Thursday, December 22, 2011

Peter Baird and the nanny school of policing

Is it just me, or do other people also get irritated by the increasing tendency for the police to lecture the public as if we were a class of backward children?

In the Dominion Post this week, Wellington district road policing manager Peter Baird was quoted as saying that police had noticed an increase in the number of drivers with alcohol in their system in the middle of the afternoon – due, presumably, to end-of-year lunchtime celebrations.

While it was clear from the report that no one had actually been charged for exceeding the legal limit, Inspector Baird was still concerned that people were taking a risk by driving after a few drinks. “As soon as you have a drink you are impaired to some level.”

So people are now being warned for staying within the law. This is an intriguing new direction for policing. Can we also now expect to be pulled over and given a warning for driving at 98 kilometres per hour?

Not content that drivers are responsibly staying within the legal alcohol limit determined by the government, Inspector Baird is wagging a finger in their faces and tut-tutting that it’s not good enough.

Does this man not have enough to do? If the people being pulled up and tested by the police are under the limit, there’s an end to it. If anything, he should be congratulating people for drinking responsibly. Lectures on the perils of moderate alcohol consumption should be left to sanctimonious academics and health bureaucrats, of whom there’s no shortage.

In a recent issue of the Wairarapa News, the same Inspector Baird sounded almost disappointed at the low level of drunk drivers (0.44 percent) detected in a weekend blitz - a figure that inconveniently undermined attempts to portray New Zealand as a nation gripped by addiction to liquor. Rather than celebrate this encouraging result, Inspector Baird could only scold his fellow New Zealanders for “making the choice to drink and drive”.

He was at it again in this week’s edition of the same paper. Commenting on the results of the latest police operation (as a result of which only 0.41 percent of the 12,077 drivers tested will face charges), he huffed and puffed that even drivers within the legal limit were more at risk than if they were not drinking. “Every glass affects your impairment in some way.”

Inspector Baird went on to say that New Zealand’s legal blood alcohol limit – 0.8 mg per 100 ml – was much more generous than in most developed countries. “We are not currently in line with the OECD.”

In fact Britain, Canada and the US all have a legal limit of 0.8, and research is inconclusive about the number of lives that would be saved by reducing it to 0.5. (Bear in mind that most serious accidents involving alcohol are caused by drivers who are well over 0.8, and therefore wouldn’t have been avoided even if a lower limit had been in force.)

But that’s hardly the point. New Zealanders elect governments to make laws and the job of police officers is to enforce them, not publicly bemoan their supposed inadequacy. If Inspector Baird wants the law changed, he can stand for Parliament. If he's on a mission to achieve the perfect society, someone should gently explain to him that it's been tried already.

In the meantime, he should spare us the patronising lectures.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What's that yelping noise? Must be the Jackal

I stumbled today across a left-wing blog that I hadn’t encountered before. It’s called the Jackal.

I came across it because it had named me the “Asshole of the Week” for my recent column about Bryan Bruce’s hand-wringing documentary about child poverty in New Zealand.

Infantile abuse is par for the course on the web, so no surprises there. But I noted that the author of this blog, like so many other gutless non-entities in the blogosphere, is anonymous.

I posted the following comment: “A jackal is a cowardly cur that skulks in the shadows. I can’t think of a blog that’s more appropriately named”.

Half an hour later the Jackal had returned to the post, like a dog returning to its vomit, and responded to my comment. I reproduce his response here, complete with its puerile Net-speak and clumsy grammatical errors:

“LOL Thems fighting words.

“As well as being ignorant about inequality, you also appear to have zero education on eukaryotic organisms.

“Do you like how this post rates higher in searches than most of your articles Karl du Fresne?


I have no idea whether the Jackal’s blog is better read than mine and don’t give a toss either way. The fact that he thinks I might be jealous gives a clue to how his puerile mind works. (As for his bizarre reference to “eukaryotic organisms”, your guess is as good as mine.)

But here’s the interesting thing. When I tried to post a further comment, a notice came up advising that I was now blocked from the site.

Like the scavenging canine he names himself after, the Jackal attacks only when he can be sure his prey isn’t going to bite back. What a loser.

The teacher unions are at it again

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 20.)

AUCKLAND University academic Peter O’Connor at least got the first line right in his overwrought article in these pages last week attacking the proposed charter schools trial. “There is a fight brewing in schools,” he wrote.

Yes, there is a fight brewing. But we should be clear about who’s forming the battle lines, and why.

It’s the teachers who are gearing up for a stoush, and the reason is that they see a limited trial of charter schools as a threat to their control of the education system.

Teachers believe the only changes governments are entitled to make to education are those that they approve.

No other branch of the public service operates in this fashion. The police, the armed forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Treasury – all accept that governments are elected to make policy and the job of public servants is to put that policy into practice. Teachers alone consider themselves exempt from this principle.

The teacher unions haven’t revealed how they intend to oppose charter schools, but you can be sure they will do everything in their power to thwart the experiment.

As in the past (most recently with national standards) they will present themselves as taking a principled stand on the public’s behalf, but their primary motive is good old-fashioned self-interest. They will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo.

Unfortunately, timid governments have encouraged teacher intransigence in the past by backing down whenever the unions dug their toes in over reform initiatives.

It remains to be seen whether the Key government is made of sterner stuff. That it stuck to its guns over national standards suggests it may be.

Perhaps Hekia Parata, the new minister of education, should talk to Julia Gillard, the head of Australia’s Labor government. As minister of education, Ms Gillard overrode teacher opposition to push through some of the very changes the unions have steadfastly opposed here.

As for associate professor O’Connor, we should remember that what’s proposed is only a small-scale trial. To read his lurid rhetoric, you’d think the government was proposing a wholesale reinvention of the system from the ground up.

His slogan-laden article, in which he described charter schools as a “corporatist attack” serving the interests of a “transnational capitalist elite” was an example of the drearily predictable, left-wing group-think that passes for rigorous analysis in the universities.

The PPTA is even more hysterical, likening charter schools to Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby – a place where boys are whipped, starved and abused by the ghastly headmaster Wackford Squeers.

In a provocatively insulting letter to John Key, PPTA president Robin Duff suggests the prime minister might like to watch the DVD of Nicholas Nickleby rather than read the novel, as it’s a long book with small print.

It would be idle to expect rational debate from these people. They have spent so much of their lives confined in classrooms with adolescents that their emotional maturity is irreparably impaired.

* * *

A CONSTANT refrain from the Left during the election campaign was that the National government had rewarded its wealthy mates with massive tax cuts.

Don’t expect this to let up any time soon. On TV3 last week, Greens co-leader Russel Norman claimed that only the top 10 percent who had got “$2 billion worth of tax cuts” from the Key government could afford to buy shares in Mighty River Power.

But does the tax system really favour the rich at the expense of low-income earners? Figures provided by national accountancy firm Markhams suggest that if anything, the reverse is true.

According to Markhams, households earning over $120,000 pay 97 percent of net individual income tax revenue, while the top 10 percent of households – the people Dr Norman reckons get favourable treatment – generate 71 percent of the individual tax take.

But wait, there’s more. Households earning less than $50,000 (43 percent of households) receive more in income support than they pay in income tax, on a net basis. Income tax paid by households earning between $50,000 and $110,000 effectively pays for this net refund.

Keep these figures in mind next time you hear a politician playing the envy card by claiming that the tax tables are tilted in favour of the wealthy.

* * *

FINALLY, a small but cheering antidote to the annual pre-Christmas deluge of anti-alcohol propaganda.

Of 68,000 motorists recently breath-tested in a nationwide police blitz, 373 returned positive results. That’s about 0.5 percent. In the Wellington region, 11,188 drivers were tested and 50 were over the limit – only 0.44 percent.

These figures are not only remarkably low, given that we’re constantly told we’re a nation of helpless drunks; they are also slightly down on last year’s.

They confirm that hazardous drinking is not a community-wide curse, as the wowser lobby wants us to believe, but is confined to a small segment of abusers. The rest of us should enjoy a guilt-free Christmas.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Documentary producer responds

The Dominion Post yesterday published a letter from documentary producer Bryan Bruce, responding to my latest Curmudgeon column. In the interests of fairness I reproduce it here:

Karl du Fresne's column on my Inside Child Poverty documentary contains many errors. He states that its message was "the welfare state has failed our poor ". Wrong.

The message was that the free market economic model fails about 20 per cent of our children. We need a "fair market" economy.

Du Fresne says the solution I propose is more welfare spending. Wrong. I suggested we spend smarter, re-distribute the existing money, spend more on prevention, and spend less on crisis management. I also advocated bypassing parents to get the aid more directly to children, as happens in Sweden.

He says, "Socialists never bother to ask where the money comes from". Wrong again. I asked, "So how are we going to pay for free meals and free health care for children" and supplied five possible sources and solutions within the existing welfare budget.

I don't expect balance in an opinion piece, but I do expect accuracy. Children don't get to choose their parents.

Solving the child poverty problem won't happen through poverty of mind and spirit.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Capitalism has mislaid its moral compass

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 7.)

Cast your mind back to the 1990s. The Berlin Wall had collapsed, and with it the entire rotten edifice of Soviet communism. Democracy and free enterprise were taking root in countries previously kept under repressive state control.

Internationally there was a marked swing from left to right. Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism in the United States had radically changing the political landscape.

Even in countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the traditional parties of the left were shedding their socialist heritage and reaching a new accommodation with economic liberalism.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama was sufficiently emboldened to write in 1992: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

It was hailed as the ultimate triumph of capitalism over socialism. The great battle of the ideologies that had raged for much of the 20th century was proclaimed to be over. But was it?

Many of us thought so at the time, but we reckoned without one very important factor – that old human impulse, greed.

Capitalism’s golden age – if that indeed is what it was – turned out to be disappointingly brief. The Western world went on a delirious spending binge using borrowed money, precipitating what is now known as the Global Financial Crisis.

Consumerism – the urge to acquire the newest and best of everything – was rampant. In New Zealand, we joyously threw off the shackles after decades of tight economic controls by going on a residential property spree that drove house values, especially in fashionable suburbs and coastal resorts, to preposterous levels.

The new princes of capitalism, the bankers and financial traders in centres such as London and New York, acquired wealth previously undreamed of. Taking full advantage of an environment that spurned regulation and control in the belief that markets could safely be left to govern themselves, they created complex financial instruments tied to real estate values; and as these continued their apparently limitless upward trajectory, the money men rewarded themselves with stratospheric bonuses.

In New Zealand, investors fell over themselves in their eagerness to entrust their money to dodgy finance companies, some of them run by the same sharks who had feasted on the gullible during the sharemarket and property boom of the 1980s.

As is often the case, those closest to the centre of the action were the least capable of foreseeing how it would play out. They seemed to think the party could go on forever, but of course it couldn’t, and didn’t.

A catastrophic economic collapse reverberated throughout the West. Once-solid banks fell over like dominoes and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, even as the bankers – by now completely detached from reality – continued to reward themselves with huge bonuses.

America was traumatised by unemployment and mortgage foreclosures. Thousands of New Zealand investors, many of them elderly, lost the savings they had counted on to keep them in their retirement.

More recently, the European Union has been through convulsions as incompetently managed economies collapsed under a mountain of debt and had to be rescued by more responsible member states.

Where this will end is hard to predict, but the unravelling of the EU can’t be ruled out. The industrious Germans can’t be expected to prop up the feckless southern Europeans indefinitely. And in the meantime, democracy itself is being undermined as elected politicians are replaced by technocrats appointed from Brussels.

Capitalism hasn’t covered itself in glory in Russia, either. There, assets that once belonged to the state have been corralled by a small coterie of ultra-rich and often corrupt oligarchs – hardly a good advertisement for the free market economy. Small wonder that the communist party still appeals to many Russian voters.

It’s fair to say, then, that capitalism is in crisis. In fact you could say it’s on trial.

You can sense a distrust of capitalism lurking behind public unease about our own government’s proposed partial selloff of state assets. People haven’t forgotten that when this last happened, state-owned businesses were flogged off at fire sale prices, stripped of assets and, in several instances, had to be bought back in order to save them.

There’s also a perception that unbridled capitalism runs counter to the spirit of egalitarianism that New Zealanders pride themselves on. I think too much is made of the gap between the rich and the poor; we shouldn’t worry that some people are stonkingly rich as long as everyone has enough, in the words of Listener columnist Joanne Black, to live decently. Yet there’s little doubt that social cohesion is undermined if people perceive that they live in a stratified society where status is determined solely by wealth.

One consequence of capitalism’s recent failings was the emergence of the Occupy movement, but it’s impossible to take seriously the ragtag protest groups that have taken over public spaces such as the steps of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, New York’s Zuccotti Park, Auckland’s Aotea Square and Dunedin’s Octagon. They are mostly young and their idealistic minds are unencumbered by knowledge or wisdom.

Their objections to capitalism are vague and often incoherent. They express a fervent conviction that there must be something better, but they don’t know what it is.

The truth is that if there is a better way than free-market capitalism, humanity has yet to discover it. Capitalism may have temporarily let itself down, but it remains the world’s best hope for prosperity and peace. The world’s most liberal, humane, peaceful and prosperous states are all capitalist democracies – something the naïve young idealists of the Occupy movement don’t seem to grasp.

Certainly, socialism is no solution. Capitalism may not work perfectly all the time (what human system does?), but socialism has never worked anywhere, under any circumstances.

What’s needed, then, is for capitalism to rediscover its moral compass. In the words of Ken Costa, a former chairman of international investment bankers Lazards, the markets have “slipped their moral moorings”.

Costa was asked last month by the Anglican Bishop of London to lead discussions on how a form of “ethical capitalism” might work. While he believes markets are still the best system for creating growth and jobs, Costa said the market economy had shifted from its moral foundations “with disastrous consequences”.

The challenge now is for capitalism to set about regaining public trust. It may be a long haul, but it must be done.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More on that emotionally manipulative doco

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 6.)

TV3’s RECENT prime-time documentary on child poverty in New Zealand had exactly the intended effect. Viewers were aghast at the evidence of sub-standard housing and preventable illnesses such as scabies and school sores. Anguished writers of letters to the editor wondered how this state of affairs could have arisen in a country once considered the best in the world for raising children.

In one respect, the viewer reaction was encouraging. It was a reminder that we are still a decent, compassionate society.

The problem is, the programme represented a very one-sided view. Its message was that the welfare state has failed our poor – and so it has, but not in the way that documentary maker Bryan Bruce wanted us to think.

The welfare state is now part of the problem. Originally designed to tide people over hard times, it has created a culture of long-term dependency, helplessness and entitlement.

There is ample evidence that dependence on benefits, more than any other factor, causes the poverty trap that Bruce professes to despise. Yet the solution he proposes is more welfare spending.

The documentary ignored the risk that more spending on benefits and state housing would serve to make a welfare-based lifestyle look more attractive and end trapping up even more people.

Neither did Bruce concern himself with the inconvenient fact that more welfare spending increases the burden on the diminishing productive sector of an already weak economy.

Socialists never bother to ask where the money comes from; they are interested only in spending it. But consider this: New Zealand in 1972 had 26 working people for every beneficiary. Today that ratio is down to 7 to 1 (in fact 3 to 1, if you include superannuitants).

This was a disgracefully simplistic, emotionally manipulative programme, but fortunately not everyone was fooled. This newspaper published letters from people who had grown up in state houses and pointed out that the mould Bruce was so appalled by in some of the homes he visited could be avoided simply by proper ventilation – in other words, opening windows – and wiping away condensation. But of course it’s far more dramatic to present state house tenants as the helpless victims of Dickensian indifference and heartless, right-wing politicians.

I agree with Bruce on one thing: child poverty is deplorable. But the problem is far more complex than this slanted programme would have us believe. As I wrote on my blog, a film maker could just as easily produce a documentary proving the exact reverse of Bruce’s thesis – namely, that the welfare state and the culture of dependency it encourages are the cause of, rather than the solution to, the poverty and deprivation that Bruce finds so intolerable.

* * *

I KNOW NOTHING about cricket beyond what I read in the sports pages. I managed to navigate my way through childhood without ever playing the game and it remains a mystery to me.

However I was intrigued by a recent article in Britain’s Spectator magazine, prompted by the death of English cricketer-turned-journalist Peter Roebuck, which examined the abnormal suicide rate among former cricketers and asked: “How is that cricket drives so many players out of their minds?”

The best answer it could give was that top players devoted themselves wholly to the game and were left feeling lost and bereft when their careers ended. With no team at the centre of their lives, many didn’t know what to do with themselves and succumbed to drink and depression.

It certainly seems true that cricket, being a game that lasts days rather than hours, requires players to spend a disproportionate amount of their life with other young men in pavilions and hotel rooms. I wonder whether this results in some being emotionally stunted – trapped in an eternal adolescence of high-fives and howzats – and thus less able to cope with the rigours of ordinary life. Certainly some first-class cricketers give the impression of being unusually self-absorbed and perhaps even mentally fragile.

Spending a large part of your life in the company of other blokes, especially at a time when you’re biologically programmed to search for a long-term female partner, just seems downright unnatural.

Of course I didn’t grasp any of this when I decided never to play cricket, but I’m pleased that I made the right choice.

* * *

ANOTHER outbreak of Acute Sensitivity Disorder has made headlines, this time in Britain. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson said on TV that striking public sector workers should be shot – taken out and executed, preferably in front of their families.

It was a typical Clarkson line, clearly intended as a provocative joke. But even the Poms have lost their sense of humour.

The BBC, intimidated by unionists’ howls of outrage, apologised. Worse still, so did Clarkson.

When political correctness stifles humour and free speech in the country that once gave us such outrageously irreverent and wickedly funny programmes as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, we should all be very afraid.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Were we too quick to dismiss John Banks?

The announcement that National will trial charter schools in low-income areas as part of its coalition agreement with ACT suggests that John Key’s government will be a lot more adventurous in its second term than in its first.

It’s an extremely significant policy gain for ACT and runs counter to the suspicion expressed by many commentators (me included) that John Banks is a political impostor; a National MP in disguise. Charter schools and parental choice in education have been core ACT policy from the start but until now, have never looked like gaining mainstream traction.

It rather looks as if National is using its tiny ally in Parliament to advance policies that it knows will resonate with National supporters – and no doubt with many of its MPs too – but which it hasn’t had the nerve to embrace itself. Radio New Zealand political editor Brent Edwards also pointed out this morning that it’s in National’s interests to help ACT rebuild so that it continues to have a dependable partner on its right. Allowing ACT a few important policy gains – and several ministerial positions – would be consistent with that strategy.

That John Key went on Morning Report this morning to defend the coalition deal with ACT – and took a pot shot at the “vested interests” of the teacher unions that oppose charter schools – is another indication that National has experienced a testosterone surge as a result of its election triumph. In the past Key has only rarely been interviewed on Radio New Zealand, leading to accusations that he wasn’t up to aggressive questioning.

We should all now brace ourselves for a furious co-ordinated offensive from the teacher unions, which have been remarkably successful in bullying governments in the past and will see the introduction of charter schools - even if only on a very limited scale - as a threat to their iron grip on the education system. To the teacher unions, parental choice is a seriously subversive concept. Inevitably, they will seek to forcefully remind the government just who the system exists for: the teachers.

The big question then will be whether the government stands up to the unions or shamefully capitulates, as National did over bulk funding in the 1990s. To its credit, the Key government stood its ground over national standards in the face of an almost hysterical outcry - the first setback for the teacher unions for as long as most people can remember. I hope it demonstrates the same resolve over charter schools.

It is, after all, just a trial, although we can rely on the NZEI, the PPTA and the school principals' organisations to portray it as tantamount to the sacking of our schools by Barbarian hordes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The horses will remain unfrightened

(Written for NZCPR Weekly -

Let’s get the congratulations out of the way first. National’s election triumph was as emphatic as they get, at least under MMP. Admittedly, it’s rare for a government to be tossed out of office after only one term: it last happened in 1975, and the circumstances then were unusual. Norman Kirk had died in office and the Labour Party leadership had been assumed by the mild-mannered Bill Rowling, who was ill-prepared to deal with the aggression and firepower of a political streetfighter named Muldoon.

But for National to strengthen its hold on power after one term, especially following a year as challenging as any in memory, was some feat. Colin James reports that it’s only the fifth time in 75 years that a first-term government has increased its vote. (Labour did it in 2002, but not as resoundingly.)

Perhaps desperate to inject some drama into a dull campaign, the media talked up Labour’s chances, arbitrarily declaring Phil Goff the winner in two bland TV debates; but it only served to demonstrate – again – that political journalists in Wellington are poorly equipped to read the public mind. Even the predicted narrowing of the gap in the last stages of the campaign never happened.

The vital statistics – 60 seats for National (up two) and 34 for Labour (down nine) – tell only part of the story. Even more striking was the fact that in Labour strongholds such as Christchurch East, Te Atatu and New Lynn, National won the party vote. That humiliation was compounded by Labour’s loss of well-regarded up-and-coming MPs such as Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis, and by the thrashing handed out to glamour candidate Andrew Little in the previously ultra-marginal seat of New Plymouth, Little’s home town. The ambitious former union boss still gets into Parliament at No 15 on the Labour list, but his star has lost a lot of its lustre.

So, a romp for National. But this was an election where the sub-plots were more interesting than the main action on centre-stage.

Everyone commented on what a great campaign the Greens ran. Certainly they seemed to pick up a lot of former Labour supporters, and their electoral appeal can only have broadened since the departure of polarising figures such as Sue Bradford and Nandor Tanczos. In fact it looks as if the Greens are re-positioning themselves as a mainstream party of the centre-left (watch out Labour) rather than one on the beansprouts-and-sandals fringe. Russel Norman’s stylish suit and tie are a clue to that; the eccentric garb of the late Rod Donald is already a distant memory.

But just wait: the Greens have yet to be fully tested. They have never been exposed to Minor Party Curse, the fatal affliction that strikes small parties once they formally become part of coalition government arrangements. That’s when the stresses start to tell and party discipline starts to fall apart.

As long as a party remains outside government, as the Greens have done, it can safely occupy the moral high ground. Its high-minded principles are unlikely to be compromised. But the moment a party is drawn into a coalition, deals are done and principles get stretched. Ambitions are unleashed and tensions arise between idealists and pragmatists. It happened to the Alliance and it happened to ACT – both parties, like the Greens, with a strong ideological base. Being in government also means a minority party is subjected to much more intense media scrutiny. All things considered, the Greens might have a more assured future if they remain in opposition. A memorandum of understanding with National may be as far as they can safely go.

Then there’s Winston Peters, whose comeback was the big story of the night. (Obviously, someone forgot to drive a stake through his heart.) Peters too has an unhappy record in government. This may explain why he declared before the election that New Zealand First wouldn’t align with either National or Labour – although as with all Peters’ hand-on-heart declarations, that vow could be relied on only for as long as it was expedient for him to stick to it. So Peters is back doing what he does best, which is opposing.

Being in government never suited him; the burden of office, with its requirement to toe the line, curb his tongue, make decisions and accept some form of collective responsibility, was far too onerous. Heck, he was probably even expected to read briefing papers. No, at his age (66) it’s much more fun huffing and puffing from the cross-benches, feuding with the media, stoking the fears and prejudices of his ageing support base and holding court at the Green Parrot. Already there are hints that Peters will set out to hijack the first sitting of the new parliament, as only he can, by using it to divulge the transcript of the secret conversation between the two Johns, Key and Banks, at the Café Urban.

And finally we come to ACT, a Shakespearean tragedy that has unfolded in slow motion. Its disintegration began with the acrimonious leadership struggle that split the party after Richard Prebble’s departure in 2004 and now we are observing the painful last act (pun not intended).

Where did they go wrong? Well, it’s clear that the leadership contest between Rodney Hide, Ken Shirley, Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman created tensions that have never gone away. (Deborah Coddington, who left Parliament in 2005, still can’t comment on her old party without sounding as if she’s settling scores.) Under Hide’s leadership, ACT’s focus drifted away from the party’s founding principles, thus deepening the divisions. In embracing the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s law-and-order agenda (a worthy enough cause, but hardly consistent with ACT’s classical liberalism), Hide strayed perilously close to Winston Peters territory. His foray into television on Dancing with the Stars – a misguided attempt to court mainstream popularity – not only devalued the ACT brand but gave the media a fresh excuse to belittle the party by showing endless replays of Hide dropping his dancing partner. The David Garrett sideshow didn’t help either, and neither did perkbuster Hide’s credibility-damaging acceptance of an overseas holiday paid for by the taxpayer.

For all that, Hide was a capable, committed and hard-working politician who knew the ropes and made some significant gains in parliament. So it seemed churlish and high-handed that when Don Brash launched his hostile takeover bid for ACT, he made it clear that Hide had to go. That now looks like a bad mistake. ACT has lost one of its most effective performers and Brash’s own political career is probably beyond resuscitation. History will record that while the former Reserve Bank governor's principles were unimpeachable, his political judgment was too often woefully astray. ACT is now represented in Parliament – nominally, anyway – by a man with no history in the party and no record of commitment to its philosophy. John Banks has some admirable personal qualities, but he presents the absurd image of a man wearing an ill-fitting suit tailored for someone else.

But back to National. Will the Key government show more daring in its second term than it did in the first? It has the excuse that the global economic crisis calls for bold action, but it could just as easily argue – and probably will – that a period of international uncertainty is no time for making radical changes that might create anxiety. And of course it won’t have an eager-beaver ACT caucus prodding it to take bolder steps to arrest our relative economic decline. So while we can expect modest reforms in such areas as welfare, youth wages, accident compensation, partial privatisation of state assets and the Resource Management Act, no one’s bracing themselves for tough action to curb the state spending binge that began under the Helen Clark government and has continued largely unabated under National. Stability is likely to remain National’s soothing mantra. The horses mustn’t be frightened.