Brash vs Hide: Seeds of a leadership coup

By Derek Cheng

Don Brash, left, talks to the media after ACT Party leader Rodney Hide, right, announced he will step down as leader of the party to make way for Brash. Photo / NZPA
Don Brash, left, talks to the media after ACT Party leader Rodney Hide, right, announced he will step down as leader of the party to make way for Brash. Photo / NZPA

Discussions about Don Brash's return to Parliament, either with a new right-wing party or with an existing one, had been brewing for over a year, but began in earnest a few months ago.

Dr Brash, a former leader of the National Party, has long been dissatisfied with what he says is the Government's poor performance - in particular the level of Government spending and the rate of economic growth. He has become increasingly frustrated as chair of the 2025 Taskforce, whose recommendations Prime Minister John Key has quickly and repeatedly dismissed as too extreme.

Other names that were thrown into the "Don Brash Party" mix were former Auckland Mayor John Banks who, like Dr Brash, has been a long-serving member of the National Party, and Supercity mayoral candidate Colin Craig.

Act Party Conference, March 12, 13

Dr Brash addresses the Act Party's annual conference. Afterwards party leader Rodney Hide and deputy leader John Boscawen ask him to join the party. Indeed Mr Hide, a long-time friend of Dr Brash, has been trying to convince him to join for years, even before Dr Brash entered Parliament for the National Party in 2002.

Mr Hide says he'll even pay Dr Brash's $20 membership fee.

Dr Brash claims that Mr Hide offered him co-leadership of the party after a secret meeting following an Act event at the Mecca Cafe in Newmarket, Auckland. He met with Mr Hide a few days later at a Burger King, and then at a private home, where Hide offered him a co-leadership role and the candidate spot in Epsom, if polling showed that Dr Brash had a much better chance of winning the seat than Mr Hide.

Mr Hide says co-leadership, among other issues, was only ever discussed, but never formally offered.

Dr Brash tells Mr Hide he would only join the party if he was made the leader, and if Mr Banks was made Act's candidate in Epsom.

Mr Hide responds that he does not think Mr Banks is "an Act person", but he takes the proposal to Mr Boscawen, party president Chris Simmons and vice-president Bruce Haycock. They agree that Dr Brash should become a member of the party.

Dr Brash then outlines his position in a letter to Mr Hide, which Mr Hide describes as alarming "because I thought it was a letter designed to be leaked, as it was especially one-sided."

He does not respond to the letter.

Saturday

Don Brash declares publicly that he would be willing to accept the Act leadership, if it was offered to him. While he has been in discussions with the Act executive, other board members are genuinely taken aback by his approach. Some quietly say that his method is not only unusual, but insulting, and question whether he would have the numbers on the board.

Mr Hide and Mr Simmons say they are also genuinely surprised. Dr Brash says he will seek to address the board's monthly meeting in a week's time. Commentators weigh in, saying Act has no choice but to accept Dr Brash's offer, or face political oblivion.

Monday

Dr Brash says he would love Mr Banks to stand in Epsom, and that if his bid for leadership fails, he will set up his own party that will likely hijack a giant chunk of Act's core support.

There is considerable support among members for Dr Brash, but reservations about his method of going public, rather than operating behind closed doors. Some of the socially liberal younger members voice some private concerns over My Banks, who is socially conservative and has been criticised for making inflammatory statements about homosexuals.

To clear the leadership hurdle, Dr Brash needs majority support in the caucus (three out of five votes), and then at least five votes of support from the party board, which has 12 members.

He has the support of Act MPs Heather Roy and Sir Roger Douglas, and the focus soon turns on Mr Boscawen and MP Hilary Calvert.

Ms Calvert says she backs Mr Hide and would vote for him over Dr Brash. Mr Boscawen also publicly backs Mr Hide, but avoids answering how he would vote, fuelling speculation that he is undecided.

Mr Hide points out that Dr Brash is still yet to join the party, and nothing can happen before he does. He is confident he has the numbers to remain leader, but respects the party's processes and invites Dr Brash to join the party.

Meanwhile Dr Brash turns the screws, saying Mr Hide and the party are damaged goods, so much so that he would probably look to change the party's brand and name if he became leader. He says he is the party's best chance of getting over the 5 per cent MMP threshold, and Mr Banks has the best chance to win Epsom.

Tuesday

Ms Calvert repeats her position publicly, that she would vote for Mr Hide. Mr Boscawen goes to ground, but says through a spokesman that he, too, would vote for Mr Hide.

Dr Brash responds that his bid is far from over, even though he appears to have fallen short of the numbers. He has commissioned market research to find out if the Act Party under him would be more popular than under Mr Hide.

Meanwhile Mr Simmons says the party board would be very reluctant to overturn the caucus choice for leader, as it would be a "constitutional headache" to have disunity between the board and the caucus.

Polls are leaked showing that Mr Banks, who lives in Epsom, would have a much higher chance of beating Mr Hide in Epsom.

Wednesday

Meetings take place all day in Auckland among Act board members and MPs.

In the afternoon, Ms Calvert and Sir Roger meet Dr Brash in his Auckland apartment. Among the issues discussed are Dr Brash's position on the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori issues in general. This strikes a chord with Ms Calvert, who has been a fierce opponent of the Government's position on the foreshore and seabed legislation.

Dr Brash also talks about the considerable funding he is likely to bring to the party.

As Ms Calvert leaves the meeting, she is asked if she would still vote for Mr Hide. She replies: "I'm not prepared to make any comment."

John Key, from London, says Act matters are for the party, but adds that Mr Hide would keep his ministerial posts if he was rolled as Act leader. He does not rule out working with Dr Brash.

On Campbell Live that evening, Dr Brash looks like he has already won, repeatedly referring to the party as if he already belonged to it.

Mr Hide, by contrast, looks defeated, although he had earlier in the day dismissed rumours of his imminent resignation. He admits he does not know if he still has majority support in the caucus.

Mr Boscawen meets with Mr Hide and pledges his support for him, but Ms Calvert has switched camps, giving Brash the 3-2 majority he needs in the caucus.

Thursday

Mr Hide resigns as Act leader at a press conference in Auckland at midday, saying he fully supports Don Brash as the best person to lead Act in November's election.

He will remain as a minister in John Key's Government.

It will be up to the party to decide who Act stands in Epsom.

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