Response from Stephen Franks to dissertation

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

After submission, I sent copies of my dissertation to a number of figures connected in some way to ACT, including former MPs.

Stephen Franks, an ACT MP from 1999-2005, sent me this response after reading a couple of weeks ago. I have been holding off publishing it as I wanted to seek his permission to post it here. Today I have received permission to publish it in a slightly modified version supplied to me by Franks. I have also received comments from another person and will reproduce these in due course. Anyone who wishes to comment on my research in a similar fashion is welcome to e-mail me: geoffreymiller (at) g(DELETE THIS)mail (dot) com.

Although I would have much preferred to publish the original piece, I am satisfied that Franks’s modified version does not significantly alter the original comments. I should like to thank Franks for both reading my work and for taking the time to respond to it. His comments are reproduced below, without editing or commenting by me (although I may discuss his views in a later post):

Very good, for an outsiders view.

It is completely reasonable for you to have taken at face value the
reported tension between policy positions, but there never was much
policy tension. The gap between me and Rodney, for example, on almost
all policy issues, would have been indetectable even to our caucus
colleagues.

Compulsory super, is the only one I can think of, and Richard made
sure that we never came to any clear decision on that, just to avoid a
caucus breakdown on a matter that was not core to politics at the time.
It had ceased to be prominent in public discussion.

The internal debate was over how to get our message across, and
whether the methods favoured by our most prominent members were
counter-productive.

As political observers so often do, they underestimate the weight that
should be given to conviction, and attribute too much calculation to
events. The party knew how unpopular we were, in image terms. We knew
it was a reflection of the most prominent personalities.

But our policy positions were what they were becuase they reflected
where we all believed NZ needed to go.

The tensions were all in personal relationships and trust. When Sir
Roger, or Patricia, or Board members tried to give effect to their
worries about the influence of personal attributes or flaws ( by
reducing the influence or someone they were worried about) they had
to express them in terms of high principle. There would have been no
point in coming out and attacking the character of another member of
your own team. Indeed I think most of them (us) were so driven by the
policy things we wanted to achieve that we tended to think we were
concerned about policy matters, when in fact we were just worrying
about much more old-fashioned and simple anxieties – “where would this
guy go – what is his bottom line, can I trust him to be decent, when
it really matters?”.

This is not an excuse, because it is a politicians task to work from
where you are, but for me personally the major problem was dealing
with the consensus ignorance and unconscious bias of journalists. We
could only connnect with the voters through the media filter.

I got on well with most journos, liked them and they were respectful
of me. But they had placed us in a part of the spectrum and were
simply unable to hear messages that were discordant with thier
positioning, so of course the public never got to hear of them.

For example, characterising our health, crime, education, and welfare
policies as ‘extreme right’ is ludicrous to those who were working in
a spectrum defined internationally.

In most of those issues, Tony Blair was more extreme than us. I used
to look up his speeches for lines. On education , ‘sacred Sweden’ is
far more ‘dry’ than what we dared advocate, and significant parts of
Eurpoe are far more “right” as a matter of constitutional right
(expressed as a parents’ right to choose the education system their
kids will attend).

On crime, much of my thinking was influenced by the stunning success
of Clinton’s 1996 reforms. Contrary to the perception of NZ journos
who simply do not want to know about the only western country that has
dropped its crime rates back to 60s levels, they have not even
markedly increased sentence lengths. They have simply achieved much
greater certainty that the crime will be followed by the sentence.

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