Don Brash’s move from National to Act

Don Brash’s current bid for the leadership of the Act Party is viewed as a National Party takeover of the minor party – because Don Brash is an ex-leader of National.  However, in reality Brash has always been seen as more aligned with the ideologies of Act – after all, when he was a National MP he was dubbed ‘Act’s tenth MP’. So, is Don Brash naturally more of an Act Party politician than a National Party one? And if so, why didn’t he join Act in the first place, and not National? And just what is the relationship between Brash and Act? In this guest blog post by Geoffrey Miller, attempts to answer these questions, suggesting that much might be explained by the personalities of Michelle Boag and Catherine Judd.

On 26 April 2002, Don Brash resigned as Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and announced that he would be standing for the National Party in that year’s election. Brash was given a plum position on the list – number five – which ensured his entry into Parliament, despite National’s disastrous 2002 campaign.

Scandal vs. substance?

Why did Brash choose National over Act? After all, in 2002 National was widely regarded as a sinking ship with no hope at all of gaining power. The new leadership of Bill English had not met with voter enthusiasm, the party lacked clearly differentiated policies from Labour and the policies it did promote were largely centrist in nature.

By contrast, the Act Party’s support was reaching its peak in 2002, even though its reliance on coalescing with National limited the prospect it would assume power. Act’s fortunes were tied to the impotent National. But the very blandness and lethargy of National was driving right-wing support to Act. Rodney Hide was called ‘The Leader of the Opposition’ in a North and South magazine feature (May 2002, pp. 76-83). Act was vociferously attacking the then Labour-Alliance coalition government over matters including the treatment of returned servicemen and misconduct of a high court judge. Hide still took pride in being ‘parliamentary perk-buster’.

Perhaps it was exactly this love of scandal which put Brash off Act in 2002. The party was popular, certainly, but more in spite of its economic policies than because of them. 2002 was Act’s year of Zero Tolerance for Crime. Gavin Middleton, a former communications manager for Act, told me in 2007 that the party sensed the unpopularity of its economic prescription and downplayed it, in favour of “the policies people were interested in, Treaty reform and crime”.

When considering his retirement from the Reserve Bank eight years ago, it would have been perhaps understandable if Brash had taken one look at Act’s then obsession with scandal and flinched. Despite its disarray, surely National offered a better to chance to implement his goals of economic reform?

‘Act’s tenth MP’

That could be one reading. But it is questionable whether conservative social policies such as the ones Act peddled, especially from 1999-2002, were truly anathema to Don Brash. The Orewa speech of January 2004 would seem to prove otherwise. In that speech, Brash famously spoke of ‘the dangerous drift towards racial separatism in New Zealand, and the development of the now entrenched Treaty grievance industry’. Moreover, his demand for ‘one rule for all’ echoed closely Act’s 1999 election slogan of ‘One Law for All’.

Adding to this, an argument which has often been put forward since is that National’s interest in socially conservative policies under Brash, as displayed in the original 2004 Orewa speech, was largely a tactical one. Beneath the ‘one rule for all’ veneer, the goal was really economic in nature. In his November 2010 Orewa speech, which focused mainly on economic issues, Brash still put forward ‘the way we are dealing with Maori issues’ as a priority and advocated the abolition of the Maori seats.

The conclusion to be drawn from this argument suggests that Brash would have fitted Act perfectly. While interested in economic reform at heart, he understood that socially conservative policies could be used to attract voters. By de-emphasising economic issues, and emphasising non-economic ones, a support base could be built until the time was right to reintroduce economic reform to the top of the agenda. Of course, this is not to say that Brash’s opinions on Maori and other non-economic issues are not genuinely held. They may be, but they did not and do not appear to represent  the core of his political aims.

Michelle Boag vs Catherine Judd?

After Orewa, Act supporters were so sure that Don Brash would have fitted into their party that they described him as ‘Act’s tenth MP’. Don Brash was at heart an Act man who stood for National and remade the party in his image.

So why didn’t he join Act in the first place, and not National?

A possible answer may lie with two names: Michelle Boag and Catherine Judd (now Catherine Isaac). The two women share remarkable parallels. Both were public relations (PR) consultants; both were elected as party presidents in 2001; both were to head right-wing parties. In July 2001, Boag was given the job of turning National around; four months earlier Judd had been handed the task of refreshing Act.

Ten years ago, Boag tried to turn around National’s fortunes by several means. Lees-Marshment and Rudd (2003, p. 23) reported that in her 2001 campaign to become party president she aimed ‘to rebuild the party from the grassroots upwards and to involve the young, ethnic minorities, the busy and successful in creating a new party image which would help the party reconnect with its traditional supporters and those outside its traditional areas of support’. (

Putting these plans into practice, Boag tried to clear out long-serving National MPs such as Max Bradford, Doug Kidd, John Luxton, Brian Neeson and Warren Kyd, either by pressuring them to retire or (in the case of the latter two) deselection. In their place, Boag blooded new candidates such as Hekia Parata, Judith Collins, John Key – and Don Brash (see Lees-Marshment and Rudd, 2003, p. 24).

At the same time, Catherine Judd was also trying to modernise a party – Act. Judd was well aware of her party’s image problem and intended to give it a brighter, more appealing face. Aware of the party’s problem with attracting women voters, Judd said that she wanted to “politicise women and feminise Act” (NZ Herald, 11 August 2001). However, the centrepiece of Judd’s presidency became the “Liberal Project”, the aim of which was “to position ACT as a party with wider appeal – particularly to young, urban liberals”. One early sign of the Liberal Project was a four-page party newspaper called The Liberal Vision, issued during the 2002 election campaign. (The Liberal Project never met with any great recognition or success and was eventually canned following Judd’s departure).

In general, while Michelle Boag had focused on attracting new blood to National, Catherine Judd’s focus with Act appeared to be more on branding and policy direction than personnel. While National brought in Key, Brash and Collins in the 2002 election, despite its poor showing, Act’s list that year was little changed from 1999 – and indeed 1996. The only new candidate in the nine MPs subsequently elected was Deborah Coddington (at number 6).

To bring in new MPs, a high-list ranking was even more essential in a smaller party such as Act, which in 2002 embarked on an all-list strategy. (National also had the option of giving candidates safe electorate seats – Judith Collins was given Clevedon). However, Act lacked either the boldness or the will to insert more than one “star candidate” in its top line-up. In the end, the top 5 consisted of the established names of Richard Prebble, Rodney Hide, Muriel Newman, Stephen Franks and Donna Awatere-Huata.

No room for Brash?

I have no idea whether Brash was also approached to stand by Act in 2002. Someone should ask him. But personalities always play a role, and it may be that Boag was simply closer to Brash than Judd, or was able to make the pitch first. Or it may be that Brash was never asked by Act to stand. Much of Act’s perennial image problem was its lack of appeal to women and minority voters, and another white male – however qualified Brash was – may not have fitted with Judd’s aim to “feminise” the party.

Or maybe Brash didn’t want to stand for Act at that stage. Only by standing for National would Brash ever have the hope of becoming Prime Minister and enacting significant change, rather than as a bit player. In the end, Brash’s decision to stand for National in 2002 was probably the smarter one. National’s very disintegration in 2003 ironically produced the unique conditions for him to take over as leader in 2003 – conditions which may never exist again.

Although he came very close in 2005, Brash ultimately failed in his quest to gain power under the National Party. Now, he is trying to get in through the back door – either by leading the Act Party, or if it doesn’t want him, by starting his own.

The 2011 coup

If Michelle Boag was the key for Brash’s standing for National in 2002, is she the key for Brash’s attempt to take over the leadership of Act in 2011? Senior Labour MP Trevor Mallard reported in February 2011 on Labour’s Red Alert blog that a ‘very reliable source tells me that Boag stayed on for private dinner with the Act inner circle after [a] fundraiser’.

What role is Boag playing in Brash’s coup attempt?

Footnote: at the press conference with Rodney Hide on Thursday 28 April 2011, Don Brash revealed that Hide had asked him to stand as an Act candidate in 2002.

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