" you refer to.

For instance, do you mean the dangerous conspiracy theory that we would be forced to endure much more than the initial "three weeks to flatten the curve"? Or the dangerous conspiracy theory that masks would be mandated? Or the dangerous conspiracy theory that vaccine passes and vaccine mandates would be introduced? Or the dangerous conspiracy theory that C-19 vaccination doesn't prevent infection or transmission? Or the dangerous conspiracy theory that 3rd, 4th and 5th "boosters" would be rolled-out?

And "dangerous" for whom exactly? Dangerous for those denying that any and all of the above actualities would occur, thereby proving them to be wrong at best and deliberate liars at worst?

Brendan McNeill said...


In todays cultural and political environment, a "conspiracy theory" along with its ugly twin sisters misinformation and disinformation is any fact or opinion that does not expliciltly conform with the Government's approved narrative.

Madame Blavatsky said...

Are ACT actually right wing?

I find it bizarre that "right wing", from the time of the French Revolution (and prior) to the end of WW2, right wing meant hierarchical, non-egalitarian, autocratic, traditionalist, ethno/national-centric, and often theocratic, up until the post the post WW2 era when "right wing" suddenly and inexplicably came to mean libertarian, hyper-individualistic, neoliberal and was characterised by people like Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

When I think of "right wing" I think of Bismarck, King Loius XIV and GK Chesterton, not David Seymour, Friedrich Hayek and Jordan Peterson.

Geoff said...

Recall the predictions of ACTs demise immediately, and for weeks following the 2020 election, premised on the belief "they were 'untried', would cause all sorts of chaos and embarrassment for Seymour"?
Well, history shows none of that has transpired, and in fact the whole lot have acquitted themselves very responsibly and personably.Clearly, the vetting process stood up in other words.
You will recall too, Chris, since the advent of MMP, all sorts of 'strange' people have entered parliament,which their respective parties have had cause to regret.So,clearly no vetting process will discover all peccadilloes.
It obviously suits the left to exaggerate any potential problems in ACT, but it is my belief ( certainly on current evidence ) their calibre of candidate selection is head and shoulders above Labour, Greens, Te Pati Maori and NZF!

Anonymous said...

As a subscriber to ACT's newsletter, I can report that their own internal survey of issues important to supporters showed Maori/non-Maori co-governance to be clearly the top concern of respondents. In what way is pro-democracy either extreme right wing or Libertarian?

new view said...

Poking a stick at a wasps nest will have the desired result Chris. You may have fallen into the false belief that anti vax and conspiracy theorists are by definition political extremists. We all know that some may be, but there are thousands of these believers who fall right in behind National and labour all the time. This election may see a punishment vote especially away from Labour, because of mandate policy and the debacle in Wellington to not only Act, but to any party that's not Labour. NZ1 is one of these parties and good old Winston is throwing out some bait which is tastless and opportunist.. In the past NZ1 have been centrist enough to pick up votes from all persuasions, this time it may be different in that they may win some but also lose some. The other smaller parties tend to be more extreme anyway and have to try and compromise with their extremists to pick up the numbers and it's a fine balance regardless of their philosophies. By being centrist parties, Nat and Lab don't need to pander to extreme left or right, if they know whats good for them that is.

John Hurley said...

Listen to Mandy Hagers attempt to justify deplatforming Juliet Moses

Brendan McNeill said...

With respect to Conspiracy Theories:

"Mainstream media have reported in recent weeks that it’s likely President Putin is behind the death of Jevgeni Prigozjin. This speculation is in all respects a conspiracy theory.

Indeed, the mainstream media regularly reports conspiracy theories. The Chinese woman who claimed that the coronavirus escaped from a lab is said to be secretly working for Steve Bannon, Putin is said to have financed Trump's election campaign, the Russians are behind the large-scale spread of fake news . . . These are all mainstream conspiracy theories.

Some of those theories may, in the end, turn out to be more or less correct. But there are also mainstream conspiracy theories that have been patently wrong and whose spread has caused enormous damage and human suffering. Consider, for example, the theory that Saddam Hussein secretly produced weapons of mass destruction. This was the rationale and drummed up support for the horrific Second Gulf War.

When a conspiracy theory is spread through the mainstream media, however, it is almost never acknowledged as such, even in retrospect. On the other hand, if a story goes against the mainstream narrative, it is quickly – far too quickly – labeled a conspiracy theory. Any criticism of corona policy, any criticism of climate discourse, any critical analysis of the structure of globalist institutions and their propaganda campaigns, and so on – all automatically conspiracy theories! And anyone who dares engage in such discourse – as all citizens of the world indeed should – risks being quickly and unceremoniously booted from “polite” society, and relegated to a ghetto of other conspiracy theorists.

This branding of critical analyses as de facto conspiracy theory is used to stigmatize the speaker and thereby bring the discourse to a standstill, even if the theory is correct. There are admittedly quite a few mainstream-critical conspiracy theories that make no sense, but there are also quite a few that do make sense.

For example, it is indisputable that the WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conducted a large pandemic simulation the year prior to the corona crisis with the entire scenario that unfolded the following year already being put into practice. You can find evidence of this exercise on the internet, neatly catalogued on the aforementioned institutions’ websites, under the title “Event 201.” It is also indisputable that the director of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, published a book entitled The Great Reset. Event 201 and The Great Reset have given rise to some rather far-fetched thought constructions. But it is a big net: those of us who have brought any critical attention whatsoever to these two – and other relevant – events, have been smeared as conspiracy theorists." Continued at URL below:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"You could call Jordan Peterson a crazy global warming denying nutter by that."

Chris, it’s tiresome to see you write about “dangerous conspiracy theories” concerning Covid-19 without explicitly stating what they are. No doubt one or two exist.

One or two?
1. It's a result of 5G.
2. Bill Gates wants to vaccinate everyone in the world and put little chips in them.
3. It was created as a biological weapon.
4. It was developed by the US military to weaken China.
5. It's something to do with genetically crops.
6. It doesn't exist.
7. It's under the control of the "deep state".
8. It's all a plot by pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs.
9. The death rate has been inflated by governments.
10. It was engineered as a bio weapon in a Chinese lab.
11. It's no worse than the flu.
12. It's a plot by the wealthy/big Pharma to sell vaccines.

That's just a few. #1. Has resulted in attacks on Telecom workers. But of course the free-speech absolutists won't care about that. And generally, belief in these conspiracy theories means lower vaccination rates – a bad thing – and consumptions of quack medicines – also a bad thing – and unnecessary deaths – a bad thing?.

sumsuch said...

There is no more respect to conspiracy theories than born-again christianity.

Thanks GS for the listing of the tosh.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'll assume that either when I divided my way to long post into 2 parts that either I buggered it up or there was too much strong meat in the 2nd part and I was censored. But if I could just respond to Brendan.
1.It's a bit much to call Saddam Hussein and the WMD is a conspiracy theory when it was an outright lie perpetuated by Bush and Blair, both of whom incidentally professed Christianity – in order to excuse their invasion. And against the advice of their intelligence services I might say. Many, many people challenged it, both before and after the invasion. So I guess Brendan, you could be considered to be adopting/spreading the age-old conspiracy theory that governments managed to "cancel" those who challenge the "received wisdom". Perhaps you think they are hiding little green men in a warehouse somewhere? Honestly, whatever you say about the American government, and I have – nothing stays secret there for very long.
2. The WHO was one of the principles involved in the exercise you mention, and I fail to see what relevance it has given that it was explained reasonably comprehensively why they were doing it. It certainly isn't evidence of anything other than they wanted to be prepared for a pandemic, which as they said we can expect to see more of in future. Because of that climate change which you so often deny Brendan. If we follow your logic, the fact that the US has plans for invading Mexico and Canada, and Britain almost certainly has plans for invading France or any number of other countries, means that they are actually going to do it? It's called contingency planning, and everybody who has an ounce of nous does it.
Ah sumsuch – thank you for the encouragement. There is little enough around here unless you happen to be on the right. I could have added a few more, but I doubt if I'm going to change anyone's mind. I've got a list of them somewhere which I could copy and paste but I've just had to have a new computer and everything's gone to crap. 😁