Been There, Very Nearly Did That: Imagining how different this country would be if Don Brash had won the 2005 General Election makes the task of understanding how disruptive Trump’s presidency is likely to be for the United States a lot easier.
AS NEW ZEALAND RETURNS to work and the tempo of the year quickens; so too does the pace of politics. The inauguration of President Donald Trump has certainly given the domestic politics of the United States a mighty shove between the shoulders. And because the USA still dominates the world, the knock-on effects of Trumpism unbound will reverberate around the globe.
Even here, in far-flung New Zealand, policies and attitudes which have for long been considered beyond the pale of civilised discourse will coming rushing back at us out of the darkness. Old arguments, from both sides of the Left/Right divide, will be dusted off and thrust back into the political arena.
Rather than a sedate walk to the ballot-box in November, we may find ourselves shoving our way into the polling booth through surging crowds and angry cat-calls.
Too much? We must hope so. But it behoves us to remember the historical transformations made possible by those in authority suddenly signalling a relaxation of taboos and/or a reconsideration of what is and isn’t politically acceptable.
When the former Reserve Bank Governor, and Leader of the National Party-led Opposition, Dr Don Brash, delivered his in/famous “Orewa Speech” on 27 January 2004, for example, ideas and expressions which had hitherto been condemned as “racist” were instantly rendered acceptable to a very large number of New Zealanders.
The political impact of Brash’s speech was registered with dramatic emphasis in the next Colmar Brunton opinion poll. National had improved its position by a staggering 17 percentage points. Overnight, the National Party which had been humiliated in the 2002 general election had got its electoral mojo back.
Brash led National to the brink of electoral victory in 2005 on a radically right-wing political programme. This included, inter alia, downgrading the Treaty of Waitangi and abolishing the Maori seats, along with significant tax cuts funded by a dramatic reduction in public spending. Had the Helen Clark-led Labour Party not edged past National in the final hours of the 2005 campaign, New Zealand would now be a very different country.
Imagining how different this country would be if Brash had won should make the task of understanding how disruptive Trump’s presidency is likely to be for the United States a lot easier. (Allowing, of course, for the fact that Don Brash is a judicious, well-educated, and highly-experienced public servant, and, at the personal level, a generous and tolerant human-being – and Donald Trump is not.)
Cast your mind back to the venomous quality of public debate in the run-up to the 2005 election. Recall the scandalous rumours that circulated about the Prime Minister’s marriage and private life. The level of misogyny in New Zealand society was astonishing. And there was nothing “casual” about the racism on display in the National Party’s “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards.
National’s narrow loss did nothing to still these voices. If anything, they grew in intensity. Those Kiwis who recoiled in horror at the viciousness of Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton, have clearly forgotten the appalling acidity of the vitriol hurled at Helen Clark.
The person who put an end to this Trumpism-before-Trump was, of course, John Key. Though National’s dirty politics continued under the radar of mainstream political scrutiny, Key’s overthrow of Brash in November 2006 signalled a major strategic shift. The most dramatic demonstration of Key’s “pivot” towards the “moderate centre” came in 2008 when he very publicly joined forces with Helen Clark to ensure the passage of Sue Bradford’s controversial anti-smacking legislation.
This was like Trump announcing that he was cutting all ties with Steve Bannon, Breitbart News and the Alt-Right, in order to lead the international fight against climate change!
Key’s deliberate policy of ideological decompression allowed New Zealand to pass through the potentially highly-divisive aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis without serious political disorder. Indeed, Key’s embrace of the policy package dubbed “Labour-lite”, coupled with his relaxed style of governance, allowed him to extend National’s political honeymoon indefinitely.
No such decompression is about to occur in the United States. On the contrary, the needle on the political pressure-gauge is already entering the red zone. Trump’s inaugural address signalled his intention to double-down on the populist manifesto that carried him to the White House. His Cabinet, and the triumphalist Republican congress, cannot wait to give it regulatory and legislative effect.
With America’s leader urging them on, the global disciples of the Far-Right will spring from the political shadows in vast numbers. The demoralised opponents of abortion will be re-energised by the imminent reversal of Roe vs Wade. Cyberspace will be littered with the virtual corpses of out-numbered and out-gunned “social justice warriors”. Accusations of racism will no longer make racists feel ashamed – they will be worn as badges of honour.
Can’t happen here? Oh yes, it can. It very nearly did.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 January 2017.