Don Brash is on his way out in politics and yet there is no reason to think that his political behaviour has been any different from that of other National or Labour members of parliament.
It was clear he had become a liability for National. When reporters asked uncomfortable questions he was not smoothly evasive with his answers. Unlike more seasoned politicians he lacked the animal instinct to cover his tracks properly.
To be underhand and evasive is good politics but to be caught out in the open is the road to oblivion.
On the night of his resignation he told a TV interviewer that he didn’t think he had ever knowingly or deliberately misled the public. This leaves open the question that if he wasn’t sure he hadn’t deliberately misled us then on his own admission he may have deliberately done so. Not a good look.
It is rare for genuine leadership to coincide with political adroitness and still rarer for it to coincide with honesty. None of these stars lined up for Brash.
At the end of the day his evasions appeared too obvious in a system where political reputations are built and maintained by public perception rather than by policies or leadership.
Brash entered parliament as a neo-liberal who had more in common with ACT than National. He was even referred to as the 10th ACT MP when ACT had nine in parliament but his free-market economic thinking has been toned down in the pursuit of political power.
Labour has tried to portray Brash as a hard-line right winger supporting unfettered free-market policies. This is Brash’s background but it is also the background of the senior leadership of the Labour government which sat around the cabinet table with Roger Douglas in the 1980s.
On the surface Brash has moved National in a more pragmatic direction as he has tried to wrest control of the middle class vote from Labour. He has even gone so far as to say that tax cuts must come second to providing decent health and education to everyone.
It is precisely because the policy differences between National and Labour are so small that argument about perceptions drives what passes for political debate.
Healthy cynicism of politicians is a good thing but this has deepened as a result of the neo-liberal reforms of the past 20 years. From 1984 to 1996 there were five elections in New Zealand in which the party which won did the opposite of what they promised. No-one ever voted for the sale of our state assets, GST, Tomorrow’s Schools, tax cuts for the wealthy, low wages, destruction of manufacturing jobs, poverty or low-quality employment and yet they have been delivered in spades by Labour in the 1980s, National in the 1990s and continue with Labour today.
Working class New Zealanders in low-income communities are the ones who have always borne the brunt of Labour and National policies. These communities are largely disaffected and disengaged from the political process. It is here where voter turnouts are lowest and when they do vote it tends to be for Labour although it’s a vote based on habit more than hope. They don’t see our parliamentary politics as having the capacity to improve their lives in any meaningful way and they are right.
Even when Labour is voted in things get worse for the most vulnerable. Our City Missions and food banks around the country report ever growing demand for food parcels and there is a wealth of statistics to paint the full ugly story. We know for example that Pacific Island families are worse off now than when Labour was elected. In fact in the first 4 years of this current Labour reign the percentage of Pacific families suffering severe hardship increased from 16% to 30%. Labour’s failure knows no bounds.
So while National under Brash has moved pragmatically to the “left”, so have Labour’s policies moved to the right to such an extent that the parties now frequently pass each other in the middle of the marketplace.
John Key is a younger, fresher version of the free-market Brash and is the frontrunner to lead National. He’s a reminder of the bright young men in suits from the 1980’s who took New Zealand for a ride on the back of Roger Douglas’s reforms which released all kinds of economic lunacy on New Zealand.
Whether he is successful will depend on his ability to connect with the middle-class. This is the ground on which elections are won or lost. It’s the territory where both National and Labour pitch their electoral spin.
But whether Key becomes prime minister or not matters less than we think. At worst it will be a continuation of the existing free-market policies which have been so destructive for so many for so long.