WTF: June 3 2008 – Don Brash and the Greens

Gordon Campbell on the Resurrection of Don Brash and the Greens

1. The Resurrection of Don Brash
Don Brash faces the media shortly after the release of Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men – late 2006
Given the chapter and verse of Don Brash’s complicity in his own cynical re-packaging contained in Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men, you’d think it would be impossible to resurrect the Brash saga as a tragic fall from grace. Yet on the weekend, the Sunday Star-Times had a fairly good shot at it.

We all know the format for political rehabilitation. In the US, it tends to require a cleansing trip to Oprah’s couch, or a cellblock visitation from the Lord. Whatever the psychic details, the starting point has to be a show of penitence. Thus, in the SST article we found Brash with eyes a brim with tears, likening his principles to a box of long un-tended, now-dead roses. He has been ‘ hiding too long.’ Now, at 67, it is time to be saying what he really thinks.

Hmmm. Have we ever doubted what Don Brash really thinks – or how little he seems to think about the social impact of the policies that he champions ? Not so much. Yet in the SST, he was quoting Martin Luther King to the effect that …“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent – there is a long pause – about the things that matter,” says Brash, his voice breaking.”

MLK of course, was against the sinful silence when the rich are allowed to prosper while the poor are left to suffer, unheeded. Brash was feeling teary about not saying enough at the time to ensure the wealthy got bigger tax cuts and that beneficiaries and their children received harsher treatment from the state. That’s the burden he now has to live with. Essentially his lament in the SST was that he maybe could have, maybe should have had his cake and eaten it too – that is, continued to be packaged as a mainstream politician, but still manage to run somehow, purely on his convictions.

Well, it isn’t hard to feel sorry for Brash the individual. The images of aloneness that the SST article conveys – the corned beef, the instant coffee, the lack of personal effects, the plastic pot plant and the blue marble floors – do paint a depressing picture. By and large though, Brash’s social disconnection has been consistently depicted by the media in the kindest of possible lights. Time and again, the media has portrayed Brash as a man of ‘ fierce personal conviction’ – his father was a Presbyterian minister, don’t you know – whose ‘dearest personal convictions ‘ were sadly compromised in order to fit the agenda dictated by a party machine that he awkwardly and reluctantly, served.

Awkwardly, yes. Reluctantly? Hardly. From soon after his accession to the leadership, Brash and party strategists were largely agreed on the need for fudging and deception, given that there was such little voter support for a radical right agenda. Over time, Brash proved a willing participant in his own dissembling. His switch of position on civil unions to help curry favour ( and possibly, funds) from the Christian right, the speeches he gave on law and order and immigration….comprise only a few examples of a political pandering that he assiduously embraced.

It is hardly surprising that Brash now feels bad – resentful even – about selling out in Faustian fashion, and still failing to win. However, it also seems delusional to be now suggesting that he might have done better by being more upfront about his true agenda. In New Zealand, conviction politicians promoting those sort of convictions do not get to form governments – they earn Act Party levels of support. Brash, and his advisers, at one time knew this and acted accordingly.

To retain any credibility in 2008, the media narrative of Brash as Tragic Naif basically has to ignore the entire contents of The Hollow Men, emails and all – which is what the SST obligingly did, allowing Brash to dismiss the book in a single sentence. This feels like an opportunity missed. After all, the SST interview was the first time Brash had spoken at length since his downfall – and yet he was spared any questioning about the evidence that triggered it. Very strange.

The pathology would have been of interest, in itself. Wouldn’t it tell you something – that your colleagues felt your passionately held principles were so politically toxic that they needed to be disguised before being released into daylight? There may be a deeper, different story yet to be told by Brash, who has not yet provided anything like a detailed account of his experience as National’s leader. That tell-all book may come, in time.

Fort now though, and based on what we know, Brash sought to downplay his ‘dearest personal convictions’ only in order that he could be better placed, once in power, to spring them on the public he had tried so diligently to deceive. It is difficult to find a tragic dimension to Brash’s failure to bring off that deception in 2005.

Many people still like him, though. Its an old, old story. “When I notice how carefully arranged his hair is,” Cicero said of Julius Caesar over 2,000 years ago, “ and when I watch him adjusting the parting with one finger, I cannot imagine that this man could conceive of such a wicked thing as to destroy the Roman constitution.”

Quite. And the more that political parties shape-shift into whatever configuration the focus groups tell them they should adopt this week, the more people will feel inclined to latch onto a personality that they like, as a political constant. The trouble is, voting for the guy you’d most like to have a beer with – which is what Americans did with George W. Bush – may not really be the best litmus test, when it comes to governing the country.

If and when John Key becomes Prime Minister, his treatment of Brash will be an interesting sideshow. Two years on, one can expect Brash will have been totally rehabilitated as an elder statesman, the unlikely hero who first dented Helen Clark aura of invincibility and thus laid the foundations for National’s 2008 success.. Until the election though, the National Party will continue to shun Brash as if he is radioactive.

One reason being….National is running a strategy this year similar to the one outlined in The Hollow Men. The only conceivable obstacle to a change of government will be if the public begins to fear what the change may entail. The spectre of Brash – especially when he’s talking tough – can only help awaken such fears.

National’s current tactic? Policy anaesthesia. Meaning: don’t announce policies at all, until the last possible moment. Neutralise one’s least popular policies ( ie, oppose bulk funding and asset sales, but limit the denials to the first term only) deflect attention from potentially troublesome areas ( foreign policy, welfare reform, industrial relations) inoculate some topics with partial denials ( ie, quasi-accept Kiwisaver and the Cullen Fund, but leave yourself some wiggle room) and resolutely swallow those Labour policies ( interest free student loans) that if you opposed them, would antagonize voters. And whatever you do, don’t let women voters see the John Key who said in 2002 the DPB had been “ for want of a better term, breeding for a business.”

So far, the approach has been working like a dream. A public intent on getting rid of Labour still seems relatively unconcerned about what will come in its place, and the media is not doing much to inform them.

2. The Greens Stake Out Ground

Good column by Vernon Small on the Greens election positioning moves made at their annual conference over the weekend. Despite the claims by co-leader Russel Norman that there is only a Coke/Pepsi difference between the centre right and the centre left major parties, Small remains skeptical that the Greens could ever – even in the unlikely event of being asked – support a National government.

He’s right. In the short term, the weekend’s display of independence and backbone may win the Greens brownie points. Currently, the Greens are saying they will wait until closer to the election to make a final call based on policy grounds about who they will support. Yet as Small says : “However they slice it and dice it, there is no real chance of the Greens ever preferring National over Labour. Pretending otherwise defies the policy reality and electoral mathematics; if National needs the Greens to form a government it is almost certain an alternative Labour administration could be more accommodating to the Greens… What will probably emerge is a preference for negotiating with Labour – even a willingness to enter a coalition because, as Dr Norman made clear, they do want to be in government…”

The delegates, Small believes, were more concerned about how the party would ratify any post election deal, than with the pre election positioning. “Traditionally suspicious of their leadership leading, rather than consulting, some delegates were concerned that either the talks would have them stretched out as a welcome mat for Labour’s fourth term or – maybe worse – see them dragooned into any sort of deal with the old enemy, National. “

Therein lies the bigger problem. To extend Norman’s analogy, a lot of Green supporters drink Classic Coke. And whatever gains are made now by a show of independence, these are likely to come thunking back down to earth when the Greens finally make the call, however grudgingly, for Labour. What looks now like a show of independence, could well look like battered wife syndrome by then, with the Greens moving back home to Labour right on the cusp of when people start casting their votes.

The other interesting aspect of the Greens conference was the shift in emphasis from food safety ( Sue Kedgley’s baby) to food prices, under co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons. The Greens conference call for direct food subsidies on milk and cheese to help struggling Kiwi families hit by global food prices, got the headlines. It is also in striking contrast to the party’s opposition to subsidies for people struggling with their fuel and power bills. There, the impact of prices on consumption tends to be seen as a salutary thing. Fuel poverty is something the Greens prefer to tackle via home insulation assistance, rather than by direct subsidies to help people afford to heat their homes.

That is not enough, when Otago University recently released a study saying that 1,600 people are dying every winter as a result of cold, damp and badly maintained housing. In this article today Ian McChesney of Canterbury Community Energy Action points to conservative estimates that between 400,000 – 560,000 Kiwis cannot afford to heat their homes to an adequate level.

McChesney favours a twin prong response from Government , focussed on both insulation and heating :

“Insulation is essential but not the answer in a place as cold as Christchurch,” he said. “You don’t heat with insulation. You prevent heat loss, so you need a combination of good insulation and a decent heating system and appliances.”He said heat pumps were one of the most efficient forms of heating, converting one unit of electricity into three units of heat. However, they cost about $2500, putting them out of reach for many households.

“What we’ve been trying to do is make them more available to low-income households so they don’t pay 20c per kilowatt hour but have a source of heat at the cheap cost of 6c to 7c per kilowatt hour.”

Clearly, with the coldest winter months approaching, subsidies for heat pumps do seem more important than subsidies on dairy prices. No one, as yet, has died from not being able to afford the cheese.