Don Brash’s mishap-strewn political track record makes him the ideal person to take Hobson’s Pledge from irrelevancy into oblivion.
Bevan Rapson on Don Brash’s mishapstrewn political track record.
Maybe there’s a parallel universe where Don Brash wins at politics, but it’s quite a stretch to imagine it.
“The Donald” (Kiwi-version) as Prime Minister? A multi-term Brash Government? A legacy of alliances forged, foes vanquished, battles won and philosophies expressed through meaningful policies and legislation? Sorry, that just seems like silly talk.
Which is strange to say, given the bare facts of the 2005 general election, when Brash came tantalisingly close to leading National to victory. But his political career, stretching back 36 years, is littered with so many mishaps and incidents of unintentional comedy it’s difficult not to regard him as our Mr Bean of national affairs, specialising in rapid transit of the banana skin-assisted kind.
That probably explains why his recent emergence as the face of the Hobson’s Pledge anti-separatism pressure group provokes more bemusement than excitement or alarm.
The pattern was set way back in 1980 when Brash, a geeky young economist and banker with Friedmanite ideas, launched his career as National’s byelection candidate in the supposedly solid blue seat of East Coast Bays. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who had no time for Brash’s economic philosophy, raised the tolls on the Auckland Harbour Bridge – whoops! – helping consign Brash to surprise defeat at the hands of Social Credit’s Garry Knapp.
After that failure, he steered clear of politics for more than two decades, instead making his mark in 14 years as a sure-footed governor of the Reserve Bank, serving under both Labour and National.
But in 2002, via a lofty number-five spot on the National list, he reentered the fray, parachuting into the front bench as finance spokesman and the next year rolling Bill English as leader. At the beginning of 2004, he went to Muldoon’s old summer stamping ground of Orewa and delivered a speech bemoaning a “dangerous drift towards racial separatism”, snaring National an unprecedented surge of support.
Had the naive neophyte of 1980 been reborn as a barnstorming populist?
Um, not quite. Though National
successfully tapped into racerelations disgruntlement with its Iwi/kiwi billboards, Brash’s tenure as leader was littered with missteps and slapstick.
Less than three days after he narrowly unseated English, his deputy Nick Smith left Parliament on stress leave and was soon dumped from the post, swiftly establishing an air of political mismanagement.
The physical comedy arrived in a couple of photo opportunities. In one, the gangly Brash attempted to climb into the driving cage of a stockcar, like a contortionist trying to fit into a suitcase. In the other, he teetered comically along a gangplank to a boat, provoking a plethora of Brash-walks-the-plank media jibes. Did his arms whirl like windmills as he struggled to maintain his balance? That’s almost certainly just my imagination adding an unnecessary extra touch of Buster Keaton to the picture.
His personal oddness was further showcased in a biography in which he admitted to surviving on corned beef and peas after his first marriage broke up. The book also revealed his long devotion to a holey old pair of pyjamas his mother had given him.
Brash’s gentlemanly earnestness came to seem comical in itself, such as when he admitted to restraining his attacks on the steely Helen Clark in a 2005 campaign debate because of her gender: “Had the other combatant been a man, my style might have been rather different.” By then, most of us figured Clark was pretty capable of looking after herself.
It wasn’t funny when Brash was hit in the face with a clump of dirt at Waitangi the previous year – but only he would have declared it “Not a bad shot,” as he wiped the mud from his face. And a more gifted politician would probably have remembered whether he told US officials that under a National government New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy would, in that memorable phrase, be “gone by lunchtime”.
In the 2005 election, his worst stumble was over the Exclusive Brethren, who funded advertising in support of National. Opponents accused him of lying after he denied knowing about the pamphlets attacking Labour and Greens then admitted he had been told about their distribution.
The following year, he faced allegations of an extra-marital affair and, with speculation mounting over the likelihood of a challenge, finally elected to pull the pin on his own leadership. A week later, he announced he was quitting Parliament.
With all of that, you can see why he earned comparisons with Mr Magoo. But wait, there’s more.
With all that evidence of his unsuitability for politics, Brash just couldn’t give it up. After four years in the wilderness – at 70 – he pounced on the leadership of the Act Party in 2011, launching his challenge to Rodney Hide before even becoming a member.
Being a leader outside Parliament did not work out well, and nor did his stance over cannabis law reform, which was rejected by colleagues, such as Hide’s replacement as Epsom candidate, John Banks. Aiming at winning up to 15 per cent of the vote, the party managed just a smidgen over one per cent and Brash once again fell on his sword.
Yet now, like an ageing rocker who doesn’t know how to quit, he’s back playing the old hits in a new line-up.
Hobson’s Pledge, set up to oppose what it calls “race-based privilege”, takes its name from Captain William Hobson, who greeted Maori chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the words “He iwi tahi tatou” – translated as “We are now one people.”
It’s a catchy enough name, but parts of the group’s website feel like a curious assemblage of talkback radio gripes spanning the past 30 or more years. A section on indoctrination complains about having to “mumble through the first verse” of the national anthem in Maori and unearths the dusty 1990s case of a nursing student who said she was thrown out of her course for being branded culturally unsafe.
The world has actually moved on. National has veered in the opposite direction of Iwi/kiwi race-baiting to build a three-term relationship with the Maori Party, apparently without damaging its popularity with the pakeha mainstream. Kids see absolutely nothing unusual about singing the anthem in Maori, but that’ll be the “indoctrination”, I suppose.
Race relations are evolving, as is the Maori Party itself, with its president Tukoroirangi Morgan recently tapping figures such as Ngai Tahu head Sir Mark Solomon and former Alliance MP Willie Jackson to consider standing for Parliament. Either could offer worthwhile perspectives as MPS. (In a possible oversight, Morgan’s famous boxer shorts of the 90s don’t seem to be mentioned on the Hobson’s Pledge site: kids, ask your parents.)
John Key – like Jim Bolger before him – has chosen a constructive route at odds with the “antiseparatist” brigade’s absolutist demands. His response to the new group suggested he’s unconcerned at it hurting his support base: “It’s sort of pretty much a broken record from Don, but I think New Zealanders have seen in the last decade what’s taken place, they’ve seen that ultimately as Treaty partners, Maori and the Crown have to work together and actually we’re a stronger country for doing that.”
There’s little about Hobson’s Pledge to suggest it has the ideas or vigour to mount much of a challenge to that view.
And if Brash’s reverse Midas touch takes effect, the group will likely sink into obscurity sooner rather than later. You could just about call him the perfect man for the job.
Then National Party leader Don Brash with deputy leader Gerry Brownlee on National’s campaign trail in 2005.