Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: What has Don Brash been smoking?

Brash and Banks are poles apart over cannabis law reform. Photo / Janna Dixon
Brash and Banks are poles apart over cannabis law reform. Photo / Janna Dixon

Talk about the absent-minded professor. You have to applaud Act leader Don Brash when he claims the majority of New Zealanders think the prohibition of cannabis law "is an ass" and that the $100 million spent on enforcing this law could be better spent.

But he seems to have totally forgotten there's an election in less than two months, and that his party's survival depends on law and order fundamentalist John Banks winning the conservative stronghold of Epsom.

It might well be true that the idle and wayward kids of the northern slopes of Remuera and Parnell snort more white powder and other recreational concoctions than their peers elsewhere in the city, and that their mummies and daddies over-imbibe on the Bolly and prescription drugs. But the upright folk of Auckland's rich inner-eastern suburbs do like to maintain a respectable front. And leading the charge to decriminalise the drug of choice of the lower orders and old hippies of Ponsonby is unlikely to be seen as a priority.

If Dr Brash had consulted anyone on the likely political repercussions, he might have realised this. But he admits to not even briefing his "close friend of 30 years" Mr Banks before lighting the fuse.

The reaction of candidate Banks, former hardline National Party police minister, was slow and predictable. He was and always would be opposed to drugs, and said decriminalisation "won't happen". As an example of a party leader sabotaging one of his own candidates, it ranks alongside the classic episode of betrayal in the 1980 byelection contest for East Coast Bays. Dr Brash also featured, but as the victim on that occasion.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was furious with the electorate organisation for selecting the New Right flat-taxer. Post-selection he snarled, "You know my view of economists." Then, mid-campaign, he ensured this economist would fail by announcing a 25 per cent rise in the hated harbour bridge tolls. It worked.

The difference between then and now is Sir Robert was clinically calculating and knew exactly what he was doing. "Professor" Brash, on the other hand, seems bemused by all the unexpected fuss his speech has caused. He admits he should have briefed his old mate Banks, but continues to believe a party leader, a few weeks out from an election, can raise a controversial topic and pretend he's in a university moot.

Even the circumstances of Dr Brash's "major speech on law and order" last Sunday were odd. His audience was predominantly Asian, including Peter Low and members of his Asian Anti-Crime group. He started by praising Asians for being "spectacularly under-represented in our crime statistics", comparing the 167 arrest rate for every 10,000 Asians in the country with the 320 arrests for Europeans and 1448 arrests for Maori.

Asians, he said, were "much more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators". He then advocated adding the "right to self-defence" to the Bill of Rights. "Your home is your castle, your body is your temple. The law must be unequivocal in allowing you to defend both with reasonable force." He conceded that "shooting someone who's retrieved a tennis ball ... accidentally lobbed on to your property would clearly be unreasonable" but left to his listeners' imaginations just who you could shoot in defence of your property.

Having stirred up this Wild West atmosphere, he then told his Asian crime-fighter audience that it was time to go soft on cannabis. About 6000 people are prosecuted each year for cannabis offences. "Are we any safer?" About 400,000 New Zealanders routinely flout the law and smoke cannabis. "Has the sky fallen in?" He was "haunted" by the police time spent making criminals of 400,000 New Zealand "who are harming no one", which could be better employed hunting "real criminals".

It is just possible that Dr Brash is as Machiavellian as Sir Robert, and wants the Bill of Rights altered before his first crop of Remmers Gold is ready to harvest so he can shoot any bastard who leaps his back fence to steal his stash.

But that does seem a bit far-fetched, even for a political party where odd behaviour tends to be the norm. Party leader in gold lycra dancing with the stars, law and order spokesman stealing dead babies' identities to forge passports, that sort of thing.

But expunging its reputation for the freaky was the very reason Dr Brash hijacked control of Act a few months ago. He said he would rescue it from oblivion by returning it to its dry economic roots.

Party leader Rodney Hide, who'd won the Epsom electorate seat in 2005 and 2008, was forced out because he represented the bad old image. Arch social conservative Banks was selected as his "more acceptable" replacement. The deal Mr Hide had with National - that its supporters would vote for Act's Epsom candidate and in return he would drag extra National allies into Parliament - was renewed.

Mr Banks was to be the acceptable face of Act, a recycled, no-surprises old Tory who National voters could support for the greater good.

What Dr Brash has reminded everyone is that nothing has changed, that Act is just as flaky as before. And the more Mr Banks protests his opposition to drugs the more it reminds voters how terminal the dysfunction is.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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