Don Brash – a new hope or an old headache for the Act Party?

This blog post was originally published at Liberation

‘Don Brash clearly believes he can do Mr Hide’s job.  Equally clearly, many of his colleagues do not – as yet.  If they were really confident Dr Brash was up to it, he would have been installed as leader by the end of this week, so wretched has been Mr Hide’s performance.  But Dr Brash is not of a mind to get the message.  For the party’s sake, he should have done one of two things. Either organised his putsch with absolute secrecy until the deed had been done. Or issued a statement at some point in the past couple of days pledging his loyalty to Mr Hide’. These comments, with a little imagination, could be from today. But with the exception of ‘Mr Hide’, they are not. They are the words of New Zealand Herald political commentator John Armstrong from October 2003. The parallels are instructive for understanding the Act-Brash dilemma of 2011 – and this is what is examined in the guest blog post by Geoffrey Miller.

John Armstrong’s 2003 article was entitled Brash shows how not to plot a coup. A few days later, Brash launched his successful coup against then National leader Bill English.

To be fair to Armstrong, a Brash leadership of National had seemed improbable. Brash’s thinking aloud was, to put it mildly, unconventional. Another Herald story from 25 October 2003 was headlined Brash’s clumsy coup bid puts National in turmoil.

Fast-forward 7 and half years, and we have another clumsy coup bid. This time, Don Brash has said openly that he wants to be leader of Act. Just as with his challenge for the National leadership in 2003, his bid now seems, at first glance, half-baked. Brash has not yet joined Act, is still a member of National and has gone about the challenge in a very public way. Even accounting for his own self-interest, it’s not hard to agree with Rodney Hide, who observed: ‘Here we are supporting National in Government and one of their members is wanting to be the leader of ACT. To me it’s quite odd’.

On the other hand, the news that Brash wants to become an active player in politics should come as no surprise. Brash has maintained a high profile since he was ousted from the National Party in late 2006. He has made regular media appearances, whether via the ‘2025 Taskforce’, or under his own steam such as when he gave a reprised ‘Orewa speech’ in November 2010.

Nor is it a surprise that Brash would only want to come back as Act party leader, rather than as an MP. As Armstrong wrote in 2003, ‘At 63 he is not a young man. He does not have a lot of time in politics after his lengthy tenure as Reserve Bank Governor, and does not want to spend the limited time he has warming the Opposition benches’.

The 63-year old is now 70.  And he has little inclination to follow Hide’s somewhat patronising advice that ‘the way you become the leader or co-leader is to join the party and work your way up’.

History has shown, then, that Brash is no stranger to unorthodox coups. But would a Brash-leadership be successful?

One of the strengths of Brash’s appeal the first time around was his newness to the political arena and the fact that he positioned himself, intentionally or not, as an ‘anti-politician’. The original ‘Orewa speech’ of 2004 worked because it was out of line with statements from the rest of the political class. By contrast, the subsequent ‘Orewa speeches’ of 2005 and 2010 no longer had a shock effect. The fact that Brash is now very much a known quantity makes it much easier for competitors – whether Hide or John Key – to paint him as ‘yesterday’s man’. If he becomes leader again, he will have to survive as an ordinary politician and compete on his own merits.

Another parallel may be drawn with Sir Roger Douglas, who ‘came back’ to the Act Party with great fanfare in early 2008. Like Brash, he sought to promote the ‘catching up with Australia’ theme. [It was Douglas, in fact, who inspired Brash’s 2025 taskforce, with the 2020 target he set at Act’s 2008 party conference.] While Douglas succeeded in becoming an MP again (also at the age of 70), even before he entered Parliament he was blocked from becoming a minister by John Key. David Farrar, of the National-aligned Kiwiblog, clearly believes the same would happen if Brash became leader of Act:

Don will not become a Minister, regardless of how ACT polls. John Key declined to offer Don a significant role straight after he replaced him as leader, so I can’t see that he will be of a different mind now. All Don will achieve is a different platform to complain spending is too high (which incidentially I agree with him on). But he won’t actually get to change that. 

However, as ‘Eddie’ from The Standard counters, if National needs the votes and a Brash-led ACT Party can offer them, ruling out Brash may not be an option.

The chief difference between the Brash and Douglas scenarios is that the only circumstance under which Brash would come back to Act would be to replace Hide, not to serve under him.

Douglas realised his own unpopularity and thought he could effect change even without being leader.

By contrast, Brash realises that his only option for a comeback is to become leader. His first preference is to take over an existing party with structures, members (albeit a dwindling number) and MPs already in place. Having an existing vehicle inside Parliament – including Parliamentary funding and staffers – is a huge advantage over starting a completely new party from the ground up. While some traditional financial backers of Act may switch to a new Brash-led party, countless other new parties have found that gaining voter recognition from outside Parliament is an uphill struggle.  A new Brash-led party would have less than 7 months in which to do so and would be without any incumbent MPs.

Nevertheless, if Brash is barred from becoming Act leader, we may well see a new right-wing party established, despite its inherent difficulties. Brash indicated strongly on TVNZ’s Q+A that a party would be headed by himself and that former Auckland mayor John Banks would challenge Rodney Hide for the Epsom electorate seat. Saturday, the day of Act’s next board meeting, looks set to be judgment day.

A successful coup and a Brash-led Act Party still seem unlikely.

But as 2003 taught us, stranger things have happened.

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