Tuesday 20 April 2010

Roger Douglas on social liberalism

If ACT has any hope for the future, it's in affirming its support for social liberalism and in doing so laying the foundations for a future coalition with Labour and the Greens. As a rump to National, they have very little bargaining power, as amply demonstrated by National's failure to support Roger Douglas's bill allowing the youth and adult minimum wages to diverge and by National's shutting down discussion of the spending caps that had been part of the National-ACT coalition agreement.

Sir Roger Douglas's latest column then is rather interesting reading:
However, it would be wrong to think that a party like ACT is only interested in economic freedom. There is no doubt that economic freedom is important to improving the lot of the ordinary individual. However, it is only one side of the coin. Freedom in the social sphere is just as important as it is in the economic sphere.

I am always surprised by people who think that I have a conservative social policy. They attribute to me the label of “conservative politician.” This could not be further from the truth. The divide between social and economic freedom is a contrived one. There are no issues that do not have both social and economic implications. Just as the excess of government intervention can be seen in the economy, so too can it be seen in the lives of individuals. I do not advocate “no government” there is a proper role for the government to play in education, healthcare, law enforcement, and the environment amongst others. But there is no role for the government to strip individuals of their civil liberties denying them the ability to pursue their idea of the good life. There are clear examples in New Zealand where this is or has been the case.

The use of the criminal justice system against those who engaged in homosexual activity was one of the clearest examples of the harm that the restrictive nature of government can cause. This is why, in 1986, I voted in favour of homosexual law reform.

The passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 by the Labour Party is another example of government overreach. It denies Maori the right to test their claims to certain aspects of the foreshore and seabed in the courts. It is often forgotten that this piece of legislation was unanimously opposed by the ACT Party. The abrogation of the right to due process is a breach no friend of freedom can ignore.

The continuing denial of legal pain relief to some people with chronic illness is unjustifiable. For some, smoking marijuana may be the best means to ease their pain. In 2009, I was sorry to see 84 MPs vote against the Green Party’s medicinal marijuana bill. All five ACT MP were amongst the 34 MPs who voted in favour.

This touches on a broader argument, mainly the status of marijuana in our society. I am surprised that young adults do not push harder for reform in this area, given the numbers that have tried and use marijuana. The issue of legalisation is a complex one, and there is no doubt that there are countervailing issues that may make us less willing to decriminalise it (such as the effect it may have on families), but it is a debate we should be willing to have.


  1. Well said Eric - ACT would be in a much stronger bargaining position if they had options other than National. I also believe making more of their socially liberal policies would be a good move for the future, as these issues tend to be more strongly supported by the 'youth'. And it's not like those currently supporting the party for its economic freedoms have anywhere else to go - National are doing pretty well to ensure that. i.e. the ACT party can only gain from such a move imo.

  2. My impression has always been that Roger Douglas has been relatively indifferent to debates between social liberalism vs social conservatism, and he's been focused on economic issues, seeing social issues mostly quite pragmatically. So, for example, during the Fourth Labour Government, he was not particularly enamoured with the social liberal agenda of his government yet he was willing to go along with it because it distracted the left of the party from fighting against his economic reforms (and essentially amounted to a trade-off for the liberal left).

    Yet Douglas has at times made rather socially conservative statements. For example, when commenting on various social ills he will often blame "the breakdown of the family" - which is a core argument of social conservatives - especially the Christian Right. Douglas also has a punitive orientation to welfare, and likes to talk about abolishing the DPB in particular. Similarly, he's particularly social conservative on law and order, and is prone to talk, literally about "locking them up and throwing away the key"! This is the sort of stuff that has pushed the Act Party firmly into the social conservative camp.

    For more on the "Social Conservative Repositioning of Act", see this old blog post I wrote:


  3. Re marijuana - it would be wonderful if we could have a dispassionate reasoned debate about the pros and cons of law reform. Sadly both reformists and prohibitionists seem to suffer from knee-jerk reactions to the opinions of the opposing side. Although to be fair, the prohibitionists do seem to be particularly rabid. Jim Anderton springs to mind. For someone who has supposedly been socially & politically liberal for much of his career he really has a bee in his bonnet about drug use and drug policy. I think he is way past his political use-by date...

  4. @goonix: agreed
    @Bryce: Thanks for the link; interesting history. I'd tend to think an economically and socially liberal positioning would be both the right thing to do and electorally pragmatic; I hope they do it. I'm not convinced that eliminating DPB is necessarily punitive though; it would depend on what it would be replaced with. The American experience with shifting AFDC to TANF has been reasonably successful.

    @Lats: Jim Anderton has never struck me as socially liberal, but I've only been here since '03. Rather, he's seemed more toward the Winston Peters end of things: strong state control of both the economy and folks' personal lives.

  5. The ACT party has been indeed rendered completely impotent by National since the last election.

    I think National should be careful what it wishes for. If the National party is really communicating 'a vote for ACT is a vote for a placeholder party', that doesn't necessarily make the voter any more inspired to vote for the National party.

    It would be ironic if this resulted in a shrinking vote for the right-of centre politic.

  6. @Eric Agreed about the modern face of Anderton, he has become quite the paternalist. Maybe he always was, he is certainly quite a controlling individual. He has formed more political parties than anyone else in NZ, and always seems to break away from them once his influence on them gets diluted. So maybe I've misrepresented his political nature, being left of centre doesn't guarantee being liberal I guess. Either that or he's become a grumpy old coot :)

  7. There are a fair number of left authoritarians out there. Probably still more of them on the right than on the left, but they're growing on the left as well. It's been depressing watching the Greens shift from a party advocating personal liberties to one that's more in favour of fat taxes.

  8. I too am disapponted by the relative ineffectiveness of the Greens. If ever there was a time when we should have had sensible public debate about drug policy in this country it was after the 2002 general election with the Labour led coalition supported by the Greens. Perhaps we need to wait for a Act/Green coalition govt for this to happen... hmmm was that a pig just flying past my window?