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David Miller: Why Don Brash Spoke As He Did

David Miller Online

Why Don Brash Spoke As He Did

Don Brash’s speech on race-relations last week was perhaps one of the most controversial public addresses given by the leader of a major political party and certainly of his burgeoning political career. Not only was this speech set against the debate over the ownership of the foreshore and seabed, National timed it to coincide with Waitangi Day. The arguments that have followed the Orewa address have inevitably been intense and heated and Dr. Brash must have been aware of the reaction he was likely to provoke. Yet there was method in the madness. This was not just a political gimmick or populist stunt as many have claimed. Instead, this it was a well-timed and well-calculated move and one of the few avenues left open to National if it is to gain any traction towards unseating the Government.

This column is not offering a defence nor delivering an attack on Dr. Brash’s speech or the position of the National Party on race-relations and the Treaty. Instead, the aim is to present an objective look at why Dr. Brash spoke as he did and why National has adopted this line. Objectivity is so often a casualty in debates when emotions and subjectivity are involved and one hopes people recognise and accept the objectiveness of this column when reading it.

National have nothing to lose by adopting this line of argument, as the party does not have the strong Maori constituency that Labour does so there is no risk of damage to its election chances. As National has never gained ground at the polls when the Maori electorate became disillusioned and dissatisfied with Labour, Dr. Brash’s speech was a safe bet. Another point to be aware of is that National has struggled to carve out a niche for what it represents over recent years. Their members and activists may disagree but one of the party’s key weaknesses is that its policies are often unclear when set alongside ACT on one side and United Future and New Zealand First on the other. This trend became evident while Bill English was leader and Don Brash is clearly seeking to rectify this quickly after assuming the helm.

Race-relations and the Treaty of Waitangi provide the ideal platform on which to set out distinguishable policies and they have a higher chance of stirring emotion within the electorate than any other. Had the National leader stuck to economic or other social issues such as welfare the response would certainly not have been so vocal and so over-whelming. There is economic growth within the country at present and the majority of the electorate favour Labour’s policies in welfare, employment and foreign relations so there was little opportunity to gain capital there. Yet the Treaty and the process and structures derived from it offered a solution to this.

This also provides a way in which National can overcome Dr. Brash’s lack of charisma and there is the air of the ‘colonial tea-planter’ about him. One of the criticisms I have read was he delivered a speech in the populist style of Richard Prebble or Winston Peters but without their personality and with little more than sound bites, slogans and generalisations over the issues. A colleague of mine who has studied New Zealand History throughout his university career pointed out that he detected certain historical references made by Dr. Brash that were untrue. Should my friend continue with his studies then he will certainly become a foremost expert on this subject so there are no doubts that what he claims is correct but so what? This is electioneering and whether Dr. Brash got his history correct or not is neither here nor there. It is the emotion that he has stirred up that matters along with those ‘floating’ voters who on polling day hover around the centre of the political spectrum and those who are now expressing their support for him. This speech was intended to be a vote catching exercise and nothing more.

Dr. Brash has drawn a very clear line as to where he and his party stand on the issue of the Treaty of Waitangi and race-relations. In doing so, he has relegated all other issues to secondary importance as none of them can stir emotion and passion as much as this and none of them are as effective in bringing him votes that this stance will. I read another criticism that Dr. Brash had made an error with the timing of this speech given that it is over a year before the next election. Dr. Brash did not make an error. Instead, he has demonstrated to those traditional National voters and anyone else uncertain as to where to place their tick next year that he is determined to stamp his authority on the party and establish policy. The Treaty will be one of the principal issues at the next election, if not the most important one, and National will use it as a major platform and this is not the last that we have heard on this subject.


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