Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Act's trouble with principles, pragmatism and relevance

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Act Party leader Jamie Whyte. Photo / Natalie Slade
Act Party leader Jamie Whyte. Photo / Natalie Slade

New Act Party leader Jamie Whyte received a short sharp lesson on the unhealthy state of political debate in this country after he gave his view on incest laws last week as part of a Q & A on the Ruminator blog.

From his own classically liberal belief system, Whyte made some perfectly logical points about the issue - arguing against the state being involved in what happens in the bedrooms of consenting adults - see the blog post by Tim Batt on The Ruminator: Mr Ryght: An interview with ACT leader: Jamie Whyte. Whyte's view was, of course, a gift to satirists, as demonstrated by Steve Braunias in The secret diary of Jamie Whyte: 'What plays in the bedroom, stays in the bedroom. As a philosopher, and also as newly elected leader of the Act Party, I'm proud to guard that bedroom door. That's where you'll find me in election year. When you think of Act, I want you to think of me outside a bedroom in which consenting adults commit acts of incest'.

A case study in pragmatism and populism

The whole incident is a very good case study in how contemporary parliamentary parties have a major problem with juggling principles, pragmatism and relevance. Certainly the Act Party is currently struggling to reinvent itself and decide whether to appeal to principle or pragmatism as a way forward.

The party has chosen a new leader who, initially at least, appears to be a fearless and dynamic intellectual determined to revive the ideological foundations of the tired and dying party. For a good indication of this, see Hamish Rutherford's ACT leader Whyte can't be grey. Other articles have also indicated that Whyte plans to move the party away from populism and social conservatism towards principled neoliberal and social libertarian policies.

Yet much of what came out of the Act Party's conference at the weekend suggests that the promise of an ideological revival and return to original principles was short-lived. The main issue to come out of the conference was a return to populist law and order policies - see TVNZ's New Act leader short on detail of three strikes plan. As Russell Brown (?@publicaddress) tweeted, 'Well Jamie Whyte's Act didn't take long to go from "classical liberal" to "insane populist sentencing gimmicks"'.

Audrey Young also says today that the conference included little on Whyte's 'platform of taking the party back to its fundamentals of low tax and small government' and 'there was little emphasis on that in Whyte's speech and more on populist themes, with repeated references to reforming the welfare system and a new policy of three-strikes-and-off-to-prison for repeat burglary offenders' - see: Too many words and not enough Act.

Instead it's been long-time party funder Alan Gibbs who has pushed a more radical line - see Audrey Young's Funder sold on the Singapore way. Whyte has been quick to distance himself from this - see his five minute interview this morning on TV3: Gibbs' comments not ACT policy - Whyte.

On all policy discussion the Act Party has taken a leaf out of the major parties approach and been as vague as possible - see Brook Sabin's article and 2-minute item ACT announcement lacks clear details. Even on reform or the abolition of Resource Management Act, the new Act Party leader was remarkably vague.

Ex-Act supporter, Will de Cleene, is unimpressed - see: Three Whyte Stripes and the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. He laments that Prebble's pragmatic influence is already visible with Act's quick shift back towards populism: 'It sounds remarkably like policy by anecdote, a remarkably bad way to make law' and 'There's nothing new with Act at all. We've had flat tax, three strikes and cousin hopping in the last week. With a bit of luck, they'll try talking up charter schools and education vouchers next week'.

The Act leader did speak in greater detail on his 13-minute Interview with Jamie Whyte on The Nation. For the best summary of the interview - as well a transcript - see the NBR's ACT promises three-strikes policy for burglars. According to this account 'The new ACT leader was also asked if he would have voted for the GSCB Bill, which made it legal for the agency to spy on NZ residents and citizen. Here, Dr Whyte took a libertarian bent'. And 'Asked if he would have buckled under intense political pressure of the sort applied by the government over the GCSB Bill, the ACT leader went on one of his philosophical tangents, telling Mr Shepherd, "I hope I wouldn't. How could I possibility know?"'. See also, Chris Keall's NBR article, New ACT leader splits with Banks over GCSB Bill, wrestles with UFB and Chorus (paywalled).

New campaign manager, Richard Prebble, has signaled that Act will resurrect its flat tax policy, amongst others. But this hasn't gone down well - see, for example, the Herald's editorial, Act needs to come up with fresher ideas than flat tax.

Act might not have much in the way of fresh ideas, but it is clear that the party's organisational health is improving, with more funding and members coming in. To see more about this, as well as details of the party's campaign techniques see Audrey Young's Prebble: Time for Act to start again and Andrea Vance's ACT's new man Jamie Whyte speaks up.

Is Jamie Whyte now 'intellectually corrupt'?

The controversy over Jamie Whyte's beliefs on incest has been a strong test for the new leader. Initially he showed bravery in standing up for his right to hold an intellectual and controversial analysis, condemning other politicians who shied away from political honesty. For example, Adam Bennett reported that Whyte 'said he was not prepared to avoid difficult questions like that about incest as other politicians might'. Furthermore, Whyte is quoted as pondering whether he should go down the path of being less honest or upfront: 'Maybe I should, but it seems to me the people who find ways around it and avoid it are being less virtuous than me ... I would have to be inconsistent, I would have to be intellectually corrupt' - see: Act leader Jamie Whyte: 'Leave incest couples alone'.

It wasn't long, however, before Whyte capitulated on the issue, expressing regret for his comments and promising to be less philosophical in his approach: 'I was drawn into a very abstract philosophical conversation about the limits of the state and it's not my job now, I'm now party leader, I'm the leader of ACT, it's not my job to be a philosophy lecturer anymore' - see: Newswire: ACT leader regrets incest comments.

The incest controversy and Whyte's back down is reminiscent of the Green Party's jettisoning of its 'money printing' policy. This occurred last year when Green's co-leader Russel Norman had trouble selling his policy and found the best way to deal with the ridicule he received was to ditch it. Very quickly the party got rid of a policy that they truly believed would benefit the New Zealand economy, simply because it was hard to sell. Electoral pragmatism trumped ideological belief - see my column on this from the time, Is the Green Party losing its soul?.

So can New Zealand politicians be intellectual and principled? The Herald's Liam Dann (@liamdann) tweeted to say 'Philosophical reality: I think therefore I am. Political reality: Don't get your name in the same headline as the word'. For more such interesting social media discussion on the topic, see my blog post Top tweets about the Act Party, it's conference, and Jamie Whyte.

Why can't politicians discuss controversial ideas and theory?

The Act Party's opponents - mostly on the left - have seized the opportunity to ridicule and demonise Whyte for his incest gaffe. Some of this has been funny, and some of it plain nasty or moronic. See for example, Scott Yorke's Politics Explained: It's all about the kids and The politics of honesty, and Martyn Bradbury's ACT - Incest and Polygamy - the real issues confronting NZ.

Of course the jibes on Twitter came thick and fast. This led Blaise Drinkwater ?(@BKDrinkwater) to declare: 'Won't vote ACT, but far more impressed w/ Jamie Whyte than with his detractors so far - smug and shallow are alive and well in NZ discourse'. Certainly the whole incident reflects very poorly on the other political parties, bloggers, and the media who have sought to opportunistically score points against Whyte and Act on this issue. Most responses to Whyte's position were markedly anti-intellectual.

One leftwing blogger did take up a defence of Whyte, and complained that 'I think the response has been largely vile from many (on the left) that attempt to marginalise a very small group of people who choose to enter incestuous relationships' - see Carrie Stoddart-Smith's blog post This talk about incest. One part of her argument is worth quoting at length: 'Moreover, he wasn't even suggesting it become policy, he seemed to me to be addressing the principle behind why it ought not be illegal, rather than taking direct action to legalise it. Whyte simply answered a question that to be fair, has not (as far as I know) been put to any other politician. In my opinion, he answered the question rationally, the way you'd probably expect from a Philosophy Professor. However, rather than analysing the argument, it was a quick lurch into cousin f*king memes and conflating other sexual crimes with incest. As a left identifying voter I hate that I feel compelled to defend Whyte's comments'.

Similarly, libertarian economics lecturer Eric Crampton has commented: 'Same as when the left stomped all over Don Brash for favouring marijuana legalisation. Ha ha ha old guy must smoke weed. Never mind they set legalisation in NZ back a decade by proving that nobody can talk about it. I hate what party politics does to people'.

On the right, David Farrar blogged to say that he found it 'refreshing that a political leader will stand by his personal views, while making it clear they are not party policy' - see: Whyte and incest. Writing before Whyte made his U-turn, Farrar said, 'He should not back away from his views. The media will go for the sensationalist headline, but he should maintain a position of saying "Yes this is my personal belief, but ACT is focusing on a b and c". Some ACT supporters will be uncomfortable with his views, but the public like someone who is genuine and doesn't hide behind weasel words'. For some similar thoughts, see Pete George's Jamie Whyte an interesting ACT to follow.

Gordon Campbell made some of the best points against Whyte's argument: 'Given the power dynamics within families - and the difficulties that already exist in establishing consent (and the lack of it) with respect to sexual offending outside the family, Whyte's proposal would seem to put a new category of people, many of them women, at risk of sexual predation by their kin. Erosion of the consent defence would be a more likely outcome of the legalising of incest' - see: On ACT's position on incest. See also, Craig Young's Why "Consensual Adult Incest" Should Not Be Decriminalised.

The Demonisation of Act, Colin Craig and other minor parties

The marginalisation of both minor parties and their radicalism is also seen in the most recent TVNZ opinion poll. The key aspect of that poll result - entirely uncommented upon - was the fact that it showed the two large parties holding a combined public support of 85%. This massive figure - perhaps the highest since the introduction of MMP - shows just how marginal both minor parties and radicalism is in New Zealand politics. After all, the biggest minor party, the Greens, were on a miserly 8% - surely related not just to its Dotcom gaffe and the apparent shift to the left of Labour, but also because the Greens have become significantly more conventional and bland lately.

Much of the lampooning of the minor parties is possible because they are easy targets. As the NBR's Rob Hosking ?(@robhosking) explained on Twitter, the left 'need a bogey. Demonising Key isn't working for 'em'. It's also the case that many on the left are seeking to mock, ridicule and demonise Colin Craig's Conservative Party as an easy way of shoring up their own 'respectability'. This is explained well in John Moore's blog post, The Demonisation of Colin Craig.

The media is sometimes blamed for an environment in which colorful politics and radicalism are exploited. Even Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking points the finger at his own industry for Whyte's problems: 'Lesson number one in party political leadership - the media are out to kill you until you show them you're made of something worthy of respect. The media by and large is unfair, unbalanced and driven by a lot of ego. They twist things, they interpret things, they run agendas, they look to score points' - see: No evidence yet of ACT rising again. Hosking also discusses Act's supposed revival under Whyte, saying that 'In the opening weeks of the job, I have no evidence of that happening'.

Others argue that the media is in fact giving too much attention to minor parties like Act. Blogger Danyl MacLauchlan argues that the media is biased in favour of the rightwing party: 'Search the Herald site for Jamie Whyte and you'll find dozens of glowing interviews, editorials, features and columns about the new leader of the ACT Party. At this point in the election they're easily receiving as much coverage as National and Labour. Which is weird because this is a really, really, really tiny party. They only recieved 23,889 votes in the 2011 election. Fewer than the Mana Party. WAY fewer than the Maori Party. Less than a 10th of the support of the Green Party' - see: Speaking for the 0%.

So, what will happen to Act? According to left-libertarian blogger Carrie Stoddard-Smith, 'Prebble's strategy to achieve the 9 MP's in Parliament, is likely to involve casting aside ACT's libertarian roots for a few seats in the plutocracy. Abandoning their principles, and making a hypocrite of Jamie Whyte in the process' - see: The Predicament of the Act Party. And according to right-libertarian blogger Mark Hubbard, Whyte's U-turn on the incest issue is worrying: 'in that retraction is a problem, being he's already being turned by the mincing machine of party politics into that thing I despise: a politician. Never lose the principled honesty, Jamie. Don't let an intelligent conversation with the electorate fall to its opposite: electioneering' -see: The Childishness Surrounding the Debacle over Jamie Whyte's Incest Statement.

Finally, for some recent photos and cartoons on the Act Party, see my blog post Images of the Act Party and Jamie Whyte.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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