In my last post but one, I confidently asserted that ACT had survived the election in the same way that Christopher Reeves had survived his riding accident. I was not alone in my assessment of ACT’s future prospects. Nevertheless, news of the National-ACT confidence and supply agreement makes me think that rumours of ACT’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
There are some excellent policy wins in there for ACT. It would appear that this term, with one MP, they are likely to get more runs on the board than they did last term with five MPs.
Here’s the list of initiatives that ACT got in their agreement:
Regulatory Standards Bill
Legislated Spending Limits
Resource Management Act streamlining
With the possible exception of the legislated spending limits, I think these are all excellent gains.
I am not opposed to spending limits in principle. However, this is essentially an effort to constrain the spending behaviour of future governments. I have concerns about the practical effects that this will have. The next government is unlikely to consider itself bound by spending limits imposed by the current one. They will therefore either repeal the legislation, or, if they feel that repeal is impractical for whatever reason, they will seek to circumvent the cap. And circumventing the cap entails a risk that the overall transparency of public expenditure will be undermined. If these risks are adequately addressed, then I think the idea has a lot of potential.
More publicly-available data on the performance of various measures of economic performance is a Good Thing. I don’t expect it to work any miracles, but I am optimistic that over time it will improve the quality of public discourse on the economy, and make it harder for governments to pick and choose certain measures, such as GDP growth and unemployment, and use them to claim that all is well, when other indicators highlight significant upcoming risks.
Similarly, a regulatory standards bill has the potential to modestly improve the overall quality of governance along the lines of what the Fiscal Responsibility Act has done for the management of public finances. And, although RMA reform isn’t something I’ve paid a lot of attention to, improvements to the RMA ought to have positive effects on the economy by making it easier for landowners are able to use their land to generate wealth.
The ACT win that has grabbed the headlines, however, is the agreement to trial some charter schools. This is a hugely exciting initiative. Charter schools have been responsible for some excellent outcomes overseas. And despite Leftist assertions that those gains are purely due to a selection bias (in that the schools choose better students and more educationally-motivated parents are more likely to try to send their kids to a charter school) there is ample evidence that there is more at work than a simple selection bias.
Another objection is that charter schools succeed by utilising young (and therefore cheap) teachers to enable them to reduce class sizes, and that this strategy is not sustainable except on a very small scale. This seems a reasonable concern, but, happily, there is more research into what makes charter schools successful indicating that class size is not a key metric.
It would be interesting to know the reasons behind National agreeing to support so many ACT initiatives. I cannot help but suspect that it is at least in part an attempt to help ACT rebuild its support. If so, National and ACT will need to find a way to ensure that it is the ACT Party that gets the credit for any success, because for ACT to stage a comeback over the next three years would be unprecendented.
Banks has delivered a good result for his party, and defied expectations that he would, to all intents and purposes, be another National MP. Even if ACT fails to thumb its nose at history and build its support while part of a coalition government, at least it won’t now be going out with a whimper.