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No Right Turn: Don Brash &The Politics Of Division

No Right Turn

Don Brash And The Politics Of Division

Monday, June 27, 2005

So it's settled then. Having initially sold himself as "socially liberal but fiscally conservative", someone who would run a balanced budget while supporting liberal social legislation, Don Brash has decided to run an election campaign based on the politics of division. His keynote speech at the National Party conference over the weekend was peppered with references to "mainstream" New Zealand, and "mainstream" New Zealanders. When challenged by a journalist, he was unable to define exactly what a "mainstream" New Zealander was. But on Morning Report this morning he was quite happy to tell everyone what it's not:

PRESENTER: Okay. Let's have a look at some of the other things you said over the weekend. You talked about mainstream New Zealand. What does that mean precisely?

BRASH: It means the large number of New Zealanders whom this Government has neglected for the last six years. This Government has been trying to work hard for minority groups, small parts of the community...

PRESENTER: Which minority groups, which minority groups are we talking about?

BRASH: Well we know, for example, that the Government has been funding Maori programmes more generously than non-Maori programmes...

So if you're Maori, you're not a "mainstream" (meaning "real") New Zealander in Dr Brash's eyes. But it doesn't stop there:

PRESENTER: Okay. So Maori is one of the minority groups. What other minority groups?

BRASH: Well we know also that Government has been focusing on prostitution legislation, civil union legislation, all that kind of stuff, which caters for a small minority of people, while neglecting...

In other words, this is about social liberalism, "political correctness", Labour's efforts to expand opportunity and erode privilege, and ensure that every New Zealander is treated fairly and equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. But its clear that Brash doesn't agree with that struggle, because he doesn't see gays as real New Zealanders:

PRESENTER: No, I just want to pick up on something else here. You talked about civil unions. Does that mean you do not regard gay people as mainstream New Zealanders?

BRASH: Well they're clearly not, they're a small minority of people, but let me be clear. I made it very clear in the debate on that issue that I thought this should be dealt with by referendum because it's a big change in the civil institutions of society. I also said that in the referendum I would vote for it because I have no problem with same sex couples committing to live together faithfully as heterosexual couples do.

PRESENTER: You simply don't regard gays as part of mainstream New Zealand?

BRASH: Well they are clearly, by definition, a small minority of New Zealanders...

So, Maori aren't "mainstream", gays aren't "mainstream", and judging by the way he runs his caucus and National's list selection, women aren't either. This is a clear attempt to scratch the itch of racism, homophobia and bigotry and pander to the culturally insecure in order to grub for votes. If it all seems a little Murray McCully, it's because he's National's campaign strategist and has obviously decided that playing Muldoon or Winston is a sure winner. The problem is twofold. The first, as pointed out by Nandor Tanczos in his second-reading speech on the Civil Union Bill is that

there no longer is a mainstream. We have become a braided river.

National's supporters may decry that, and long for the "good old days" when New Zealand culture was defined by white, middle aged, straight farmers - but those days are dead and gone. And not because of "political correctness" or "social engineering", but because of urbanisation, immigration, globalisation, and pure generational and demographic change. National's dead white males can try and stuff this genie back into its bottle, the gays back into their closet and Don Brash's wife on a plane back to Singapore, but the best they can get is temporary respite - because none of this is going away. Under these circumstances, I think it is far better to adapt and get used to it.

The second problem was pointed out by Brash in his speech: New Zealanders are better than that. We may be a braided river now, with many different and intertwined strands to our culture, but that does not mean that we have nothing in common. New Zealanders do generally share values, and perhaps the defining value is a sense of fair play. Opinion polls showed that New Zealanders supported "politically correct" moves like the Civil Union and Relationships Act - because they were fair. Similarly, we supported Homosexual Law Reform back in '86 - because it was fair. And we support the Treaty settlements process and efforts to ensure that Maori enjoy the same life-chances as any other New Zealander - because it is fair. Using the politics of division may gain praise from bigots and seem attractive to those who superficially base their political strategy on whatever worked last overseas, but it runs deeply counter to New Zealand values. I am hoping that that will be proven at the ballot-box.

But what's really disappointing about all this is that Don Brash knows better. In his speech, he mentioned his role as an ongoing patron of Amnesty International's Freedom Foundation. He voted for prostitution reform - something he now criticises Labour for passing. And he supported the Civil Union Bill through its first reading on principle. Prior to becoming leader, he was a fairly consistent advocate for equality and human rights. Now, he seems willing to sell out any principle if it increases his chances of handing out tax cuts to the rich.

I do not believe a man who is willing to set New Zealander against New Zealander in this way deserves to be Prime Minister - do you?


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