The guts to do what’s right?

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).

ACT party stalwart Trevor Loudon, who runs the New Zeal blog, reports on the fate of the “anti-gang patches” bill. Amidst a busy news week I had initially overlooked the Herald’s coverage of the fate of the bill, which saw it passed 62-59. For ACT, Rodney Hide, John Boscawen and David Garrett both voted in favour of the bill, while Heather Roy and Roger Douglas voted against it. In March, Hide had made the bill a conscience vote after divisions amongst the caucus had become apparent.

On hearing that Rodney Hide had reversed his original opposition to the bill, Loudon wrote: “I was shocked. Why would Rodney do it? Rodney’s a libertarian who cares about individual liberty more than anything else. I’m still stunned.”

And yes, it is a little surprising. Gang patches, Hide had argued in the past, were a question of freedom of speech. But if you read Hide’s speech for the third reading of the bill, which Loudon helpfully reproduces at his post, his argument is that gang patches represent intimidation:

Interestingly, the arrival of a gang member without the patch will not cause that intimidation. It is not the look that is causing the intimidation; it is the patch. I say that it is a tough line to draw, but clearly, in this example, the wearing of a patch on a jacket is intimidation of law-abiding citizens, and I am prepared to give the good people of Wanganui the opportunity to make a law so that they can choose how they want to live, and so that the police can enforce that, for people to live free of the intimidation and fear they have been suffering.

Initially my response to this was to suspect that Hide had found a convenient get-out clause to support the bill. Was this really part of the “guts to do what’s right” – the 2008 campaign slogan? Loudon’s surprise is justified: most supporters would align Hide with the libertarian, rather than the conservative wing of the party. Nobody would be surprised about Garrett’s support for the bill. Even John Boscawen’s vote in favour is somewhat understandable. But Rodney Hide? Surely he can’t really mean what he said in his speech?

Or perhaps he can. There are two possible motives which have led Hide to his decision. The first is that having studied the potential consequences, he now truly believes in the bill. I’m fairly sure Hide wouldn’t agree with his economics, but he probably would agree with the famous quotation by John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” And indeed, Hide and ACT have been researching the effects of the bill. According to Hide, he “despatched Mr David Garrett to Wanganui to talk to people, and in particular to ask some very basic questions”. Perhaps after some long chats with Garrett, Hide has been convinced that the good of the bill outweighs the bad.

The second option is that Hide’s support is pure Realpolitik. ACT is supporting National in government. National supports the bill. The bill does not need Hide’s support – it would have passed even without John Boscawen – but as party leader, his vote is a powerful symbol. Small parties in government need to win friends and influence people. Sure, Hide could have voted against the bill. But why should National feel dispositioned to supporting ACT’s own tough-on-crime bill – Garrett’s “three strikes” legislation? There is nothing wrong with compromise in a unofficial coalition government – in fact it is a requirement. Hide may have realised that the point of difference was so small enough that it was not worth worrying about. It is a local law which affects Wanganui only. Surely, three-strikes is worth a lot more to the party as a whole?

If the former option is what happened, fine. Some supporters such as Trevor Loudon will of course be disappointed at first, this time. But having a party leader who’s prepared to change his mind where necessary is probably a good thing to have.

If the latter is what happened, then I’m not so sure. If it really was Realpolitik at work, why not try and explain this compromise to members? “Look, we’re in government now, sometimes we’re not always going to get our own way. For a majority of members, three-strikes is important and we really need to do everything to get that passed”. Wouldn’t this be the more honest course of action to take, rather than looking for a detail which would let you off the hook? Is this really “the guts to do what’s right”?

Trevor Loudon asked his readers for what they thought of Hide’s decision. So will I. What do ACT supporters think?

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