Don Brash interview

by Diana Wichtel / 16 May, 2011
The Act Party has given Don Brash another life in politics, but what he really wants is a second chance with his wife.

The phone rang late on Saturday afternoon. You’d know the voice and that media-training-resistant “Eeehhh” anywhere: “It’s Don Brash here.” He has no idea who he’s calling. He didn’t catch the name in the message, but he’s ringing back anyway, bless him. Did he get my email? He may have, he says. There are about 150 piled up waiting for his attention. Brash is known for tight control of such things, give or take some famously leaked emails. For him, backed-up email indicates organisational Armageddon.

Well, he’s been busy. It has been four years in the wilderness since he resigned as National Party leader. Now he’s back as surprise leader of Act and a political force to be reckoned with. Or at least interviewed. He’s done so many lately he has taken to interrogating himself: “Did I expect it to attract some attention? Yes. Did it get more attention than I expected? Absolutely. I don’t think even when I was leader of the National Party I got as much attention as I’ve had in the last week,” he beams.

We’re meeting chez Brash. “I’m not at the Viaduct any more,” he’d warned. He has bought a place uptown a bit: tiny, with a small, Eastern bloc-style window overlooking a vista of urban blight. Major roads surge past the building on two sides, making it feel like a rest stop on an autobahn; appropriate considering the speed at which he’s been moving and the urgent traffic arriving at his door.

There’s something about Brash that invites symbolic readings. Since his biography revealed those tragic plates of reheated corned beef and peas, journalists can’t resist peering in his fridge to parse the sparse, unappetising contents. As National’s leader, he couldn’t walk along a plank without attracting a hail of unflattering deconstruction. His sayings – “my wife’s from Singapore”, “gone by lunchtime” (which a WikiLeaks cable calls a Labour Party “misquote”), “I don’t want any candidates to be talking about their testicles, to be quite frank” – have their place in national folklore.

He has been compared to Mr Magoo, Mr Burns, Mr Spock and, for all we know, Mr Ed. When Rodney Hide sealed his fate by meeting Brash to ­discuss making him co-leader of Act, it was, deliciously, at Burger King. I’ll have the goneburger, hold the portfolios.

Now Brash is Act leader outside the House. “My staff you can see.” None. “Exactly.” Brash is in the perilous position of arranging his own media coverage. “I need at least one person,” he confides, “partly because Rodney is cancelling things out of his diary at the moment.”

Indeed. It serves Brash right for going after the leadership of a party to which he did not belong in a manner inviting comparison to a hostile takeover. “The party’s already established, it has a constitution, a membership,” Brash blithely informed the press. “I don’t doubt I could do it,” he mused, of starting his own party, “but it would just be much more convenient to assume the leadership of Act.”

Convenient. As a pitch for leadership that ranks up there with alien invasion. “Earthlings, hand over your planet. Resistance is futile.” Brash laughs for a long time. “Well, it may have sounded like that.” He mostly takes mocking in the same spirit – “Not a bad shot!” – in which he took that Waitangi clod of mud. He’s not above a jibe himself. On catching Australia, he says, “Because average productivity is still low, that comes out of the hide, no pun intended, of lower-income New Zealanders.”

He makes entertaining, if odd company. On the failure of his beloved market to provide fast broadband: “There’s no evidence so far that New Zealanders are willing to pay for it,” he says. “And if you’re only using fast broadband to watch porn or something …” Speak for yourself, I say. “I don’t have fast broadband,” he says.

Do not ask why, at 70, he wants back in the game. You will receive the full party political broadcast: “I was increasingly frustrated by what the Government was doing and not doing!”; “The track we’re on at the moment is irresponsible to the point of being dangerous!”; “$300 debt per week per family …”

Brash is gunning for, among other outrages: the Maori seats (“They create an apartheid situation”); interest-free student loans; the axing of the youth minimum wage; failure to raise the age of eligibility for superannuation … His “One law for all” slogan plays on high rotate. We have one of those futile exchanges we’ll hear a lot of this year when the question of the unique place of Maori arises.

Brash: Who do you now mean?
Me: People who identify as Maori.
Brash: If I had one 32nd Maori, could I call myself Maori?
Me: Fine by me.
Brash: I discovered to my surprise when I was Governor of the Reserve Bank two of my senior colleagues were Ngai Tahu. I couldn’t tell. They look as European as I do.
Me: What do looks matter?
Brash: Okay, it doesn’t matter. But how do you define people who get the privilege?
Me: Privilege?

It was reported he regretted using the word “privilege” of Maori in that incendiary 2004 Orewa speech. “I can’t recall whether I said that or not. I can’t even recall the text of the speech, to be frank.”

He may have a quasi-religious belief in the market, but he’s a non-believer in one failure of the market: human-induced global warming. “I’ve got a very close friend who is one of Australia’s top physicists and he thinks the whole thing is a con,” Brash told his mate Lindsay Perigo. So, is Brash a denialist? “I prefer sceptic.” Would he get rid of the Emissions Trading Scheme? “I don’t ­single-handedly make the policy.” If he did? “That would be my inclination.”

As for his frustration with John Key, “We have the worst international financial crisis in three generations, which he doesn’t have to invent. It’s visible for all to see. Then on top of that he gets not one but two earthquakes! If ever there was a case for taking measures to right the ship, it’s now. It’s hard to think of a Prime Minister who’s been more popular than John Key.” Act’s problem may be that Key wants to keep it that way. “Well, of course, we all like being popular,” he grumbles, “but what on earth is the point of being popular if you’re just going to enjoy it?”

Brash may berate Key for not working those disasters, but he seems to covet more popularity himself. There are signs of an image rethink. He greets us in a daunting fire-engine red polo. The photographer asks him to look serious. “No, no. People accuse me of being too serious.” Head back? No, no. “Makes me look like I’m a stuck-up prick.” Look like you’re taking the election seriously, pleads the photographer. “That I’m a miserable right-wing part of the far-right conspiracy?” scoffs Brash. He frets about his bald patch. Well, he’s got more hair than Prince William. “I’ve certainly got more hair than Rodney!”

He agrees to change into a shirt. “One condition is not having you photographing me when I’m changing,” he says, with his unerring instinct for bringing up old gaffes. He’s referring to an open-shirt photograph – “I should never have let it happen” – that ran in the Herald on Sunday the day after Key won the 2008 election. “Was it you?” he quizzes the photographer. It was. Brash got a lot of strife over that photo, which was actually taken in 2005 but not used then. “National Party members were pissed off and said, ‘John Key wins the election and that bastard Brash tries to upstage him by showing his hairy chest.’”

Did it affect his relationship with Key? “Something did,” he laughs. Certainly, Key was mocking about Brash’s 2025 Taskforce, now canned. “He was.” Did that hurt? “Well, no more than the fact he has not only not taken up the recommendations, he hasn’t even engaged with me on it. There’s been no discussion at all.”

No avoiding discussion now. Brash is off next day to see the Prime Minister. Burger King? “I enjoy Burger King. Indeed, I enjoy most junk food,” declares Brash, deploying his Pavlovian response to mentions of fast-food chains. “I imagine it will be his office.”

Even Key describes Brash’s economic policies as extreme. These days Brash is at pains to present as mainstream. He mentions an approach from a group unconnected with Act to form a new party. He turned them down. “Their primary focus was on a moral conservative campaign and I’m probably liberal in most respects. I voted for the prostitution law reform bill. I voted for the civil union bill.” And against it. Brash says he was persuaded there should be a referendum, in which he would then vote for it. Brash’s father, a Presbyterian minister with liberal views on homosexuality, had written a booklet on the subject. “It was more than somewhat embarrassing for me to be voting against the bill at a second reading when I had people on the other side of the debate quoting my father’s book at me,” he sighs. “I had friends and foes alike totally unclear what the heck I was on about.” It’s a very Brashian predicament: derailed by his own remorseless logic.

As for the Exclusive Brethren debacle, Brash stoutly maintains he would meet them again, or anyone. “Unless,” he clarifies carefully, “they’re a total fruitcake.” He insists he didn’t know at the time who produced that anti-Greens pamphlet. “Should I have connected it with the Brethren? Possibly.” Still, perception is all in politics. “That’s true. You’ve got to be wary of the fact that your political enemies will distort the reality.”

He cites an example from Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men. “He talks about some mysterious parcel passed to me at the Otara Flea Markets. Well, I was at the Otara Flea Markets without question and I had one of my colleagues with me. Neither he nor I have any recollection of getting any mysterious parcel. Or any other kind of parcel, to be quite frank!”

That seems to be a fairly minor example to dwell on, but then Brash is a bit of a mysterious parcel himself. He started out a leftie. “My parents were certainly Labour. I voted Labour for a significant number of elections as a young adult.” While studying for a PhD in Australia, he decided foreign investment was not so evil and began his conversion to the right.

His irrepressible ambition may be down to his mother. She did degrees later in life and sounds formidable. She pushed her children? “Ha! Absolutely!” She made him write her a paragraph every day after school. “I’m still a pedantic sort of a bastard.”

His parents adopted an 11-year-old boy from an orphanage in Edinburgh, where his father was based. “He’d had polio. It was a bit of a disaster, to put it mildly. My mother insisted that he did exercises and he got to the point when he could walk without splints, but he deeply resented the discipline. He went totally off the rails.” He ended up with a criminal record. “He was so angered he changed his name and we lost all track of him. He wanted nothing to do with us.” Brash’s sister later re-established contact. “And I discovered to my astonishment that he was delivering my Evening Post to the Reserve Bank …”

At this point Brash is unable to go on for tears. Difficult to talk about. “Yeah.” Sorry. “It’s all right.”

There was, in the end, a reunion. “My long-lost brother. I remember having dinner with him at McDonald’s in Courtenay Place with his two sons.” Not many years later his brother died of cancer.

For someone with a deeply desiccated image, Brash is an emotional man. You could see his more rigid ideological certainties as a way to keep rogue feelings more or less under control. Which brings us back to Rodney. Brash, once declared “corrosive and cancerous” by Helen Clark, has called Hide “toxic” and “tarnished”.

Adjectives currently being deployed to describe Brash’s Easter insurrection include “brutal” and “ruthless”. “My daughter, who’s called Ruth, doesn’t like this ruthless reference,” he says. Righto. But seeing Rodney look as if he has just dropped Krystal on her head again must be upsetting. “Yeah, that didn’t fill me with delight. It’s been emotional in the sense that Rodney Hide genuinely has been a close friend.” They met in 1996. “He and Roger Douglas came to see me.

He said, ‘I gather your wife is Chinese. Well, mine is Chinese also.’” A dinner was arranged. “Our two wives became close and our sons became close friends. Sometimes we’d have the Christmas meal with them.”

Look at those two once-close families now. Politics has exacted a high cost. “That’s right, no question, and some of it borne not by me and not even by Rodney but by other people. I accept that.” He hesitated before re-entering the fray. “My sister is very distressed indeed. She sees her brother beaten up in the media and she doesn’t enjoy it. I don’t either, to be perfectly frank.”

As for his old mate, obliterating him makes perfect sense. “I think there was a good prospect of Rodney losing Epsom … As I said to him, ‘To really build your party, it has to be seen that you are likely to take the seat in advance. Why would you stand for a party that looks as if it’s on the edge of oblivion?’ I argued quite strongly if Act was going to have a future beyond the margin of error, they had to make a change.”

The polling Brash was conducting to convince Act it needed him reportedly showed Hide at around 2% and Brash at 5-6%. “That’s in the right ballpark.” He hasn’t released the figures. “I’m conscious of the fact that it was a highly artificial environment during the time the poll was being conducted. There was just an enormous amount of media coverage. So I don’t know what the poll would look like in a much more normal, less frenetic atmosphere.”

There’s been speculation, too, about who’s backing him. “The amount of money I’ve received at the moment is very small,” he says. “I paid for the market research myself.”

Alan Gibbs, lifelong friend, has been mentioned. “He hasn’t contributed a dime, nor has he promised a dime, at this point. I’m hoping he will,” says Brash brightly. “I’m hoping I have lots and lots of backers.”

For the last photo Brash pretends to check out an important paper, only to find it is. “National’s Vision for New Zealand,” he reads out. “Equal citizenship, individual freedom of choice. Personal responsibility, limited government.” You can work with that, I say. “I can work with that. That’s the irony. National Party principles are pretty much identical to what Act is trying to do.”

Except National seems distinctly underwhelmed to see him back. Key has been responding to speculation about Brash ending up around the Cabinet table with a clenched “very unlikely”. You develop a thick skin about these things, muses Brash. “Politics is a brutal sort of game. You never quite develop a totally thick skin, but you pretend you do.”

On his desk is a photograph of him and his estranged wife, Je Lan. Any chance of reconciliation? “I’m certainly hoping so. Leaving my wife three years ago was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done a few stupid things, but that was not smart.” He is, he indicates, working on it.

There’s also a photograph of his 18-year-old son. He’s very handsome. “Mixed race,” agrees Brash. I put it to him that might be a good metaphor for New Zealand: people from two distinct races together producing something lovely. It’s worth a try, but he doesn’t seem to hear. He’s expecting visitors for an Act strategy meeting and is busy putting his sparse bachelor furnishings, moved for the photo shoot, back precisely where they were. At 70, he finds himself, in politics and in his personal life, a man outside the House, battling friend and foe alike to be let back in.
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