Don Brash’s return to Orewa on Saturday to give his fifth ‘Orewa speech’ is remarkable – not just because it attempts to reawaken the spirit of previous populist and landmark speeches that ignited political debate – but because Brash is actually focusing his firepower against his own party, National. The speech by Brash is a thinly veiled attack on the John Key-led National Government, and thus represents the opening up of divisions within the National Party between the moderates and the radicals. In this divide, Brash is clearly taking up the leadership of the rightwing radical faction of the party that would like to see its own government be more courageous and principled in issues of economics and ethnic affairs. Essentially Brash is asking National to go back to being a ‘true blue’ National Party in government instead of a Labour-lite one that continues to govern with most of the same policies as the Labour-led government that it replaced. Quite validly, Brash argues that ‘our Party fought for the right to govern and to lead, not simply to hold office’. This blog post constitutes the analysis that I made of the speech and gave to the NZ Herald, which reports some of my thoughts in this article by Rebecca Lewis. [Read more below]
The critic and conscience of the National Party
The whole theme of Don Brash’s speech is a very strong critique of his own political party. Although Brash calls his speech a ‘review’ of progress made by the National Government, it’s actually a full-blown ‘critique’ of his own government. And despite throwing in a few basic ticks of approval, the vast majority of the speech focuses on what the National Government is doing wrong. In this it reads more like a speech by an Opposition politician rather than one from the ranks of the governing party.
In economic matters, Brash criticizes everything that his own party has done in government, from high spending to bureaucratic over-regulation. He bemoans the following:
- Voting against reinstating the youth minimum wage
- The lack of progress on making house building cheaper (zoning laws)
- The introduction of the emissions trading scheme
- Fiscal deficits are not under control and spending is still high
- Government spending is high (‘Government spending as a share of GDP is the same this year as it was when National took office two years ago’)
- The Government is ‘not willing to reverse some of the seriously dopey policies’ such as ‘interest-free student loans and universal child-care subsidies’
- The Government is not reducing the deficit (‘So far, the Government has stated its intention to reduce the deficit, but has not announced any measures that will actually enable it to do so’)
- Interest rates are too high, producing high a exchange rate, producing high overseas indebtedness (‘New Zealand now has a higher level of overseas indebtedness relative to the size of our economy than almost any other country in the developed world’)
- Taxes on business have, according to Brash actually increased (‘the overall impact of the Budget is that the effective tax on companies was increased by about 1%, not reduced by 2%’)
- The Government refuses to privatize anything (National chooses to retain a bank, trains, planes and electricity in public ownership)
- The Government has increased uncertainty for foreign investors, and failed to sell the benefits of such investment to the public
- The retention of school zoning laws
In criticizing the Government’s centrist and moderate nature, Brash does not pull his punches. Instead he uses strongly condemning words such as saying he’s ‘deeply worried’, that he has ‘pervasive worries’, and that ‘we will certainly not catch Australia on our current policy track’.
Don Brash is clearly seeking to set himself up as the ‘critic and conscience’ of the National Party. In this way he can be the lightening rod or vehicle for those in the party that are uncomfortable with the John Key-led moderation of the current National Government. There is definitely a large section of the party that is very unhappy with the centrist direction of their own government. This is especially the case when it comes to economic and ethnicity issues, and so Brash has quite astutely taken up these two areas in his speech.
Dealing with that modern issue for parliamentary politics: Should politicians lead or follow? Modern political parties are torn between following their own distinctive, heartfelt political principles and winning popular support in order to gain and retain power. Should they listen to the public opinion and make their policies on the basis of what is popular, or should they follow their ideological convictions, which might mean advocating less popular policies?
All political parties have to face this question. And increasingly in New Zealand they are coming down on the side of centrist populism rather than principle. This is the case from the Greens through to the Act Party. They are moderating or de-emphasising their more radical beliefs in favour of more moderate and publically palatable ideas.
This leads to problems for the more principled or ideological members and activists in today’s political parties. People such as Don Brash are rather alienated and dissatisfied with the directions of their parties. Such disappointed members are normally face very strong pressure from the party leadership not to ‘rock the boat’ or do anything that might compromise the unity and public faith in the party. Public dissent is very unwelcome, and members are expected to keep their criticism in side the party. Therefore Brash’s very public speech is rather uncommon. Against the grain of the party’s tight discipline, Brash is speaking out in the hope of galvanising the internal National Party opposition to the perceived moderation of their leadership. He is calling for the party in government to get ‘back to basics’.
In the speech, Don Brash picks up on his previous pronouncements on the place of Maori in society. There is nothing particularly surprising about what Brash says about Maori representation. His stance on the Maori seats is nothing new. And his opposition to the very existence of the Maori Party is also not novel – he does, however, put this criticism in stronger language than the public is used to, asking whether an ethnic-based party such as the Maori Party should be deemed acceptable and even using the logic of the Treaty of Waitangi to argue against its own purpose. Brash’s critique of the Marine and Coastal Area Bill is also not unique, but it is still of significance to have him voice his concerns.
The focus on the issues of ethnicity and on the Maori Party are interesting in themselves, but even more so when put into the context that the Maori Party is in government with the National Party. It is quite extraordinary for a senior member of a party to openly challenge the right to exist of a party that is currently an ally to National. Within the National Party there are a lot of members that are uncomfortable with the perception that the Maori Party is obtaining too many concessions from the National Government, and that some of these concessions go against the principles of National. Brash’s speech resonates with such fears and concerns.
Brash's motivations for the attack on National and Key
Much of what Brash says about leadership is very condemning of John Key. In claiming that the National Government have failed to reverse many of the outgoing Labour Government’s key policies, Brash effectively states that the currently leadership lacks the ‘courage, vision and moral purpose to reverse that trend’. It is also a withering attack on John Key when he laments the situation whereby ‘political leaders allow themselves to be driven entirely by political polls’. Of course the prime minister and his Cabinet colleagues are not mentioned directly by name, but the message is very clear as to who he is talking about. And when he finishes with examples of leadership that is about vision and not merely listening to the public, this is a stinging rebuke of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In saying that ‘Great leaders take people with them in the direction of that vision’ he is implicitly stating that John Key is failing to be a great leader.
Don Brash’s speech will go down very well within the National Party. There is a large proportion of the party that would like to see the Government return to its original principles and show a bit more backbone. However, Prime Minister John Key will be very unimpressed with Brash’s speech. Not only is the speech a thinly veiled criticism of him and his leadership, it has the possibility of fomenting internal party dissent and dispute, which is never welcomed by a party leader.
Brash’s motivations for giving such a critical speech are obviously genuine – his criticisms are no-doubt strongly held by him. But he is probably also motivated to stand up and speak out because of the sense of betrayal or embarrassingly marginalization that Brash has felt over the Prime Minister’s treatment of Brash’s work on the 2025 Taskforce that has sought to recommend policies for the government to adopt in order to catch up with the economic prosperity of Australia. John Key has been publicly dismissive of the policy pronouncements of the Taskforce, which would be taken as belittling Brash. The sense of frustration of having all of his policy prescriptions publically dismissed will have obviously affected Brash’s decision to make such a strong speech against his own party in government.
It’s unlikely that Don Brash is intending to make any sort of political comeback, or wants in any way to regain the leadership of the National Party off John Key. It must be clear to Brash that his time has past. But he will be grappling with his political legacy and how to manage this.
So far, brash’s political legacy has been highly tainted by Nicky Hager’s Hollow Men expose. Despite rejuvenating the National Party in the early 2000s, and successfully increasing the party’s vote from 21% in 2002 to 39% in 2005, Brash is now widely seen as ‘yesterday’s man’. Certainly the National Party leadership regards him as a bit of an embarrassment, a feeling that will be even more entrenched after this speech.
NZ Herald: Brash attacks Maori - again
Sunday Star Times: Brash takes aim at Key in race speech
Radio NZ: Brash criticises Key government
Kiwiblog: Return to Orewa