I went and saw Roger Douglas talk today at the Otago Chamber of Commerce "Meet the Leaders" series. I left feeling rather disappointed. Although Act's politics have always been far from my cup of tea, I sometimes enjoy hearing their take on things, even when I strongly disagree. And at times I've appreciated that the Act party has been one of the more radical and dynamic voices around. The party used to stand for something interesting outside the mushy "me-too" centrist politics of Labour and National. So I went along to see if there was anything significant about the 'Roger Douglas comeback'. [Read more below]
I last saw Douglas speak in about 1994 at the University of Canterbury. I actually organised a lot of publicity on campus for the talk by putting up hundreds of posters denouncing Douglas for his rightwing radicalism and warning people about his upcoming talk to students. Of course, this had the counter affect, and I think my friends and I were inadvertently responsible for helping Douglas fill the auditorium (and dozens were turned away from the large venue).
His talk that day wasn't actually too bad. He was relatively dynamic, and spoke about the radical 'revolutionary' programme he had developed to complete the 'Unfinished Business' that his new book espoused. He talked about widespread privatisation of health and education, of totally abolishing income tax, of education vouchers, slashing government expenditure, etc. It was Rogernomics Plus.
In contrast, today I heard Roger Douglas without the Rogernomics. The grand vision was gone. He had obviously learned from Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide that the 'radical stuff has to go'. In fact it seemed that he'd even taken a leaf out of John Key and Helen Clark's pragmatic book that says not to 'frighten the horses' by saying anything too bold. I'd already come to expect this from every other contemporary politician, but in a kind of perverse way I wanted to see that one of the few politicians from the 'old days' of big picture politics and grand ideological conflict would still be saying something controversial. Instead, Douglas has quickly adapted to the new bland consensus politics of the 2000s.
Most surprising was Douglas' promise to increase government expenditure. Admittedly he wouldn't want an Act Government to increase spending as much as Labour has over the last nine years, but he wants it increased nonetheless. His promise was to increase it by no more than the rate of inflation. He said also, that in some areas the expenditure he would actually like to see government spending increase even faster than inflation - especially in health to reduce waiting lists, and on police to reduce crime.
Other areas of taxation policy appeared surprisingly non-Rogernomics-like. Whereas most neoliberals prefer to have a greater proportion of government revenue to be collected from sales taxes, Douglas actually suggested reducing GST and petrol tax.
The most interesting insight Douglas gave was his account of campaigning in his South Auckland urban/rural electorate, where he drove around the countryside putting his Act leaflets into rural letterboxes. To do this he had the help of his eight-year-old Grandson, Bruno, who he was surprised to find demanded $40 for his campaign labour on the first day. Characteristically, Douglas managed to cut/negotiate his employee's remuneration down to $20 on the basis of four hours' work at a rate of $5/hour. Whatever happened to the minimum wage?! But even then, Douglas complained that his grandson was being given the wrong incentives, as Bruno now slowed down his rate of work on the basis of 'the longer the job took, the more he got paid'. Douglas thus noted to change the future incentive structure of his political finance.
I was struck by how young Douglas seemed (after all, he's 71), but his policy ideas are actually an mixture of watered-down old policies and an obvious attempt to be just a fraction to the right of the old parties. The business crowd also didn't appear terribly enthused by Douglas and his 'vision'. Very few questions were asked; long silences occurred. The 'Roger Douglas comeback' is definitely without the Rogernomics, and nothing that is going to revitalise the fading Act party.