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The Blandification of [N]ACT
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Wed, 2011-11-16 01:22
For all sad words of tongue or pen
—John Greenleaf Whittier
I note that Don Brash, just before the Cuppagate "scandal" broke out, cited the speech in which he offered his personal musings about the cannabis laws as his "biggest mistake" of the 2011 election campaign.
Newstalk ZB quotes him as saying "No question about that, I should not have talked about it, it isn't ACT Party policy, it hadn't been approved by the board."
I would say there are plenty of contenders for the Don's Biggest Mistake Award, but the marijuana speech isn't one of them. Don's mistake in that regard was to lose his nerve after the event, even though public opinion was overwhelmingly on his side for once.
I wrote that speech (and was made the scapegoat for it). It's worth repeating that it didn't claim to state ACT policy (though it certainly ought to be ACT policy); rather, as part of a wide-ranging discussion of law-and-order issues, it simply questioned the wisdom and justice of criminalising, at enormous taxpayer expense, a substance routinely ingested by 400,000 supposedly autonomous New Zealanders harming no one but themselves (if they're doing even that). The leader of a party whose core principle is
is entitled at least to raise such an issue, surely?! Why on earth would talking about it constitute such a leader's biggest mistake?!
Actually, the speech was crafted in such a way that Don could have deleted the marijuana segment with no one being any the wiser. He displayed great integrity in keeping it in. His thinking had quite genuinely progressed to the point where he believed what it said. Alas, the courage of his new-found conviction deserted him when John Banks ran amok and the Board panicked.
On the night after the speech, Don appeared on Campbell Live to defend it. The programme ran a poll on decriminalisation to coincide with his appearance. A record number of people—15000—responded; 72% supported him! Not for the first time, we saw that this is one of those libertarian issues where the voters are much more enlightened than most politicians. As the Press noted at the time, on this matter Banks rather than Brash is the dinosaur.
Here was Don's chance to re-brand ACT unambiguously as the live-and-let-live party across the board, not just on economic issues. But he needed to hold his nerve. I had texted him a line from Rudyard Kipling just before his Campbell Live appearance: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ... "
Alas, he buckled. Not only did he deliver my scalp as demanded, he rang David Farrar asking him to delete from Kiwiblog an article written by an ACT candidate supporting the speech! In a stunningly Orwellian turn, that speech was now officially deemed never to have happened! Had not Don Brash called for a debate? Well, ACT was certainly not going to participate in it! Candidates seeking clarification were told simply not to go there. To their shame, even ACT's youngsters who had been clamouring for social as well as economic liberalism capitulated to this cowardly revisionism.
If we're looking for the actual winner of the Don's Biggest Mistake Award, I would say there are two contenders. One is John Banks. This feral conservative has always been actively hostile to the self-ownership principle (if he even understands it). It was Don's idea to have him run for Epsom. At the outset it didn't matter too much because we all expected ACT to clear 5% quite quickly after Don's coup and not be dependent on an authoritarian homophobe's winning a seat. As things stand now, however, Banks has a pivotal status that is incongruous to the point of grotesquery.
And that points to the other contender for the DBM Award, the reason for the low polling that leaves ACT beholden to a philosophical enemy: Don's failure to put his own stamp on the party swiftly and ruthlessly, clearing out the Rodents who were intent on thwarting him from within at every turn. They're still there, and they still run the show, aided and abetted from without by the same oleaginous public relations charlatans of yore (the kind of kumbaya homogenisers who are the bane of contemporary political discourse). These entities have combined to promote and preserve the Blandification of ACT—and Don has allowed himself to be their captive. They've turned the party's subservience to National up several notches, making it effectively the NACT party. The party that once boasted it would give National a backbone has lost its own. The party that once fearlessly stirred up controversy is now paralysed by fear of controversy. Thinking voters—the party's natural constituency—are staying away in droves.
If ACT goes down, the Rodents will oust Don before you can say "Rodney's revenge." Indeed, the process has already begun, courtesy of card-carrying Rodent Cactus Kate, who is demanding Don's resignation before the election. (If ACT by some miracle secures one or two MPs, Banks or Banks/Brash, it'll be Banks who ousts him—which one suspects Banks himself indicated on the Cuppagate tape.) Don, maddeningly, has only himself to blame. He rightly called Rodney "toxic"—but left him and all of Team Toxic in place! (Team Toxic are congenital connivers first, libertarians a distant and occasional second.) As a decent man he refused to believe, much less confront, that he was surrounded by indecent Machiavellians outraged by his impertinent disruption of their cosy cabal. The leaking of the love-child rumour should have alerted him to the dirtiness of their tactics, but he refused to heed the lesson.
Thus did Don render his own coup futile and set the stage for the counter-coup that is now inevitable.
In his speech at ACT's official campaign launch on Sunday, Don again offered intimations of what might have been. I doubt the oleaginites had anything to do with it; it was far too ballsy. He finally committed to an ambitious tax target—something some of us had been urging him to do months before (his spending targets, alas, were not correspondingly bold). He reaffirmed one law for all. He reiterated his ambition to liberate education from state bureaucrats and teacher unions. He mooted again the adding of property rights and the right to self-defence to the Bill of Rights. In a speech not written by me he even managed to remember the "f" word!
A commitment to repeal marijuana prohibition would have sat well in that speech.
The day such a speech does contain such a commitment will be the day ACT finally comes of age as the classical liberal party it is supposed to be.
Candidates such as Stephen Whittington understand that, as was admirably clear from Whittington's stellar performance on Back Benches last Wednesday. They are the party's future ... if it is to have one.
When that future is secured, Don's marijuana speech will be seen not as his biggest mistake but one of his finest moments. By the party, even if not by him.
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