When Don Brash seized the leadership of Act, it was expected to be the prelude to a return to the party's founding principles. A raft of policies emphasising individual freedom, personal responsibility, lower taxes and limited government spending was anticipated. Indeed, as much is needed if Act is to have a chance of winning back many disillusioned voters and returning anything like its current crop of five MPs at the general election. Nothing like this has happened, however. Instead, there has been a policy initiative from Dr Brash that smacks more of opportunism than principle.
In a speech at the weekend, the Act leader said he wanted the use of cannabis decriminalised because too much valuable police time was spent enforcing a law that was flouted by about 400,000 people a year. "All those police resources could be better deployed in actually keeping us safe from real criminals intent on harming us," he said. Dr Brash said this was his personal view. Its inclusion in a speech on law and order conveyed its own message, however. He must have known it would create headlines, not least because of his party's record of being tough on crime.
It is difficult, therefore, to see what Dr Brash was trying to achieve. If this was indeed a grab for votes, there are few for the picking. The decriminalisation of the personal use of cannabis has long been the preserve of the Greens. Worse, a call to soften drug laws was never about to go down well in Epsom, the conservative seat that will determine Act's future. Understandably, John Banks, the party's candidate in the electorate, has been quick to dissociate himself from Dr Brash's notion.
It could be argued that, tangentially at least, the decriminalisation of cannabis accords with Act's founding principles. Dr Brash pointed out that those flouting the current law were harming no one except, arguably, themselves, "which is their prerogative in a free society". This is also an issue that successive governments have been too keen to shut down. More, for example, should have been made of a Law Commission report that was released last year.
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It concluded that drug policy should focus on dealing with problem users, rather than the many people whose drug use posed no serious risk to their wellbeing or to others. In response, Simon Power effectively terminated debate by pronouncing "there's not a single, solitary chance that as long as I'm the Minister of Justice we'll be relaxing drug laws". He did not deem it worthwhile to comment on the current disconnection between the law on drugs and those for tobacco and liquor, or how this country is creeping towards de facto decriminalisation.
Yet it is hard to see how Dr Brash's statement will help him gain the sort of traction that has been so noticeably missing since he unseated Rodney Hide. The expected lift in Act's dismal polling has failed to eventuate. Now, the party's fortunes have suffered a fresh blow with the surprise decision by its deputy leader, John Boscawen, to retire at the election. That means none of the five MPs elected to Parliament three years ago will return. Mr Boscawen's departure is the more unfortunate in that he was the only one of that group to steer clear of the self-inflicted blundering, misjudgment, infighting and purging that have so besmirched the party.
In that context, Dr Brash's statement on cannabis reform appears to be as desperate as it is miscalculated. He and Mr Banks have been in Parliament before, as National MPs, but Act is, otherwise, asking voters to place their faith in inexperienced candidates. If the party is to survive, it will need policies that resonate with, rather than repel, its potential niche constituency.