Fran O'Sullivan: Coup aside, bold Brash must deliver on gamble

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Don Brash (left) ousted Rodney Hide as leader and now wants him to lose his ministerial portfolios. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Don Brash (left) ousted Rodney Hide as leader and now wants him to lose his ministerial portfolios. Photo / Brett Phibbs

First, the audacious coup. Second, execute the bold gamble. Just two days after rolling Rodney Hide as Act's leader, Don Brash has already staked a claim for a top finance role in John Key's next Government.

And he has positioned the party to campaign on three crucial platforms at the upcoming election:

* Getting snowballing Government debt under control.

* Ensuring equal citizenship.

* Rethinking the emissions trading scheme so it doesn't cripple New Zealand's productive agricultural sector.

In yet another sign of determined ruthlessness, Brash also wants Key to strip Hide of his ministerial portfolios - an option which Key has now conveniently told Brash is within the Act leader's discretion.

Not as Hide earlier portrayed, when he said he had the Prime Minister's assurance he could stay on as a minister even if he was ousted as leader.

Today the Act board and caucus will formally confirm Brash's leadership and get down to discussions on the vital election strategy. The new leader will clearly get the top slot on Act's list.

But the Act board will think carefully before awarding John Banks a top list ranking as well as the nomination as the party's candidate for the prime Epsom seat.

Hide has built a 13,000 majority in Epsom. Banks either has the moxie to win the seat, or he doesn't.

But if the fallback option is axed, it will ensure the former Auckland City mayor and National Cabinet minister is put on his mettle to work hard to get back into Parliament.

The results of privately commissioned polls portray Banks as a shoo-in for Epsom. But those polls didn't allow for the possibility that National might field a strong candidate to "take the seat back".

Brash and Act cannot afford to take the National hierarchy for granted. When Key sent a message that National's primary focus in Epsom would be the party vote, he already knew that Hide was on shaky ground.

That would have been abundantly obvious from the political intelligence which senior National Party figures - including president Peter Goodfellow - had gathered on the former National duo's intentions.

What National now has to weigh up is whether it may in fact be in the party's interests to field a good candidate to try to stymie Brash's ability to get out on the campaign stump and convince voters to give their party vote to Act.

National's private polling will quickly tell them that Brash's election platform resonates with many of its support base.

Brash wants to portray Epsom as a "dead cert" for Act so he can attract good candidates to put their names forward for the party list in the surety that they will get into Parliament on the back of a Banks' win.

But this strategy lacks ambition. Why stop at Epsom? Why not attract the charismatic Auckland Council politician Cameron Brewer to run for the Tamaki seat against sitting National MP Allan Peachey. And put a good candidate up for the North Shore against National's Maggie Barry (if she wins the nomination).

This bold move could annoy Act deputy leader John Boscawen, who is said to covet the Tamaki seat. But Boscawen's personality is not suited to retail politics. It's not only mateship that counts in the Brewer calculation. He did persuade 18,228 Aucklanders to vote for him in the inaugural Auckland Council elections, making him the fifth-highest polling Auckland councillor.

Brewer was also the only councillor to obtain majority support (more than 51.5 per cent of Orakei voters voted for him) from a suburban area which crosses over with the Tamaki electorate.

The Brash camp also approached Matthew Hooton (who is a PR man and lobbyist as well as a political commentator) who says he has rejected overtures. Brash's biographer Paul Goldsmith has also been mentioned.

Importantly, Brewer, Hooton and Goldsmith are young, politically savvy men who would give Act's image a modern, aggressive look.

The fact that the Brash camp is contemplating bringing in new blood does present a problem for the Act board which must work out where to place Boscawen, former deputy leader Heather Roy and Hilary Calvert.

Roy could expect to demand a top list position. But like Boscawen, she is essentially unelectable.

If Brash is to prove himself as a bold political gambler, he will want to get as many electorate seats as possible to free Act from the tyranny of being beholden to National for its existence.

The anatomy of this second very Brash coup has yet to be fully revealed. It is a rerun of the tactical play that Brash and then-strategist Hooton deployed to oust Bill English from National's leadership in 2006.

Decide the strategy, get the messaging right, prime a few key media (and bloggers), let them run the story ahead of you, instead of covertly "getting the numbers" or trying to orchestrate a bloodless coup. It has had its amusing moments.

When I revealed on March 12 that Brash and Banks were looking at either starting a new right-of-centre party or taking over Act, blogger Cameron Slater commented:

"I am also pretty sure that Banks and Brash know that electorally they are rat poison as candidates. They are both pensioners, with Brash over 70. They also both know that their best years politically are behind them."

This time around, Brash's strategists let Slater into the play: the direct onslaught was "open and honest but not fair". And as for The Don's age - don't mention it.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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