RMA

(Almost) unconditional support : ACT forgets to play its hand

On National Radio’s Morning Report show this morning, ACT leader David Seymour provided an excellent example of how not to negotiate. With Environment and Housing Minister Nick Smith set to announce tomorrow National’s proposed changes to the Resource Management Act, Seymour was asked whether he would be supporting the yet-to-be-announced changes.

The response was a clear affirmative. “It is extremely urgent that New Zealand reforms its Resource Management Act…” Therefore, he’s got National’s back on this one.

So what are the reforms? Well, we don’t know. They haven’t yet been announced.

Does Mr Seymour know? Has he been given a pre-announcement heads up, to ensure that his support is based on some actual intel, or is he simply making the assumption that the changes will be identical (or almost identical) to the proposed changes that were abandoned prior to the last election? It’s an assumption, he confirmed on Twitter to me this morning, based on where Mr Smith’s “thinking is usually at”.

To be fair, it isn’t completely unconditional support that is being offered. On Morning Report, Mr Seymour reserved his right to pull back, should the changes, once announced, be materially different from his assumptions.

Of course, we all know that ACT went into the 2014 election promising to repeal the RMA. Here’s a quote from former ACT leader Jamie Whyte during the election campaign:

The problem is not with the administration of the RMA. The problem is with the very conception of it. The RMA is an assault on property rights that stifles investment and economic growth. The restrictions it puts on using land for residential development are the reason housing is so expensive.

Nonetheless, from a realpolitik perspective, why would ACT simply blindly agree to support National’s proposed changes? If the changes are essentially what National tried unsuccessfully to push through last year, then National will struggle to get support from Peter Dunne or the Maori Party. If National doesn’t want to water down its proposals, then that leaves just ACT. And given ACT’s hatred of the RMA (except, of course, where it stymies intensive development in Epsom), surely this would be a perfect opportunity to press for additional changes?

With National able, on every piece of legislation, to go to just one of ACT, United Future or the Maori Party, opportunities to extract a pound of flesh aren’t going to come along often for those three minor parties. ACT seems to have just blown a prime opportunity to extract concessions on one of the party’s main election policy platforms.

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ACT goes for broke

ACT’s campaign launch occurred yesterday. It’s slightly odd that the party would launch their campaign after people have already started voting, but there you go. Keeping their powder dry and all that…

Party leader Jamie Whyte’s keynote speech to the ACT faithful was everything his party would have hoped for – a mixture of hard-hitting attacks on just about every party around (I think the only party he didn’t bother to attack was United Future, which is a good measure of Peter Dunne’s continued irrelevance) and the release of some old-fashioned back-to-ACT’s-roots policy.

Policy-wise, ACT would abolish the Overseas Investment Office:

It has no proper job to do. When foreigners invest in New Zealand, we benefit. There is no injury for the OIO to protect us from.

Likewise, the Resource Management Act would go to:

The problem is not with the administration of the RMA. The problem is with the very conception of it. The RMA is an assault on property rights that stifles investment and economic growth. The restrictions it puts on using land for residential development are the reason housing is so expensive.

The speech will certainly have fired up the troops. Matthew Hooton was aflame with passion about it this morning on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme, while David Farrar couldn’t resist quoting extensively from it at Kiwiblog.

The problem ACT faces is that “the troops” really aren’t a significant chunk of the population. The most ACT has polled this year is 1%, while sometimes they’ve failed to register at all. In this site’s Poll of Polls, they’re currently sitting on just 0.4%, not quite low enough to produce an overhang, but well below the approximately 1.3% they need to bring in Jamie Whyte (assuming David Seymour takes Epsom).

ACT needs something that will resonate with more than 1% of the population, and quickly. They’ve tried a return to One Law For All (which was again recapped in Whyte’s speech), but it produced no sparks in the polls. Winston Peters, Colin Craig and, to a lesser extent, David Cunliffe were already on board that particular bandwagon, and the remainder of ACT’s  policy platform obviously wasn’t palatable enough to lure the One Law For All vote from those parties towards ACT.

ACT presumably hopes that there is a significant core of landowners who are sick to death of being told what they can and can’t do with their property by the RMA. (Although, of course, David Seymour has been campaigning on putting greater RMA-style roadblocks in the path of development in Epsom, which seems more than a little ideologically impure or, dare I say it, hypocritical.) Quite who the party is targeting with the eradication of the OIO is less clear. How many large farm-owners can there possibly be who will vote ACT in order to sell their farms to foreigners without having to go through the OIO? Every vote counts, I suppose.

But will the RMA and OIO policy backfire on ACT? Rachel Smalley certainly seems to think so:

He appears to lack the one attribute that every political party leader in this country has, and that is an emotional attachment to New Zealand. Winston has it, so does Key and Cunliffe and Norman. Colin Craig does. Harawira, Harré, Flavell, Turei, Dunne – they all have it in spades. Whyte doesn’t.

It does not concern him if every last acre is sold offshore. Let the market decide, he will say. ACT sees New Zealand as a market, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

So will this resonate with voters? No, it won’t. Nothing ACT does resonates with voters. Have a look at the polls – the party barely registers any support at all.

So what will Epsom voters do in light of this? Will voters accept their role as political zombies and do as they’re told, breathing life into the ACT Party? Or will they vote how they wish, perhaps for the Conservatives, perhaps for National, and let nature take its course?

We shall see. Whyte has snatched some headlines with this policy, but at what cost? The philosopher, I think, has gone a step too far with this one.

I’m not sure I agree with Ms Smalley on her conclusion that Whyte’s speech is a step too far. Setting aside ACT’s perennially populist ‘tough on crime’ and One Law For All stances, their policy settings have always been dry and rational (depending on your particular brand of rationality). Epsom voters know that ACT will have little to no sway in the next Parliament, and exist in all practical terms merely to ensure the continuance of a National-led Government. They know there is no chance that National would go along with abolition of the RMA, and a less-than-zero chance that National would buck strong public opinion against overseas asset sales. The calculus is simple: A vote for David Seymour in Epsom is a vote for a further three years of a National-led Government.

Where I do agree with Ms Smalley is with her assessment that ACT’s RMA and OIO policies won’t resonate with voters. The party is going for broke with a headline grabbing speech, but the timing is all wrong. The minor party debates have now been and gone, and the focus will now shift to the remaining Key v Cunliffe debates. Abolishing the RMA and OIO needed to be hammered home weeks ago, when Whyte had easy access to the cameras. Instead, perusing the NZ Herald and Stuff websites this morning, Whyte’s speech has largely sunk without trace.

Jamie Whyte should begin resigning himself to remaining a leader outside of Parliament.