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Gordon Campbell on the Brash coup attempt, and Sean Penn

Gordon Campbell on the Brash coup attempt, and Sean Penn

For now, the attempt at a hostile takeover of the Act Party by former National Party leader Don Brash seems to have hit a road block within the Act caucus. Hilary Calvert, John Boscawen and Rodney Hide are apparently against the idea, leaving only Heather Roy and Sir Roger Douglas in support. I say’ apparently’ because Boscawen is the swing vote – and Brash may be taking a few crumbs of solace from the fact that so far, Boscawen’s support for Hide has been expressed by a spokesperson, leaving Boscawen little to retract if he should change his mind next week. Timing is everything. Endorsing Brash right off the bat – before he had even joined the party – would have looked desperate, rather than just being desperate.

In other words, I don’t think Brash’s coup attempt is quite dead yet. Not that it matters all that much, either way. The relevant question for John Key is not whether he can work personally with Brash, but whether there is anything on Act’s policy agenda that he would rule out during National’s second term. And there probably isn’t much. Asset sales, privatization, lowering taxes on the wealthy and business, cutting back on welfare programmes… what’s not for a second-term centre right government to like? The only issue regarding Act is the size of the mandate that Key can hope to claim after the election, for carrying out the same programme.

If Brash becomes leader, former Auckland mayor John Banks is expected to join Act and stand in Epsom. Brash and Banks both have a following – small, but larger than Hide’s – and their supporters are claiming they could not only win the Epsom electorate currently held by Hide, but would boost the Act Party vote over the 5% threshold, nationwide.

In one respect at least, that prospect should be welcomed as good news by this particular government. Ever since the defeat of Helen Clark, the lack of credible coalition partners on the right is supposed to have been a chronic problem for the Key government. Unfortunately, the obvious downside of a successful leadership bid against Hide – and the ascent of geriatric generals like Brash and Banks – is that it will make Act look uncannily like the last incarnation of the Soviet Union, where a series of doddery old men swapped power at the top, while the party slowly toppled off the cliff of history.

Sad, isn’t it? Since its inception, Act has always portrayed itself as a feisty party of new ideas, a think tank able to offer fresh solutions to the government. Not under Brash and Banks, obviously. Carbon test the pair of them, and you wouldn’t find a trace of freshness and originality in their combined political DNA. The problem isn’t so much that Brash is now 70 – its that he’s been 70 for the past 25 years. His policy positions haven’t changed one iota since 1985.

More to the point for Key, if a resurgent Act wins Epsom and amasses a 5% party vote in November, it will be taking those votes almost entirely from National. Instead of being able to put Brash on some meaningless Commission and throw him a cheque for work that can be quietly shelved, Key will have to deal with him in government, and in public discourse. It would just totally spoil John Key’s fun, the second time around.

So… the immediate impact of a revived Act Party therefore, would be to weaken its best friend in Parliament. Certainly, the ascent of Brash and Banks in Auckland would put paid to any hopes that National might be entertaining of governing alone. To fulfil that dream, National will need to woo and retain voters from the centre of the political spectrum – and during the 2005 election campaign, Don Brash’s tendency to frighten centrist voters was the main reason National lost that election. “I can work with Mr Brash and the Act Party,” said by the PM through gritted teeth will reassure no-one. The closer we get to election day, the more it will sound like a somewhat scary promise.

To repeat: the sticking point is Brash’s negative public image, not his policy objectives. On the policy front, Brash would actually be a reasonably compatible partner for Key, after November. In an odd way though, it doesn’t really matter all that much for National. Having Brash as a foil – if the PM eventually has to wear that outcome – might even make Key look more likeable, in a good cop, bad cop sort of way. Alternatively, if the coup fails and Hide goes on to lose Epsom to a National candidate, that’s even better. Without the spectre of Brash, Key would be able to look moderate on the hustings and could thus win an even larger mandate for what will essentially be the Act Party’s programme during his second term. Hide at least, should appreciate the irony in that.


Haiti, and Hollywood

Nearly six months after it began its tortuous election process, 60% of the 25% of eligible voters in Haiti who turned out, have now picked a leader – the former musician Michel Martelly. Martelly is no friend of the poor. His “Sweet Micky” nickname is said to be a product of his public friendship with Lt Colonel Michel Francois, the notorious death squad leader during the Cedras military regime of the early 1990s. After Cedras was toppled and democracy of a sort restored in Haiti, the army was disbanded because of its complicity in repression – yet one of the Martelly’s first statements after being elected is that he will now re-establish the army. In effect, a minority of the hapless country seems to have elected a neo-Duvalierist figure to lead them.

The other key figure in Haiti is of course, the recently-returned from exile former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide – who is still by far, the most popular political figure in the country, even though he has vowed to shun politics in future. Yet if Martelly proves to be a tyrant – or at best, merely a figurehead for the elites – the masses will turn once again, to Aristide for deliverance. Meanwhile, the cholera death toll is nearing 5000, a figure set to rise dramatically in coming weeks and months, as the disease moves out of urban areas and becomes a nationwide epidemic.

Currently, just about the only good news out of Haiti has to do with the relative success of the refugee camp run by Sean Penn. In defiance of all the stereotypes about do-gooding Hollywood liberals jetting in and leaving once the cameras stop rolling, Penn has stuck at it in Haiti for over a year, now. As the New York Times grudgingly reported in late March:

Over a year later, Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235 Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the Pétionville camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women’s health center, a cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.’s, and it has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.

Early mistakes in the camp’s administration have largely been corrected, and Penn’s efforts have resulted in one of the country’s few functioning centres for food, shelter and medicine, and is serving some 50,000 people – even as the rest of the world continues to dally in giving the assistance that it promised. As things stand, Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn are proving to be far more practical friends of Haiti than Hillary Clinton.


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