Back Seat Drivers

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Monday, November 24, 2003 Last week, the Canadian Donner Foundation hosted a lunch for a small group of policy mavens and journalists. The guest speaker was the Honourable Richard Prebble, leader of New Zealand’s ACT party. In an engaging address that went well with the roast beef and red wine, Mr. Prebble touched on some intriguing points about the political strategy of seeking influence as opposed to seeking power.

A Cabinet minister in New Zealand’s Labour government during the 1980s, the one-time Auckland lawyer has been leading a small opposition party since 1996. Politically, ACT and its 55-year-old leader have a classical liberal bent. His party’s objectives and principles include the notion that “individuals are the rightful owners of their own lives and therefore have inherent freedoms and responsibilities” and that “the proper purpose of government is to protect such freedoms and not to assume such responsibilities.”

Sentiments of rugged individualism are usually dismissed, rather scathingly, as “19th century.” They’re not just anathema to socialists, but are frowned upon even by those who consider themselves middle-of-the-roaders, supporting a mixed economy of private and public enterprise within a semi-interventionist state. As this includes most current voters in New Zealand, ACT has no realistic hope of assuming power in the foreseeable future. But Mr. Prebble doesn’t mind; what he wants ACT to achieve is influence.

There’s no doubt that under the right circumstances the politics of influence — a.k.a. back-seat driving — can be highly effective. For instance, though the federal NDP in Canada never had any hope of achieving power during the 1970s and 1980s, it succeeded in back-seat driving the two ruling parties in rather spectacular ways. During the two decades preceding the collapse of the Soviet empire, there were times when Canada’s Liberals and Progressive Conservatives seemed to compete with each other mainly about which one might carry out faster or more thoroughly the NDP’s policies.

At no time did this country come closer to having a socialist government than during the decades when it was actually governed, sometimes with comfortable majorities, by the Grits of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Tories of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. But such successful back-seat driving doesn’t just happen. The climate has to be right for it. The back-seat driver needs to be sure of himself, while the person in the driver’s seat must be tormented by doubts.

This described the climate in the West until such factors as the runaway deficit, metastasizing government, declining productivity and the implosion of Soviet-type systems around the world began to change it. The wind shifted, along with the answers that were blowin’ in it. Suddenly socialism, even in moderate and well-groomed varieties, far from seeming like the wave of the future, appeared to be the dead-end of history. The NDP’s spiffy back seat turned into the NDP’s brackish backwater.

This indicates that the road to influence, just as the road to power, is moderated by the spirit of the times. Which leads to another observation Mr. Prebble made about influence, quoting Margaret Thatcher. It seems that during her tenure as Britain’s Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher said words to the effect that the real test of her ideas won’t be their impact on her own Conservative party, but on the Labour opposition.

This, I think, is a profound insight. Certainly in Britain, the tone and policies of Labour changed far more radically under the influence of Thatcherism than the tone and policies of the Tory party. By the late ’90s, Labour’s mainstream reached the point where the distinguished columnist John O’Sullivan could describe Prime Minister Tony Blair, with only a slight exaggeration, as “Margaret Thatcher on Prozac.”

Far from ending in Britain, the parallel extends to other times and places. It was Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, not the NDP, that nearly dismantled Canada’s system of free enterprise and limited government. At the same time, Soviet and Maoist models were dismantled or severely modified, not by some Reaganite invaders, but by such staunch Communist leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin.

The U.S. deficit, which kept growing under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., was finally reduced by Bill Clinton of the tax-and-spend Democrats. In the province of Ontario, the first serious reduction in the size of the bloated civil service occurred under the NDP government of Bob Rae. The expression “Rae-days” referred to the savings in public expenditure the socialist leader achieved by sending civil servants on furloughs. The state fattened by free-enterprise governments under socialist influence was finally put on a diet by a socialist government under free-enterprise (or perhaps just common sense) influence. Such are the ironies of politics.

There’s a message in this for Canada’s right, which currently can’t hope to achieve power. Can it hope, like Mr. Prebble’s party, to achieve influence? Only if Canadians learned to stand on their heads, I’m afraid. It seems conservative ideas that emerge in Canada make more sense in the world down under. For instance, when Mr. Prebble was a Cabinet minister in a Labour administration, he privatized New Zealand’s post office. He got the idea from a Canadian think-tank.

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