Ubermensch: In a bravura display of what can only be described as a Nietzschean will to power, Don Brash has seized control of a political party to which he did not belong, from outside Parliament - and all in plain sight.
EXTRAORDINARY! That’s the only word that properly fits the events of the past few days. Don Brash’s almost effortless takeover of Act, a party he had yet to join, must rank as one New Zealand politics’ bravura moments.
Though I’m shaking my head as I write this – so preposterous does it seem – the 70-year-old Brash achieved this unlikely victory through a display of political ruthlessness that would have done Nietzsche’s ubermensch proud.
And we helped him. Oh yes, even those of us on the Left, who abhor everything Act and Dr Brash stand for. We wanted him to succeed and so, secretly, we willed him to win. Partly this was because he was offering to take out Rodney Hide, but mostly because Dr Brash, unlike those timorous little beasties in the Labour caucus, actually had the balls to do what all the “experts” said could not be done: he organised and executed a leadership coup in plain sight.
We should not, however, be too surprised. Dr Brash’s takeover of the National Party had been accomplished in a very similar fashion. He told Bill English that he wanted his job. He told the country why he should have Bill’s job. He asked his caucus colleagues to give him Bill’s job. He let the full force of the resulting media storm lash their faces for a day or two. And then, in contravention of every known rule of contemporary politics, he took Bill’s job.
I can’t identify the nerve that Don Brash touches in conservative New Zealanders, but it isn’t at all difficult to identify its effects. The most startling of these was the way he took a National Party languishing in the low-20s in the opinion polls and hauled it up into the high 30s.
What is his secret?
Perhaps it’s the unaffected Presbyterian rectitude he’s inherited from his clergyman father. Perhaps it’s the reputation he forged in his former calling as High Economic Warlock of the Reserve Bank where, as the master of arcane monetary forces beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, he taught the economic indicators how to dance.
Or, maybe, his appeal comes from the same curious transparency that made him Leader of the National Party – and now of Act. Don Brash comes across as a politician almost entirely lacking in guile. Which is to say – he does not come across as a politician at all.
Consider his infamous “Nationhood” speech to the Orewa Rotary Club. Most politicians would have sent such a speech back to its author/s with a sharp note to “Get real!”. But not Brash; not the “anti-politician”. He is driven by what I’m sure his advisers regard as an alarming and unpredictable honesty. Orewa was what he thought – so why shouldn’t he say it? If he was wrong, the electorate would punish him. If he was right, they would reward him.
He was rewarded.
Will he do it again? Can he rescue Act from the doldrums and direct a fresh new breeze into its tattered sails?
I believe he can.
The Anglo-Saxon states are in a fey mood these days, and I believe New Zealand's conservatives are more than ready to embrace the reckless policy options Dr Brash will offer them.
The United States is already lost to this fey recklessness. Reaching back to the puritan rigidity of the men and women of the Mayflower, Americans seem hell-bent on mortifying the nation’s economic flesh until it bleeds.
In vain do Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich assail the Obama Administration with dire Keynesian warnings. Because, lately, even the community organiser from Chicago has contracted the austerity virus. “Yes we can!” has become “No we can’t!”. It’s as though the Great Depression, and the grim lessons it taught the world, never happened. As if Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was just a dream.
The very word “economics”, derived from the Greek word for “household”, works against the Left and in the neoliberal economists’ favour. When Dr Brash tells us that the Government is borrowing $300 million every week and that “you wouldn’t run your household like that” it resonates in the conservative citizen’s mind in ways the counter-intuitive prescriptions of Keynesian economics do not.
Dr Brash will hand conservative New Zealanders the whip of austerity and they will flog themselves raw.
But that’s not all he will hand them.
A rage has been building in the conservative New Zealander's breast for the best part of two years. It's the same rage that saw thousands of Imperial troops pour into the Waikato in 1863; the same rage that razed Parihaka in 1881 and Bastion Point in 1978. It's the rage of the settler nation against New Zealand's first inhabitants. Te Riri Pakeha – the White Man’s Anger – unleashed whenever Maori have the temerity to assert their rights.
And it is upon the heads of these, the tangata whenua, that Dr Brash – like some latter-day Moses – will unleash the wrath of his jealous colonial god.
Tariana Turia and Chris Finlayson have kicked the sleeping dogs of Pakeha racism into a low and growling wakefulness. Don Brash will cry “Havoc!” and let their leashes slip.
John Key now casts a dark shadow.
This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.