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Just Left: Back to the Future with Brash

Back to the Future with Brash

Just Left - Jordan Carter

Don Brash has his name on a piece in this morning's Herald, called " Accountability and Consensus Missing ." It gives an interesting insight into the mind of the man who wants to be Prime Minister.

His basic line of argument is that the government has pushed through many controversial social changes in the current term, and that this indicates a problem with the constitutional framework. He takes a populist stance: that decisions about "moral" issues should be made by referenda not by Parliament. There are many more issues but we'll start from here.

One immediately stumbles across the first interesting contradiction; a "lesson" if you will. Brash knows about Edmund Burke - I know this because he quotes him:

"I am mindful of the famous comment of the great British parliamentarian of the 18th century, Edmund Burke, that "your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion". But it has been with a growing sense of discomfort that I have seen controversial social legislation being managed through the Parliament by the Government."

You'd then expect him to say why he is uncomfortable. He does not. This is perhaps wise; on both the issues Brash actually mentioned (civil unions and prostitution law reform) the man voted IN FAVOUR OF THE CHANGES CONCERNED - either initially or the whole way through. He acknowledged his right as a Burkean representative to vote his conscience. Now he bemoans this fact.

Thus the first lesson one can draw is that Don Brash isn't sincere in the points he is making in this article. He doesn't believe his own words. To him these issues per se are not generally problematic; what is problematic is that he thinks he needs to be on the conservative side of such debates to be able to win power (a profoundly mistaken assumption but one that he is welcome to).

The second lesson you can draw from the piece is that Brash is curiously unwilling to address matters of substance. His comments are mostly about process, other than some rhetorical references to moral issues. He pledges a referendum on MMP as a matter of National Party policy if he wins election, and makes other noises about conscience votes on prostitution and civil unions as noted. He also criticises MMP with this pearler:

"Indeed, it is arguable that the reliance on backroom deal-making with minor parties to make progress with legislation has removed the whole process one step further from direct accountability to the public, the more so when some of the key participants are able to enjoy the comparative shelter of election as list MPs."

Ironic, really, coming from a list MP who has failed to win general seats twice in his life, and is not prepared to put his own mandate to the test.

(As an aside, MMP works best in countries where Opposition parties want to make a constructive difference. It is not as useful in parliaments where there is an FPP, oppositionalist mind-set in place. National under Brash is in the latter category. Their unwillingness to participate in the Constitutional stocktake is but one example. The notion of National offering constructive suggestions, whether in select committee or more broadly, is a mix of laughable and unimaginable.)

The third lesson one draws is that "principled" Dr Brash has now outed himself as a populist, pure and simple. The MMP referendum and a smaller parliament are two examples. Civil Unions and prostitution reform are two more. Mouthing conservative views he does not really believe, Brash uses the piece to advocate for referenda to settle issues of moral concern - debates which always end up being about the rights of minorities. Such crude appeal to the worst instincts of the Kiwi populace is not surprising by someone as desperate to win as Brash is, but it is a disappointment nonetheless. Most people do not believe in government by referenda - they are of the Burkean position Brash himself quotes (above).

The fourth lesson is that Brash makes simple factual mistakes. He says:

"It is not simply that I disagree with some of the measures it has promoted. What troubles me is that, unlike many other measures it has introduced, it can claim no specific or even implied mandate for these changes.

The legalisation of prostitution and the institutionalising of civil unions are not matters on which the Government or, indeed, any political party campaigned at the last election. It sought no mandate on such matters, and it has none."

Both the Greens and the Labour Party campaigned for a policy of same-sex relationship recognition at the 1999 and 2002 General Elections. It appears in the manifesto of both parties. When you campaign on an issue and win an election, one assumes a mandate exists. Brash and National might well be so out of touch with liberal communities that they missed this fact, but fact it is. I heard Labour candidates regularly mention and support civil unions on the campaign trail; it was a prominent pledge in Labour campaign material directed at gay and lesbian communities; we are not ashamed of the policy and we didn't try to hide it.

To recap, the four lessons one can draw from this piece are:

* Don Brash isn't sincere. He will subordinate his principled views to those which are more politically convenient. His last-minute reversal on Civil Unions proves the point.

* Don Brash won't address matters of substance. He is only going to critique process - for the reason that he has enough principles left to not attack things he believes in. It does make him look rather lame though.

* Don Brash is a populist. He now supports making social change subject to the block of a referendum; a reversal of a principled liberalism that he was expected to make his watchword in politics.

* Don Brash gets his facts wrong. Labour and the Greens both campaigned on civil unions, and have delivered an election promise in passing the legislation. National's ignorance of liberal communities and the issues that were discussed during the 2002 election campaign does it no credit.

There is much else that one could criticise. I could remind you, dear reader, of the flip flops in the very issues Brash uses as his case studies. I could expand on Brash's bizarre view that MMP is broken simply because his party won't operate within the system properly. I could go on.

I won't, though. The article speaks for itself. The lessons I have drawn above are self-evident. Brash has revealed himself as a curious sort of wimp, who has extended his refusal to be open about his economic views to cover his social views too. The radical libertarian inside is putting up a cautious conservative face.

Ironically, in New Zealand in the 21st century, the radical libertarian has more chance of becoming Prime Minister than the conservative relic of an older New Zealand. Our country is growng browner, freer and more prosperous. The kind of social authoritarianism Brash is trying to appeal to is forty years out of date. The whisperers in his ear, peddling nonsense notions of a conservative revival, are doing him no service.

Yes, the government has advanced a liberal social agenda. Yes, in places that has pushed the community's tolerance. Kiwis are, though, more on side than I had dared hope. I feared a majority would oppose civil unions; instead a majority backed them. I feared the smoking ban would be political suicide; instead it has broad-based, popular support. Brash is free to think that Kiwis are against these and other reforms, and of course some are, but if they were so upset about these matters Labour would not be miles ahead in the polls. Voters are not stupid.

This sort of revelatory stuff does, again, raise the stakes about what New Zealanders are facing when the election rolls around. Strong, popular, competent leadership that delivers? Or a confused, timorous man who doesn't seem to know his own mind any more? I am hugely looking forward to an election where Brash has ceded the field already on economic policy, and where he is standing for a return to 1950s white picket fence morality. The experience of the 1990s and 2000s shows exactly what the outcome will be.


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