By John Pagani*
New Zealand's conservatives are establishing a pattern of abandoning their principles when they are faced with a tactical challenge. (I'm not talking about the new micro-party; I mean the right hand side of our political spectrum.)
The first example I noticed was the conservative response to capital gains tax - a policy easily compatible with conservative ideas. You noticed how conservative writers and commentators tied themselves in knots trying to distinguish between the principle, and Labour's proposal. Bill English even confessed that 'theoretically a conservative gains tax is a good idea.'
Then last week conservative bloggers took a perverse position on the problematic involvement of the SIS in politics.
They were busy squealing about the obscure 'he-said-no-he-said' issue. Whatever. But a state agency getting out of control is a classic issue for liberal conservatives.
Their principles are meant to be anchored in a restrained role for the state, respect for the rule of law, and institutional integrity. These principles are one of the dominant strands in New Zealand's political development.
The involvement of our security agency in a partisan political hack job violated all of those principles. And New Zealand's conservatives ignored a challenge to their principles because they wanted to play tactical games.
It struck me again on the weekend debating emissions trading.
A lot of conservatives are occupied with denying any need for an emissions trading system. That is coherent conservative position, although not a necessary one - ask Simon Upton.
But if you are going to have an emissions trading scheme, there is no principled conservative position that can defend subsidies for agriculture.
I think the problem is that the ETS is little understood. When we talk about 'free credits' and 'leaving agriculture out of the ETS', the issue gets framed as 'do you like agriculture or not?' and conservatives instinctively say 'yes'.
But those questions should be given their proper meaning - 'do you want to subsidise agriculture?'
That is entirely what the ets argument is about - subsidies. Who gets them, and who pays for them.
I am generally a supporter of active industry policy. I can support subsidies to help industries develop, for example. Subsidies to assist job creation and training partnerships.
But I can't see a conservative argument for any of that, and I certainly can't see the conservative principle that defends subsidies to our dominant export industries.
How is it a conservative position to tax New Zealanders more so that our strongest economic sector can be subsidised?
You would expect ACT, for example, to take this position. But they are focused on fighting the ETS in any form.
Imagine that a government wanted to introduce a GST, and they planned to bring it in with exemptions for food and petrol, say. ACT and National would have the option of opposing the GST because they oppose new taxes - but you would also expect them to say 'if you are going to have a GST you should make it apply to everything.'
Why don't they take the same principled attitude to an ETS?
So many of New Zealand's conservatives are intellectually incoherent. I don't mean 'incoherent' in the abusive sense, but in the sense that they lack an internally consistent system of ideas.
That probably explains how the all-antenna-no-compass Prime Minister ends up with an economic policy based on drift, not leadership.
*John Pagani is an independent political consultant and writer who has worked as an adviser to Labour Leader Phil Goff. He writes his own blog at Posterous.