Monday, March 10, 2008

A new Liberal Party

The Liberals were New Zealand's first real political party, an alliance of every progressive force in the country which combined to establish our dominant political paradigm of social democracy and pragmatic state intervention. That progressive coalition eventually fell apart due to the inherent tensions between its uneasy coalition of businessmen, small farmers, and labour activists, but the brand still has a certain cachet, and there have been frequent attempts to revive it (in 1963, and more recently in 1992). And with an election due later this year, it looks like we're seeing another.

This new incarnation is the child of Auckland businessman and former public servant Jonathan Lee. According to his biography [PDF], Lee once campaigned for the UK Social Democratic Party, and he seems a little confused about what the party is called - parts of the party website (still under construction and full of lorem ipsum) point to

That historic link to the (right-wing) SDP ought to be a warning sign. The original liberals were progressive and pragmatic socialists. But despite praising their historic links to the Fabians, this new incarnation is not. Yes, they believe in a mixed economy, with government provision of health and education. But at the same time, they also want to limit government spending (or revenue, or taxation - they seem to make no distinction) to 40% of GDP. Given their vagueness, this could either mean the status quo, or it could require significant spending cuts (total crown revenue is ~44% of GDP, and expenses ~42%, with core crown figures ~10% lower; see the 2007 Budget Economic and Fiscal Update). Either way, its not in line with the traditional liberal pragmatism.

At the moment, the party's key policy seems to be constitutional reform - their launch was accompanied by a First Draft Constitution for New Zealand [PDF], a sprawling document which seeks to detail every aspect of political life, from the core constitutional business of the relationship between the head of state, Parliament and the courts down to public holidays, the powers of the SIS, and the professional standards of the media - much of which (like the afore-mentioned spending cap) simply has no place in a proper constitution. Key changes would be the restoration of an upper house to provide scrutiny of legislation, the replacement of the Ombudsman with a constitutional court, and the insertion of corporate-style boards to run government ministries (so removing democratic accountability). Less loudly trumpeted is the (outright dangerous) public recall of judges and senior public servants. I'm not a fan of constitutional radicalism - what we have works pretty well - and I'm even less enamoured of European-style constitutional totalism (throwing everything in, including the kitchen sink). A constitution is a skeleton, a framework, not a complete rulebook. It should aim to provide the minimal rules of organisation for a government, on the understanding that the detail will change with the times. Above all, it should not aim to dictate policy. What Lee and his Liberal Party is offering isn't a workable framework; it's a straitjacket, which seeks to dictate even the conscience of citizens. And that is not something anyone should support.