Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: It's time to dust off the Messiah mantle

John Key and Don Brash could soon be working closely again. Photo / Martin Sykes
John Key and Don Brash could soon be working closely again. Photo / Martin Sykes

After a decade of centrist politics, with first Helen Clark, then John Key, firmly ensconced astride the fence and desperate to stay there, the fringes are getting restless.

On the left, we have former Maori Party MP Hone Harawira poised to reveal more details of his new left-wing Maori party and now, on the right, Don Brash has chosen the Easter break to dust down his Messiah robes, and once more offer to lead us out of the wilderness.

That 70-year-old Dr Brash can plan a leadership putsch of a government coalition partner of which he's not even a member shows not just the enormous ego of the man, but also exposes the empty shell that the Act Party has become. As Dr Brash says, it's currently polling within the margin of error and faces oblivion at the ballot box in a few months.

He's offering them the chance of rebirth under his command ... or else. It's the offer you can't refuse. The former National Party leader threatens to set up a rival right-wing party if they turn him down.

"It would just be much more convenient to assume the leadership of Act ... It's got all the things that are easier to take over than to try and create from scratch."

This is Dr Brash's second Easter rising. Back in April 2002, the National Party president Michelle Boag emerged from the party's list selection process to announce the former Reserve Bank governor was on the list for the next election. It was evidence, she declared, of the "successful rejuvenation of the party".

At the time, I suggested we were observing cryogenics, not rejuvenation, a dip into the deep freeze of history to revive a political corpse that had failed in two bids in 1980 and 1981 to win an electorate seat in East Coast Bays. The remarkable thing was, the experiment almost succeeded. Dr Brash rapidly seized the leadership of the party and, in the 2005 election, came within a whisker of defeating Labour.

It was how he did it that we shouldn't forget. Nicky Hager's book The Hollow Men reveals that anti-MMP campaigner Peter Shirtcliffe, the single biggest donor to party election funds in the run-up to the election, and other big donors, made their contributions conditional on the party replacing leader Bill English with Dr Brash.

The Hager revelations also exposed the deliberate efforts by Dr Brash and his advisers to scratch the anti-Maori itch lurking in "mainstream New Zealand" - the new leader's favourite target audience.

In 2003, National opposed the Labour government's proposed Foreshore and Seabed Act, not because it was unjust, but because it was too soft.

In an inflammatory Maori-bashing speech in Orewa in January 2004, Dr Brash attacked the "dangerous drift towards racial separatism" and said National would scrap special privileges "for any race". National's poll results rocketed from the low 20s to 45 per cent. Exultant Brash staffers celebrated, says Hager, by using "facetious kia oras to each other in their emails".

It wasn't until November 2009 that Dr Brash went on Sunday morning television to admit he'd got it wrong. But it wasn't just stroppy Maori that didn't fit into his mainstream New Zealand mould. In June 2005, he told the party conference that the Labour government had been "pandering to minority interests" at the expense of mainstream New Zealand for "too long".

On National Radio, he declared gays, Maori, prostitutes and people who used prostitutes and proponents of civil unions were all minorities.

It wasn't until later in the day, and the flak was flying, that he started back-pedalling.

Of course, Dr Brash's main focus has always been to complete the economic restructuring job begun in the 1980s by his close friend and political ally, Roger Douglas, one-time Labour Finance Minister, Act founder and current MP.

These monetarist policies are now regarded as economic snake oil by both the major parties, though National still plays lip service, to mollify the dwindling band of true believers on its fringes. As part of the 2008 coalition agreement with Act, Dr Brash was appointed to head a taskforce charged with closing the wage gap with Australia by 2025.

The eventual report was a rehash of Act Party policy and was immediately rejected by the National leadership. Among the recommendations were congestion charging for Auckland, "mining on or under sensitive Crown land should generally be permitted provided they pass a full cost-benefit analysis", all state and local government-owned businesses operating in a competitive environment be sold, means testing for medical treatment and drugs, a flat 20 per cent tax, abolition of interest-free student loans and the trial period for new employees extended to one year.

The existing Act leadership has rolled over on such issues of faith, preferring to grab what scraps it can from the Cabinet table.

Dr Brash is of the monetarist priesthood and not for turning. Combine that with his past history of exploiting "mainstream" social itches and we could be in for a turbulent few months.

- 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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