Crowded Out: Act's leader, Dr Don Brash, who might have been expected to be included in this very public tea party, was actually one of the main topics of John Key's and John Banks' now notorious conversation - and not in a good way.
THE AMERICAN HUMOURIST, Mark Twain, once described a conspiracy as “nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public.” Generally speaking, voters are wary of politicians who agree privately to do things they’re too scared to announce publicly. What am I saying? “Wary” simply doesn’t do the voters’ feelings justice. “Mistrustful” would be a better word; “Suspicious” better still. Which is why, if the Prime Minister, John Key, hasn’t allowed the news media to reveal the contents of the notorious “teapot tape” by the time this column is printed, then he’s a damn fool.
But, even assuming he has relented, and everyone now knows exactly what transpired in Newmarket’s Café Urban between the Prime Minister and Act’s Epsom candidate, John Banks, chances are the true victim of these wily politicians’ tête-à-tête is only slowly grasping his role in the larger conspiracy animating the National-Act tea-party.
Several months ago, at an undisclosed location (but you can be fairly sure it wasn’t Newmarket’s Café Urban ) a number of men and women came together to plot the overthrow of Rodney Hide. At the centre of the plot was the former Reserve Bank Governor and National Party leader, Dr Don Brash, who was convinced that when it came to keeping the National-led Government on the straight-and-narrow neoliberal path he was the only man for the job.
Dr Brash, you’ll recall, had been commissioned by the Prime Minister to lead a taskforce dedicated to closing the wages-gap with Australia. The good doctor’s hard-line neoliberal prescription for lifting New Zealand’s productivity did not, however, impress the Prime Minister, who more-or-less dismissed Dr Brash’s recommendations out-of-hand. Not surprisingly, Dr Brash felt slighted.
His mood was not improved when Rodney Hide’s perk buster reputation was forced to die for love, and David Garrett’s youthful enthusiasm for Frederick-Forsyth-inspired cloak-and-daggering transformed Act from what Dr Brash had fondly hoped would be an invaluable ideological thorn in the Government’s side, to an embarrassing whoopee-cushion under the Neoliberal Establishment’s bottom.
“Hell, I could do better than that!”, mused the Good Doctor, and then proceeded to prove himself wrong.
Dr Brash’s fatal error was to invite Auckland’s former Mayor and National’s former Police Minister, John Banks, to step into the soon-to-be-deposed Rodney Hide’s shoes as Act’s Epsom candidate. Now, the hapless Dr Brash claims to have known Mr Banks for years and years and years, yet in all that time he’s somehow missed the rather important fact that his bosom friend and business partner is an outrageous right-wing populist in the mould of Sir Robert Muldoon. Just how outrageous Dr Brash would soon discover when he mused in public about decriminalising marijuana.
Only then, I suspect, did Dr Brash become vaguely aware of the trap into which his eagerness to rehabilitate Act had led him. Far from becoming a rallying beacon for the neoliberal cognoscenti of the libertarian Right, Act was just an election-day away from reverting to what it had been under the unsentimental leadership of Richard Prebble: a repository for every red-necked, right-wing crackpot who ever ran a small business or operated a dairy farm on what had once been Maori land.
The meeting in the Café Urban: that much bally-hooed “cup of tea” featuring the Prime Minister and John Banks; it would, of course, send a message to “the good people of Epsom” about the desirability of giving “that nice Mr Key’s” government a reliable coalition partner; but that wouldn’t be the only message it sent. To those who knew how to read the tea-leaves in the bottom of the two Johns’ teacups, it also signalled that the electoral alliance being forged was not between conservatives and neoliberals, it was between the centre-right and the far-right. Between the genial and urbane Mr Key and the aggressive and provincial Mr Banks.
Why wasn’t Dr Brash invited to that much-hyped photo-op? Because as soon as the votes of “the good people of Epsom” have been counted, the members of Act’s Board will be holding an election of their own. And when those votes have been counted, Dr Brash will almost certainly find himself joining Mr Hide and Mr Prebble in the Ex-Leaders of Act Club.
Yep, the two Johns have played Dr Brash – and the country – like a guitar.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 November 2011.