WikiLeaks cable: National party leader positions himself for 2005 election

25 February, 2005
SUBJECT: NEW ZEALAND OPPOSITION LEADER POSITIONS HIMSELF FOR 2005 ELECTIONS

This record is a partial extract of the original cable.

The full text of the original cable is not available.

Classified By: DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION DAVID R. BURNETT, FOR REASONS 1.4(B,D)

1. Summary. Opposition National Party leader Don Brash is entering the 2005 election season with a sense of a cautious optimism about his party's chances of regaining power. While concerned about recent setbacks that have seen him labeled "anti-women" and "anti-Maori," Brash regards the Labour Government's weakness in addressing scandals in the education sector as a sign of vulnerability ready to be exploited.

Foreign affairs, including discussion of the GoNZ's anti-nuclear legislation, are not areas he believes either major party will pursue in the campaign. Recently Brash has faced criticism about his leadership style from those both in and outside of his party, making it clear that more than one party member is nipping at his heels for the chance to take over as leader. Even if National wins the election, Brash will face an uphill battle in forming an effective government, as his choice of coalition partners is small and shrinking.

Whether or not his party wins, the election will test Brash's abilities as a leader. End summary.

Getting the Message Out ) Scandals Aside
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2. (U) PolCouns and Poloff met with Opposition National Party leader Don Brash and National party strategy advisor Peter Keenan February 14. Brash began the meeting by admitting that it was incredibly hard while in Opposition to set the election agenda, especially when the economy is doing so well. He added that National will continue in the coming year to push its key policy planks )- law & order, social welfare reform, Treaty issues and education -- which are currently enjoying the spotlight. Despite recent setbacks, including the demotion of welfare spokeswoman Katherine Rich, which overshadowed Brash's major policy announcement on nwelfare on January 25 (reftel,) Brash was cautiously optimistic about his Party's overall position in the build-up to the 2005 election, widely projected for September. While his welfare speech was generally well-received, and was well covered by the media, Brash laughingly noted that a photograph of him seated between conservative Christian leader Brian Tamaki and Maori activist Tame Iti at NZ's national Waitangi Day celebrations provided more press than his speech.

3. (C) Brash was very forthright on recent accusations that he was anti-women, noting that his demotion of Katherine Rich from the welfare portfolio after she publicly refused to support the party's position probably gained him votes among men, who saw it as the move of a strong leader, but lost him votes among women, who see a front bench devoid of females.

He noted that it was "unfortunate" that women's issues were being addressed in the manner the media had chosen. He compared it to criticisms last year after his January 2004 speech to the Orewa Rotary Club against racial preference that National was anti-Maori. Brash reiterated that National had the best policies for Maori ) noting that five of the nine National candidates announced on February 13 to stand in Auckland in the upcoming election were Maori.

A Lost Chance, An Isolated Island Nation
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4. (C) Brash agreed with our assessment that foreign policy was not likely to figure as an election issue, although free trade agreements would likely be a recurrent topic. National's primary foreign policy goal, he said, was to rebuild the relationship with Australia, which could only truly be done by building a better relationship with the U.S. Brash commented that National should have overturned the nuclear ban when it had the chance in 1992 with the release of the Somers Report, but that his party would be unable to move on the issue in the build-up to this election. In part this was due to the infamous incident in which Brash was misquoted as having told Senator Nichols that were he Prime Minister the ban would be "gone by lunchtime," which Labour continues to use against him to this day. (In her recent State of the Country address to Parliament, PM Clark said that under her government, NZ's "status as nuclear free would not be gone by lunchtime.") But Brash said time would also be needed to lay groundwork before the public was ready to discuss the issue. He reiterated his interest in approaching the issue after a National Government was safely in control of Parliament. (Note: A National Party media advisor indicated to Poloff that the nuclear ban issue would most likely be addressed in a second National Party term -- 2008 at the earliest.) On New Zealand's FTA negotiations with China, Brash said that National is probably in agreement with Labour on moving forward, and he visited Beijing last year to make that well known to Chinese leadership.

5. (C) Brash added that National is committed to increasing spending on defense, which he noted had been low not only during Labour's tenure, but in the mid-90s under the previous National government. However, he has been advised by military experts that any defense spending increase must be done incrementally, as any equipment purchases must be matched with personnel increases and a long training pipeline. He therefore does not have definite plans for either materiel procurement or recruitment increases. (Comment: This strategy also allows Brash to avoid his party being accused of being war-mongering, but it puts him in an odd position vis a vis the Labour government, which claims to be increasing military spending. End Comment.)

The Cheese Stands Alone
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6. (C) Discussing possible future coalition partners, Brash's optimism over election results was replaced with a far more negative outlook. While almost dismissive of partnering with ACT (which has been polling at less than 2 percent and may disappear off of the political radar, and whose leader recently criticized Brash in the media), he was optimistic about the chances of working with Peter Dunne's centrist United Future Party.

Brash bluntly dismissed the possibility of allying with Winston Peters, whose NZ First Party is polling well, and may be the decisive factor in either a National or Labour-led government Brash noted that many in his caucus are completely against working with Peters again after Peters served disastrously as Deputy PM under a National Government in 1996.

Personally, said Brash, he distrusts Peters, who he says lacks both a framework and an ideology, with policies that merely reacted to whichever way the wind blows.

7. (C) Comment: Brash is treading a narrow path in this election year, balancing attacks against the government with defending his party from recurrent internal conflicts. He freely admits that his party, who remain underdogs after their pitiful result in the 2002 election, faces an uphill battle as Labour uses its substantial financial surplus and
the benefits of strong economic conditions to sway voters to the status quo.

But Brash seems to us to be gaining confidence, both in his ability to hold his party together and in his efforts to gain public support. He may be drawing strength from his frequent under-the-radar trips to court voters around the country, although we have seen no specific evidence of this. He may also be heartened by a recent bump in the polls, although he claimed to us it was too early to consider the gain as significant. There is no doubt, however, that members of Brash's caucus have been very successful recently in drawing media attention to areas of government weakness, such as the recent debacle over scholarship exams. As the saying goes, the election may not be his to win, but Labour's to lose.

Swindells

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