ACT's John Boscawen reads the writing on the wall as the party tries to win over the lock 'em up crowd and the decriminalise drugs crowd at the same time
Rodney Hide must be laughing in his grave, to use one of the great old gags. ACT's political fortunes have gone from bad to worse with the announcement that No. 2 John Boscawen is stepping down from parliament to spend more time with his family.
Does anyone believe a word of that worm-riddled old cliche? A month ago Boscawen committed to another term, accepting the number two slot on the party's list. Now, eight weeks out from the election, he changes his mind.
What's changed in the past month for him to decide "that my family must come first"? Unless he's holding back some health secret, the only thing that could have changed his mind is the thing that hasn't changed - ACT's polling.
Don Brash waltzed into the leadership talking about ACT winning 15% of the vote and saving the party from "electoral oblivion" under Hide. Guess what? It wasn't Hide that was the problem, after all. Not now, anyway.
Hide's failings had seeped into a party brand long ago; and frankly the party's policies just aren't the fit for the times. The bits people like National is doing - or kind of doing. The other bits, especially the free-market purity, just don't sell when the world is teetering on the edge of a financial abyss.
Why trust the markets when they can't even decide for themselves what they think - up one day, down the next, and down further the day after. This is a time when people are inclined to cling to the life-raft of government, not hand the oars to the crooks and traders who played us all for fools with their derivatives and short-term bonuses, then left us with nothing but debt.
So it's a hard enough road as it is, yet the inability of ACT get back to basics, speak with one voice and look like anything other than a bunch of disappointed, rich white men is dooming them. Oblivion, as someone said.
Today ACT will launch its law and order policy, and while, as Stephen Franks says, it's largely in line with party philosophy, it reeks of desperation. Unfair? Well, what do you think?
ACT wants to enshrine the right to self-defence in the bill of rights. Now that works as far as ACT's conversion to the Sensible Sentencing Trust view of the world goes, but it's more populism than libertarianism. (And I expect it will be popular.)
But pause for a second. It's one thing for people to defend themselves. Already section 48 of the Crimes Act says:
"Everyone is justified in using, in defence of himself or another, such force as, in the circumstances as he believes them to be, it is reasonable to use".
But to push the pendulum further, to give that right the rare constitutional power of a place in the bill of rights is surely to invite more violence into a society already beset with more than its fair share.
Surely we know by now that violence begets violence; this only adds to the cycle. It does nothing to address the cause of crime or break cycles of violence in New Zealand.
Brash conveniently quote the stories of Virender Singh, Navtej Singh and Greg Carvell.
Then, just as you assume ACT's political strategy is to out-muscle even itself in the law and order stakes, Brash goes and announces he's got qualms about cannabis laws. They're not working, he says, and maybe it's time to decriminalise.
The politics of this is just nuts. Why? Look at it this way. The self-defence policy looks like out-and-out populism; Winston Peters will be kicking himself for not thinking of it first. But then the marijuana policy is true to ACT's philosophy of freedom, which suggest they're turning back to the party's base.
Thing is, the policies as vote-catchers cancel each other out. Few people will want to vote for both. The 'lock 'em up' crowd from ZB will cheer the former, but simply loathe the latter.
ACT looks like a party making it up as it goes along. It looks loose. Consider this line from today's Brash speech:
"...the status quo where innocent people are more likely than not to be prosecuted for using legitimate force in self-defence and in defence of their property must be overturned".
'More likely than not'? Unlikely, I thought. So I rang the police. Unlikely, they said, but we don't keep such data so we don't and can't know.
So I rang Kim Workman at Rethinking Crime and Punishment. Unlikely, he said. No, he didn't know of any such data and we should take on whoever it was who was making such a claim (I hadn't attributed the quote, so as not to bias anyone).
Workman added with a laugh, "I think you might win".
As I say, loose. And lacking a coherent strategy.
The likely outcome for ACT come November 27 is a caucus of John Banks and Don Brash - two former National party MPs already receiving their pensions. And I may be erring on the side of generosity. Banks could return alone; or not at all, if ACT tries to push the decriminalise marijuana line in the campaign. In Epsom, that'll go down like a, well, a druggie on Victoria Ave.
No wonder John Boscawen changed his mind and discovered the joys of family time. He was never getting back in, anyway. He's seen the writing on the wall and is saving face while he can. And who can blame him?