John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Brash avoids fallout of nuclear blunders

COMMENT

Don Brash has got away with it. He has got away with issuing National's tortured rethink of its nuclear-free policy without the findings exploding in his face.

He has got away with it despite an equivocating performance worthy of Mr Magoo, which has seen Brash veer between defending the report and distancing himself from its contents as much as possible.

He has got away with it because - much to Labour's chagrin - National's tampering with the untouchable has failed to spark anything like the uproar Helen Clark and her colleagues had been hoping for.

And he has got away with it because he has had the good fortune of a tactical blunder on the Prime Minister's part.

In her ruthless, but blinkered, determination to discredit Brash, Clark managed to turn what had been an argument about nuclear policy into an argument about the ethics of her using normally classified notes of a meeting between Brash and some American senators to claim Brash had one message for the New Zealand public and another for Washington.

National should give thanks to the Prime Minister for screwing up so spectacularly.

There will still be grizzling from a minority in the party, who will feel National has not shown the courage of its supposed convictions and lifted the ban on port visits by nuclear-powered ships, thus removing the blockage hampering defence relations with Washington.

True, the party task force, chaired by former deputy leader Wyatt Creech, confined itself to recommending that the clause in the law banning port visits by nuclear-powered warships be scrapped, but with the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too proviso that National maintain a ban as a matter of policy.

So the ban stays. If that looks just a wee bit too expedient, the pragmatists in National's caucus feel the party has taken enough of a risk by saying it might amend the legislation, let alone going the whole hog.

Stressing the review was not yet official party policy, Brash was quick to impose another caveat: National would not change the law unless it said so in next year's election manifesto or subsequently obtained approval through a referendum.

Don't hold your breath. It is most unlikely there will be any mention of a law change in the manifesto.

Some MPs - notably Gerry Brownlee, National's deputy leader, and Lockwood Smith, the party's foreign affairs spokesman - want to proudly run the potential law change up National's mast.

They will be prevailed upon to let the Creech report wither on the shelf rather than supply Labour with a free hit during the election campaign.

As it is, Labour will claim National can not be trusted to keep the ban on port visits.

Labour will talk of "secret agendas" and National striking back-room deals with the Americans if it becomes the Government.

The review has already caused National enough self-inflicted damage, prompting questioning of why the party was stupid enough to initiate it in the first place.

The answer is that the task force was conceived in the months following National's shattering 2002 election defeat, when the party was accused of being unclear about what it stood for. There was huge pressure on National's shrunken caucus to look tough and decisive.

What better vehicle than defence policy?

However, once National secured overwhelming brand distinction thanks to Brash's stance on Maori rights, the rejig of nuclear policy became an embarrassment that his advisers were desperate to hide.

So out came the Creech report under the convenient shadow of the hikoi, on the lame pretext that National had been forced to release it because the contents had been leaked.

Brash immediately played down any suggestion that the report's prime recommendation would necessarily become official party policy. He further distanced himself from its contents by saying he had not even read the full report.

At the same time, he could not dismiss it out of hand because that would have been a slap across the face for its authors and proponents, some of whom risked a lot in backing his leadership coup last October. And it also points a way forward to a better defence relationship with the Americans - a core element of National Party thinking.

Essentially, the report placed Brash in an impossible position. And he has floundered.

First, he was unwilling to venture a personal opinion on whether the nuclear-free policy should change.

Then came the astonishing admission he had not even read the report before it was released.

Then he could not remember whether he had told the American senators that the anti-nuclear policy would be "gone by lunchtime" once National was in power.

There was the further embarrassment over defence spokesman Simon Power's "we'll go wherever America goes" blooper, with Brash initially claiming Power had been misinterpreted when, in fact, he had been quoted accurately.

Then Brash admitted he had not read the speech in which Power uttered his words.

To top things off, Brash has declared that going into Iraq no longer looks like such a good idea, after earlier saying National would have almost certainly committed troops to the American-led invasion force.

In a word, it is all a mess - Bill English was crucified for much less.

The whole episode has resurrected memories of National's stumbling performance before Brash's Orewa speech in late January and the party's subsequent rise in the polls.

It leaves big questions about Brash's political management and whether National is yet displaying the necessary discipline required of an Opposition to convince voters it is a government-in-waiting.

But Brash has got away with it this time.

He has got away with it because the public either will not see or does not wish to see the politician in Brash - at least not yet.

He has got away with it because the public is not particularly interested in the ins and outs of the anti-nuclear policy at the moment.

And he has got away with it because the Prime Minister, in her eagerness to paint Brash as "Don the Ditherer" and "Don the Duplicitous", overstepped the mark.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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