Don Brash’s mishap-strewn po­lit­i­cal track record makes him the ideal per­son to take Hob­son’s Pledge from ir­rel­e­vancy into obliv­ion.

North & South - - Contents -

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.

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