Gordon Campbell interviews Rodney Hide

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*****
Act Party leader Rodney Hide has always been something of a poltergeist rattling around on the centre right of the political spectrum – making noise and kind of friendly (except when he isn’t) but without ever conveying the sense that he’s entirely there.Since the last election, the Act Party itself has also been more ectoplasm than substance.Nationwide, only 34, 469 people gave their party votes to Act in 2005.

That’s only 8,000 more than voted for Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party, usually written off as an optical illusion.

Lest we forget : Act suffered the biggest decline of any small party last election.

A drubbing, Hide described it in his speech to this year’s Act Party conference in March. Hide has taken those lessons of 2005 to heart.

Sensibly, he has taken heed of Peter Dunne’s longevity in Ohariu, and treats his electorate base in Epsom as Act’s best bulwark against oblivion.

To shore that up, Hide knew he needed to become something other than a rowdy populist or a hard right economic zealot – and so in the last couple of years, we have seen the much storied all dancing, harbour swimming, power dieting socio-physical transformation of Epsom Man.

The more interesting bit has been the Epsom uber alles approach that has gone with it. Last time round, Act received only 1,237 party votes in Epsom, out of 36, 421 party votes cast there.

Clearly, a lot of people from other parties voted tactically to get Hide and Act into Parliament via the electorate route, and Hide is playing that card for all its worth ( no pun intended) again this year.

That leaves the party in a bit of a fix, in that its leader and star player seems to be almost kissing the party vote in Epsom – you know, the MMP bit that gives other Act candidates a chance of joining him in Parliament – goodbye.

One resort has been to stand Act candidates again in Maori seats. Partly as a gimmick, partly in recognition that Act’s welfare policy finds common ground with the conservative wing of the Maori Party.

Also, Act’s own ideological zeal for education vouchers co-incidentally strikes a chord with those Maori who see vouchers as an avenue for creating separatist schools for Maori children who are being failed by lower income state schools.

More to the point, Hide has all but sub-let Act’s party vote problem to his old sparring partner, Sir Roger Douglas. Douglas has agreed / been persuaded to be the party vote magnet for his old crew, without getting ( or maybe even wanting) a guaranteed electable place on the Act party list.

Even so, Hide will find it hard sledding again in Epsom this year. National’s current popularity will lift its perennial ( and perennially dull) candidate Richard Worth’s chances, and Labour will probably not be the same vote splitting force it was last time.

On Tuesday morning this week, Scoop’s Gordon Campbell sat down with Rodney Hide to plumb the mystery that is Rodney, and the directions in which he and Act may now be headed.

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Campbell : Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

Hide : Yes.

Campbell : Why do you think her work remains so popular, especially among the young?

Hide : Its easily accessible. She wrote… you know, like a novel, rather than strictly economics or philosophy or political science. And she creates characters who are heroes. So I can imagine it being quite powerful. I think people who are libertarian by persuasion are very influenced by the first libertarian book that they read.

Campbell : Which in your case, was what?

Hide : The Open Society and its Enemies [ by Karl Popper] was my big impact. Which wasn’t a libertarian tract by any means.

Campbell : How old were you at the time?

Hide : Thirty. I read Ayn Rand much later.

Campbell : Ronald Reagan once said that the very heart and soul of conservatism was libertarian ism. Is it still Act’s radical core?

Hide : I can’t speak for that conservative thing because I’m not a conservative. I understand an Edmund Burke kind of conservative…

Campbell : The question was – is libertarianism still Act’s radical core ?

Hide : Freedom certainly is. And libertarianism is…in which case yes, it is.

Campbell : So you consider yourself a libertarian?

Hide : Yeah.

Campbell : But you don’t regard taxation, in principle, as theft ?

Hide : I don’t see that argument helps. Saying that something is theft. Because technically. it isn’t. I understand that taxation is a compulsory taking – but its not theft in the sense that…however you look at it, Parliament has made it legal. It doesn’t make it right.

Campbell : So it is wrong in principle, but OK in law?

Hide : Having excessive tax of course is wrong in principle. But I don’t think saying that taxation is theft is correct. Our definition in New Zealand of what is theft is : what is against the law. And amazingly, our Parliament makes…you know, tax legal. I don’t think its on the cards that we could live in a totally voluntary society, where there is no tax.

Climate change


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Campbell : Do you believe global warming is occurring right now?

Hide : I just answered this question funnily enough, for the Standard [website]. I looked on it last night and it had created some controversy. Because I took issue with the question. Because I don’t think it is about a matter of belief. It seems odd to me, because when you construct a question like that about a factual matter and saying it is a matter of belief – its not a question about the facts. It’s a question like, about religion or metaphysics.

Campbell : No its not. Its saying.. Does Rodney Hide, on the balance of probabilities, personally regard global warming right now, as being a fact ?

Hide : No that’s not what you said. You said.. do I believe it.

Campbell : That’s a synonym for your –

Hide : No no, let me finish this. I’ll answer your question. So that’s the first point. When someone asks ‘Do you believe in something?’ Its like hang on – lets have an argument about the facts. When you are measuring world temperature, it is very, very tough. Because its not the easiest thing in the world to measure. Second of all, when you’re saying do you believe in it? You’re actually saying like…do I believe in witches, God or um..Santa Claus, when its actually a factual question. The third reason that it is a mistake is – over what time period ? Because you actually have to go back to a point –

Campbell : The question is – on your reading of the facts, is it your judgment that it is occurring right now ?

Hide : Your question is still wrong, Gordon.

Campbell : You’re telling me it varies according to the time period. My question asked you – is it occurring right now?

Hide : Right now we don’t know. Like, today. What we’re saying is once you define a time period you can get a sense of it. If you go back and say over the last 18, 000 years its been warming. From the best of the records from 1900 to the 1940s its been warming. You can say over the last 18 years – which is since we’ve had orbital satellites which is the best way of measuring.. the answer is, funnily enough, a slight decrease.

Campbell : I’ll re-phrase. Do you see human beings as being responsible for the global warming that the IPCC sees as occurring right now ?

Hide : OK, that’s a better question. Um… whether its anthropogenic. I think there is an influence. I think its arguable how much. And that’s not clear. We do not know the exact influence that humans have had on the world’s climate. It requires a theoretical understanding largely based on models. If we accept the IPCC – which isn’t a bad starting point, right? The political question is what then do we do? I think that has two components. The first is that we have to worry seriously about our trade, and our international standing because we could find ourselves very easily shut out of the world. Which would be horrific. So we’ve got to be, to use the phrase, ‘ global citizens’ on this one. I think Kyoto One was a mistake.

Campbell : You’ve said you’d scrap the emissions trading scheme.

Hide : Sure.

Campbell : Why ? And with what, if anything, would you replace it?

Hide : Well the reason I’d scrap the emissions trading scheme is that it won’t make one blind bit of difference. So it won’t make a difference to the world’s weather. I think its in danger of actually bringing countries’ responses to the concern of climate change slash global warming, into disrepute. Because the costs will so high, and the administrative burden too large. So I think it’s a dopey scheme

Campbell : So do you think it is right, necessary or desirable to put a tax on carbon, or a price on carbon ?

Hide : No. No, I don’t.

Campbell : Do you think taxpayers should pay farmers’ share of the emissions bill in the Kyoto first round?

Hide : No, I don’t think they should.

Campbell : So farmers should pay their way?

Hide : No. I don’t think they or anyone –

Campbell : So we should renege ?

Hide : I think we should do what every other country has done, which is renege.

Education


Campbell : Some people use private schools and healthcare. Would Act give them a tax break for doing so, and why?

Hide : Better than that, we would actually provide the full amount for everyone. So we think the state shouldn’t have a preference for state schools over private schools. So we think we should fund every child and that means essentially a scholarship for every child. So those who are already sending their child to an independent school would basically receive the money they are saving today, by sending their children there. Parents currently sending their children to a state school would have the option of sending their child to an independent school, without the financial burden that’s there at present.

Campbell : Isn’t that just education vouchers by another name?

Hide : Sure.

Campbell : Well, the NZ Council for Educational Research concluded about vouchers : ‘ Competition for students by schools has not improved quality, achievement or access. Such schemes favour a minority at the expense of the majority. Competition among schools is hardest on those serving lower socio-economic communities and in fact it depresses overall educational levels.’

Hide : Yeah, I’ve seen that report, and I take issue with it. Its certainly not been the experience say, Sweden most recently and France or Holland.

Campbell : Can you tell me exactly how educational vouchers would lift everyone’s boat, and raise educational outcomes nationwide?

Hide : Sure. This is the experience since 1992 in Sweden. Which is hardly a shining bastion of libertarianism. Or freedom. But they adopted Act’s policy in 1992. To show you how effective its been, all the political parties in their Parliament now support it. The only party to oppose it are the former Communists. Why they found was…only a small percentage, and I forget the number of students, took advantage of the opportunity to shift schools, But as soon as schools were in danger of losing their roll, they actually lifted their game and they took parents seriously.

Where new schools most appeared were in the disadvantaged areas – most obviously amongst the new immigrant areas. Which is quite logical. Where people are sort of well off, well heeled and well incomed even within the state school system they get schools that are, you know, good. Where you find poor areas you find it harder to maintain even a decent state school, And where you have minority cultural groups that don’t necessarily reflect their requirements for education….and so, that’s what happened in Sweden.

Campbell : Couldn’t some conclude that’s what the Council said – that overall, it exacerbates existing inequalities?

Hide : Quite the reverse. What happened was the poor areas got better schools. That’s my point.

The Economy

Hide opposes removing GST from food – partly because it would be administratively more difficult to do so with a GST that operates right down the value chain, than with a sales tax. He also sees definitional problems with what is or isn’t to be counted as food. If the issue is the serious one of affordability, he continues, the answer is getting wages up, and taxes down.

Hide : I think its fair to say we have a view of how to get wages up, and have quite a clear economic strategy on how to do that….But if we say lets remove GST on something because its expensive, then every time there’s a shock in the market on something and prices go up, then there’ll be an argument that says lets remove GST on that. The fundamental issue in New Zealand is the ability of our people to buy and pay for things.

Campbell : So in the meantime, they can eat cake?

Hide : No, in the meantime we should be working hard to get wages up, and the money in peoples pockets up. And you do that most readily by lowering their taxes. We should have tax cuts across the board. And here’s the great thing. If you cut taxes, you will also provide a spur to investment. And if you provide a spur to investment you’ll get growth. And with growth, you’ll get productivity and in time, higher wages.

Campbell : So in your view, those supply side theories really do work? The core of that approach is that you cut taxes and then get even more tax revenue from the extra business growth that accrues.

Hide : Yeah, well…that’s the Laffer Curve.

Campbell : Yeah. Do you believe in it?

Hide : Ummm. You certainly, if you cut taxes you certainly, there’s no doubt about this now…you certainly, all things being equal, promote growth. Ummm its not obvious to me that you get sufficient growth to compensate for the loss of tax revenue. But over time, you take enough time..

Campbell : So, it’s in the long, long run. You’re a long run Laffer Curve kind of guy.

Hide : Well, it depends on how big the tax cut is.

Campbell : And how long the run is.

Hide : And also on how big the spurt is to economic growth. Think of it like this. If you get an extra 1 % of growth through whatever size tax cut you have, then that extra 1 % of tax is going to contribute a little bit more in revenue to the state, over time. And there will be a point in time where you’ll be as well off as if you didn’t have the tax cut.

Gangs


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Campbell : You’ve said the Chester Borrows Bill on gang insignia is unworkable. Do you also object to it on principle?

Hide : Yeah.

Campbell : Because I guess Voltaire would say you should be defending to the death the free speech right of gang members to wear whatever they like in public?

Hide : Sure. I actually think I opposed it in the House on principle, more than I did on it being unworkable.

Act’s Fortunes

Campbell : Between February and April, although you had in between your party conference and announced Sir Roger was emerging from retirement , Act’s support level in the last TV3 poll actually halved, to only 0.5 %. Why?

 

Hide : Oh, I think that when you’re struggling down around the margin of error your polls are going to be all over the place. I’d love to see them above 5 %, but I’ve said to Sir Roger, I’ve said to the board, that this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And my focus is on what we do on election day.

 

Campbell : Could you clarify for me – is Sir Roger intimating to you that he’d like to be in an electable position on the party list?

Hide : Yes.

Campbell : So one could expect him to be two or three – not nine or ten?

Hide :Well, I’m thinking and not because I disrespect Roger…but I’m thinking five or six. Because I want people…if they want Roger in Parliament, to vote for the party. And I also want Roger to come back into Parliament and have some influence. And that requires we get more MPs. But that will be a decision for Sir Roger, and for other members in the board, not for the leader to dictate the list.

Campbell : Really? Some people would say five or six is not electable…

Hide :Yeah, but I’ve had most people say endlessly…Every election most people say Act is finished. I’ve had most people say that I wasn’t going to win Epsom. My job as I see it, is to be the best MP I can be for Epsom. To have good policies that will advance New Zealand. To work with other politicals (sic) to advance New Zealand. And to put up good candidates. To run a good campaign and to get a good vote. Its for most people to sit on the sidelines and say its not possible…

Campbell : Are Remuera and Epsom currently going back to National in big numbers ?

Hide :No. Remuera and Epsom have always been National.

Campbell : So is Mt Eden the real area in play?

Hide :Yes. The women in Mt Eden is (sic) what National is competing for, along with Labour.

Campbell : Right. So lets assume you can’t win Epsom with a purely hardline economic agenda. Is there a socially liberal bloc – and I also tend to think they’re in Mt Eden – with whom Rodney Hide needs something other than that agenda. How big is that bloc?

Hide :I’ll go further than that. I’ve got to appeal to…heh, every voter in Epsom. Obviously there will be people who will never vote for me in a million years. But my strategy in Epsom has been this since 2005, and winning the seat : its seen a major change in [my] behaviour. The vast majority of people in Epsom don’t agree with Act’s policies. Obviously.

Campbell : You’re a tiny minority, nationwide.

Hide :That’s right. So what I have to appeal to, is [by] being a good MP. I’ve worked assiduously. I also have the view that says, whether you agree with me or not, and you’re a resident of Epsom…I’m your MP. And I treat that as a sacred thing…And have people vote for me because I am a good MP. Then they’ll go off and give their party vote to the Green Party, the Labour Party, the National Party, the Act Party, the Maori Party…but Rodney Hide, you’ve got to hand it to him. I might think he’s got some way out ideas, he’s a bit too radical for me, but he’s a good MP. And I do believe MMP affords that opportunity.

Campbell : Is there anything about the configuration of your opponents this time that will make it easier for you to win Epsom this year?

Hide :I think they’re going to be more focussed on the party vote. Because again, this is going to be a hard fought campaign and I think they’ll be looking at every electorate and it will be the party vote that will be of concern to them.

Campbell : With National in the ascendancy right now, what policy gains can you and Act possibly bring to the table and win, sufficient to encourage centre-right voters to vote switch towards you?

Hide : I think in brief, it goes like this. The National Party strategy this election is to adopt Labour Party policy. This is quite different to what we had in 2005. So I don’t believe that the voters see that. Because the party in Opposition can be all things to all people.

Campbell : So that old role, of Act being a ginger group and goad for National becomes relevant once again, doesn’t it?

Hide : Yeah. And I think its almost like this : if you vote Labour you’re gonna get Labour party policy, plus Winston. And if you vote National, you’re gonna get Labour party policy plus Winston. And if you vote Act, you’re going to get good policies, plus Roger.

Campbell : So National in your view, is Labour-lite this time ?

Hide : Well, I’m not even sure about the lite.

Campbell : You see National as being Labour, in tooth and claw?

Hide : Yeah, plus $1.5 billion on fibre. Honestly, I don’t see it as Labour-lite. Whereas, Don Brash put out an alternative vision and direction for the country….Labour has said that they could have Winston as Foreign Minister. National has said they can have Winston as Foreign Minister – and then National ruled Roger out.

ENDS.