The election of Jamie Whyte, as Act leader, and David Seymour, as candidate for Epsom, provides hope for New Zealand democracy.
Election year 2014 has begun with "pork barrel" policies - a depressing start. Undoubtedly over the summer break our politicians have conducted focus groups and polling. They have learnt the "hot button" issues. Already we see political parties competing with each other, only one month into the year, as to how to spend OUR money on the latest populist political cause (babies and child education).
Politicians are also busy spending employers' money, bidding up the minimum wage. Election year has hardly begun and the spending spree is well under way - no doubt with plenty more lolly scrambles to come.
Then there is runaway legislation. For the past 100 years Parliament has steadily increased the volume of laws. Arguably, few MPs actually realise the consequences of what they are enacting - yet the legislative machine keeps churning out new laws whoever is in power; and whatever their promises to cut red tape and make life simpler.
Are we any better off or happier as a result of the avalanche of laws and regulations imposed upon us by politicians? New laws curtail freedom. They cost money to administer. Frequently they are ignored by the small percentage of people who created the problem in the first place.
The experience at Swanson Primary school, which saw a decrease in bullying, injuries and vandalism by abolishing all rules at playtime, suggests an alternative approach. Has Parliament stopped child abuse by extreme parents who put their child in a washing machine by introducing anti-smacking legislation?
Has it stopped drunken driving by people with multiple DIC convictions, by lowering the legal alcohol levels? Or do such laws merely constrain the actions of the vast majority of reasonable citizens (who didn't need constraining anyway) while the society members who created the problems, ignore the new laws?
When Paid Parental Leave was first introduced it cost $42 million and covered 12 weeks. Now it's 14 weeks. Recently, some politicians proposed an extension to 26 weeks, costing the country up to $500 million. Spread that example across the myriad of government welfare (and vote buying) programmes, and the country will not be able to fund politicians' promises into the future. Yet the ongoing cost of welfare and superannuation is too hot a topic for politicians to debate at election time.
Modern elections are increasingly banal. Political strategists in any election campaign keep their party "on message". Short simple statements are repeated ("parroted" is perhaps a better term) throughout election year, to ensure the party messages get through. Strategies are designed to prevent campaigning politicians saying things, which end up in embarrassing media articles. The end result is postured debate focusing on the lowest common denominator.
Anyone who thinks election campaigns spawn genuine debate on issues of national concern stands to be sadly disappointed.
New Zealand needs small parties in Parliament which don't have to massage the centre block (where all the votes are) and which can step outside the limited debate and "pork barrel politics" of election year. Parties which can address the serious issues facing New Zealand with ideas, policies and debate. By electing a philosopher as its new leader, perhaps (finally) Act can realise its true role in the body politic - to challenge the main two parties and to foster genuine debate and ideas, thereby raising the overall level of politics throughout the system.
As foundation members of Act - whose original slogan was "Values not Politics" - we sincerely hope Act will finally perform the role in politics it was set up for 20 years ago. We hope new Act leader Jamie Whyte will eschew populist policies and focus on Act's founding principles of smaller government and personal responsibility. He needs to:
*Question why we need so much legislation.
*Assert the value of personal freedom and personal responsibility.
*Question whether politicians can always spend OUR money better than we can spend it ourselves.
*Promote the principles and benefits of an open economy.
*Challenge ineffective debate in modern election campaigns.
Mr Whyte has a wonderful opportunity to bring to election year 2014 a genuine debate on issues.
After a depressing start to election year 2014, perhaps at the end of the tunnel light is coming into New Zealand politics from an unlikely source - a revived Act party. If Mr Whyte can capitalise on his opportunity, democracy in this country will be the winner.
Patricia Schnauer is a former Act MP and David Schnauer a former vice-president of Act. They left the Act party 13 years ago.