Conference 2008: ‘Unfinished Business’ 2.0

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).

It seems fitting (was it deliberate?) that Douglas used the theme of the 1984 cult film Ghostbusters for his soundbite moment in his PowerPoint presentation to delegates yesterday afternoon. 1984, of course, was the year the Fourth Labour Government began its programme of neo-liberal economic reform. Yesterday, “Growthbusters” was what Douglas termed the current government led by the Labour Party since 1999. But not actual economic growth – this would be difficult to justify, given that New Zealand has enjoyed uninterrupted growth since the brief 1998 recession. Instead, he used the decline in productivity by half since 2000 as evidence that New Zealand was heading down the wrong path. Poor productivity is a serious issue for New Zealand and is a valid concern. However, the causes of low TFP are unclear: even the Treasury is unsure of its origin, according to a report in today’s Sunday Star-Times which quoted an official as saying “[w]e do scratch our heads over that one”. The contemporaneous rise in employment and absorption of less productive workers has been suggested as one reason for this decline.

But what did he say beyond the soundbite piece, meant to be picked up by the news media? In keeping with the Zeitgeist and in line with statements frequently made by John Key, Douglas emphasised the gap in income and living standards with Australia. It wouldn’t be Douglas, however, if it were straightforward – a 10-20 year vision is required, of course. Douglas believes that New Zealand should aim to beat Australia in various economic standards (except the most important statistic, of per capita income) by 2020.

That was the new bit. But otherwise, it was pretty much Unfinished Business (1993) reformulated. Recalling his work in abolishing monopolies in the 1980s, such as in telecommunications, Douglas said that the priority has to be on dismantling what he called the four last monopolies – health, education, social welfare and superannuation. Prefacing his pontifications with a disclaimer that it was not ACT policy and was just an idea, he suggested that New Zealanders should earn $30,000 tax free, but buy their their own health and unemployment insurance, putting the balance towards superannuation. This was pure Unfinished Business. But as we have to come to expect from Douglas, it is an FPP idea and not suited to the realities of a party polling at 1%. Yet despite putting out yet another revised target for ACT – this time 6% of the party vote – a long way off predictions of 30-50% he made at ACT’s inception – Douglas cannot bring himself to dispense with the “big picture”.

At the end of the speech, Douglas requested that “all of us support Rodney…[and] give him our full support”. When Hide sets aside Douglas’s PowerPoint, 2008 edition of Unfinished Business in favour of more manageable goals, this is exactly what Douglas will have to do.

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