Monday 26 September 2011


What a shambolic disappointment.

I've argued that ACT would do best to return to its classical liberal roots - that there's an unserviced space that's relatively liberal on economic and on social issues. As a right-wing rump to National, more liberal on economics but conservative on social issues, they'd be bound in the spot occupied by the Greens on the left - forever taken for granted by the dominant coalition partner because they couldn't plausibly bring down the government in favour of a coalition led by the main party on the other side. And, I've also thought that staking out a position on marijuana legalization could be a good way of signalling a move to that space. It would confound the usual narrative dominated by right-left thinking and, in so doing, bring a lot of positive press for ACT as it moves into a different space.

So I was really pleased to hear Don Brash musing about marijuana decriminalization over the weekend. Sure, decriminalization hardly goes far enough: if the trade remains illegal but possession legal, production remains split between informal household production among those into gardening, friendly informal supply among friends (albeit with risk that comes with growing more plants than is needed for personal use), and the gangs. Cactus Kate is right: full legalization is better.

In a fully legal and regulated market, we could move to supply under conditions similar to alcohol regulation with age controls and excise taxation to internalize whatever minor external harms come from marijuana use; alternatively, a higher than economically optimal tax could be set if necessary to build the coalition to move from prohibition to legalization - keeping retail price roughly constant but with the deadweight losses of the informal market turned into tax revenues. I've ballparked potential excise revenues at around $100-$300 million if taxes were set to hold consumer prices constant across regime change; actual figures would depend on potential economies of scale in production in a legalized market. If we were to take the $116 million spent by police on marijuana busts and instead devote it to violent crime, we could expect social cost savings on the order of about $275 million.

I'd thought that Brash's trial balloon was floated with his having secured at least minimal support from the Party apparatus. And so I was really optimistic - he had sold the party on a move towards liberalism despite John Banks being the candidate in Epsom. Alas, I must have been smoking something.

In a speech on law and order to party supporters in Auckland yesterday, Brash said he had serious questions about New Zealand's current marijuana laws and gave his personal endorsement to at least a debate over cannabis law reform.
However ACT president Chris Simmons today said decriminalising the class-C drug wouldn't be the party's policy next year, in 2014 or even 2017.
Simmons said the party's board wouldn't support decriminalisation, which was a "step too far." But he said it was important for party members to be asking questions and raising new ideas.
John Banks, the party's Epsom candidate and a former police minister, today said he could not support cannabis decriminalisation.
The party is polling well below the 5 per cent threshold to be guaranteed seats in Parliament, and is expected to depend on Banks winning Epsom.
This weekend also brought the shock resignation of parliamentary leader John Boscawen. Boscawen insisted he wasn't quitting over Brash's speech, but because he wanted to spend more time with his family. He made his decision on Friday.
He said his ''personal views'' on drug law reform weren't important but the issue should be debated, especially the $100m cost to the taxpayer of enforcing the laws. Decriminalisation wasn't ACT policy, he stressed.

Brash tried to pull the Party to the liberal side - a move that makes sense, but is hard given ACT's starting point. It wasn't made easier by that a bunch of people who claim to support marijuana decriminalization started piling on making fun of Brash's policy move. Yeah, you know who you are. It's all hip to make fun of the 70-year-old who's obviously hardly come within smelling distance of pot and pretend that he's a dope-head for advocating policy change. But, as best I understand things, it's that fear of being labelled "the marijuana guy" that effectively stopped Rodney Hide from pushing for greater consideration of the Law Commission's recommendations on marijuana. If the result of pushing for rational policy discussion is to be made a laughingstock even by those who purport to support rational policy, it ain't hard to figure out the likely effect on the supply of rational policy discussion.

The issue's now dead. And ACT probably is too. They could have staked out a defensible position in liberal space. But the conservative side has won. Worse, the party comes out as incoherent on core guiding principles: ACT is the party where economic liberals who are socially conservative get to fight publicly with economic liberals who are socially liberal. And whether or not Banks gets Epsom, that likely dooms the party in the long run.

Meanwhile, the online poll at newspaper site has support for decriminalization ahead at 73% in favour to 27% against.

I really really wish that the NZES folks would include some questions about marijuana law in their 2011 survey. There's no way that the politicians will lead public opinion on this one, but there's good chance they'd follow. If even the pundits who agree with legalization make fun of the politicians who support it, no chance of any kind of policy move until there's obvious public support.


  1. I think you’re 100% right. The question is really whether ACT will be the Hide-Newman-Garrett party or the Prebble-Franks-Douglas party. It’s nice to see Brash lean towards the latter. Unfortunately, though, it seems the former is dominating the party these days. John Banks is in many ways a relatively good politician, but he is simply not a classical liberal.

    An ACT Party that’s just a somewhat-more-hard-core version of National is a waste of space, will fail politically and won’t add anything useful to the polling mix. The point has to be made that Act’s future is as a liberal party akin to the German FDP, seen as being to the “right” of the Nats on economics and to the “left” of Labour on social policy. I think there is a decent-sized chunk of the electorate – particularly younger voters – that would vote for such a party, who might otherwise vote for Labour or even the Greens, but would note vote for the Hide-Newman-Garrett party. The Hide-Newman-Garrett voters would just vote for National any way, so it’s hardly a net loss to the right.

  2. @kiwi dave Yep, I'd consider sending my vote that way. I like social liberalism, but don't like some aspects of the Greens (distrust of science for example) and don't see Labour's current focus as especially liberal. I'm no fan of nanny state policies, so a true libertarian party would definitely attract my interest. I'd still like that diluted somewhat by a govt that puts in place safety nets for those who make poor choices or for whom life deals an unfortunate hand, so a strong libertarian minor partner to a generally left leaning govt (or vice versa) would probably be my ideal outcome.

  3. @Lats

    It's not just the Green's with a distrust of Science; ACT are just as bad, especially on climate change.

    Can you have a technocratic classic liberal party, or is it an oxymoron?

  4. Comments now working, BTW. Seems it was a problem with IE on the work computer. Firefox FTW!

  5. I don't think during RWC and a rushed election campaign is a good time to debate anything important. then Christmas etc. So I intend getting debate going next March once Uni is back on deck, at least on a local and online level.

  6. Part of Don's announcement seemed to be one of perceptions; marijuana law reform, from the ACT party, seemed to Joe Public to come out of no where. Coupled together with polling badly, party infighting, and a return to the old ex-National theme of anti-Maori which was part of Don's old rhetoric, ACT weren't wininng Joe Public's vote. And then, out of left field, came marijuana law reform??! It just seemed Don was trying to strike SOME chord with SOME constituency which might attract SOME votes.

    Felt like clutching at straws.

  7. @kiwipollguy I'd like to think that classic libertarians would be truth seekers, so a benevolent technocracy ought not be out of the question. However the great unwashed will never allow it to happen. They'd rather be ruled by some buffoon with a nice smile who waves a lot.