Friday 29 April 2011

Hostile Takeover

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.


Allan said...

I agree -we (along with the other Anglo-Saxon countries) are clearly heading for dark times. It certainly seems like there's some kind of underlying agenda here, given the similarities in ideology in these countries, and the media's inability (I was tempted to write about 'complicity') to dig into this.

As you've written, the reluctance/refusal of these governments to take note of Krugman et al, is significant, and that raises the question 'Why?' Surely when an economist of Krugman's stature is ringing alarm bells, as he does with every column he writes, people should take notice.

The inescapable conclusion is that the hidden agenda is tracking very nicely, thank you. From my admittedly limited grasp of history, it seems we are heading for the two outcomes of the 20th century - a move towards fascism on the right (and I note that John Pilger has already written about this) and the countervailing move towards a communistic type state on the left.

The media don't seem to be able, or want to, play a role in truly informing us, either because of their need for 'infotainment' (ratings driven) or because of darker hegemonic reasons. Our hope is that the internet based media and commentators, such as this blog, can help to turn the searchlight on the forces of darkness.

Barry said...

What amazes me about this episode is that not one of the various political commentators (who should know better either via past history or by having their ear to the political scandal line) either thought this was probable or even possible. Everyone wrote him off as a silly old duffa.

However If one was to make a movie about it, it would be western.
On the outskirts of town would be the horse thief Don, who sends a message into the town thug – Rodney, that hes ‘comin to git him’. While Rodney explains to the town people assembled in the saloon bar that the horse thief has a lot to do yet before he faces Rodney, Don rides straight into town- right up the middle of the main street, gets off his horse, walks into the saloon bar and shots Rodney right between the eyes.
Game over – The Don is the new town thug!!

Anonymous said...

Excuse my French, Chris, but we're fucked.

See you at the tent city.


Victor said...

An excellent article, Chris

I particularly agree with your point about the counter-intuitiveness of Keynesianism.

Perhaps it's become even more counter-intuitive given the "no free lunch" accountancy ethic that has been allowed to permeate virtually every aspect of our lives.

All the more need, then, for the centre-left to clearly articulate an economic narrative based on something other than cost accountancy.

Meanwhile, Brash's public persona is interesting and unusual for New Zealand.

He's a kind of 1950s English movie "Nutty Professor", ostensibly genial, ideas-fixated and seemingly untouched by fashionable fads. His height (unusual for a man of his age) gives him an added air of de Gaulle-like Olympian detachment.

On the other hand, the way he's taken over ACT from the outside, reminds me of the kinds of coups that take place regularly in small fascistoid groups in Europe.

You will recall the guy with the moustache who jumped himself into the leadership of the then German Workers' Party.

Anonymous said...

Ironically Scotland is investing heavily in clean energy, becoming a world leader in tidal energy, while New Zealand is trying to sell low grade coal to China, sell its assets there as well, and sell low grade products, and low wages... to foreign investors.

People will not stand for Brash. He will be the undoing of Key. Privatisation, pollution and prejudice will not going gain deep roots in our fair land.

Anonymous said...

I wish everyone would stop witch-hunting Don. At least he is not all about celebrity and status.

While Key enjoys the Royal Wedding, more babies die needlessly, more jobs are lost, the country is well-deep in debt, people eat catfood etc, to survive.

Good luck to Don. The witch-hunting has been down-right wicked.

Anonymous said...

So Dr Brash's valedictory speech was premature. Of course in that speech, I seem to recall, he referred to having a tete-a-tete with a certain Chris Trotter. So the author should admit he has a soft spot for Brash, the "master of arcance monetary forces". What nonsense, Brash has been at the centre of all the financial issues of the day since the early 1970s, and has somehow come through unscathed, probably because of the almost complete lack of scrutiny which financiers get, until they have to be bailed out. In particular, as the master of the central bank he presided over the lack of prudential supervision in the 1980s, but came through the DFC collapse without any accountability for him or the central bank. His policy of permanent monetary deflation was also the cause of mass unemployment especially in the 1990s. Now he says he wants economic growth and more jobs: yeah, Right!

Anonymous said...

The silly old fuck is ALL ABOUT celebrity and status. To demand and expect party leadership and cabinet posts the way he does takes an ego like an elephant. Don't worry about the cat food either, if Brash manages his goal of raising the retirement age in a land of diminishing jobs we'll all be chowing down.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you are almost 100% correct, the question of race to one side.

Don Brash, does appeal to what is left of the conservative, economically sensible, prudent, fiscally responsible, common sense electorate.

Those who work, run households, run businesses, generate wealth and employment, understand the benefits of deferred gratification, in short, those upon whom the future of this nation depends.

Ok, so there may be only 10% of us. Is it enough to rescue New Zealand from the lunacy of National party policies based upon borrow, spend and hope?

Or if you are a labour supporter borrow spend and hope x 2.

Or if you are a green supporter, well what do the greens believe?

New Zealand, like many western nations faces some important existential questions. If the unproductive, State dependent, irresponsible, 'victim groups' make up (say) 10% of the population, can we still survive as a nation? What if they make up 20%?

Somewhere there is a tipping point beyond which there is no return.

Don understands this civilizational question, and I hope that other readers of this column do also.


Anonymous said...

Brash just needs to pick up his media image. He's nervy, but intelligent. Key used to be nervy too, now he's just cocky.

Brash, has he made the election into a whole new ball-game?

Sanctuary said...

Unlike (or so it seems to me) the entire political commentariat, I have an extensive network of under thirty year old friends who are largely non political. Regarding Brash, a few things stand out in what they say. First, he is regarded as an irrelevant old man in 21st century NZ. That so many of our over fifty political journalists still rate him as a force is an indication of the lack of competition and stifling mediocrity in our small media talent pool, where far to many journalists are well past their use by date. Secondly, he is universally disliked by almost all left and right wingers alike under forty, let alone thirty.

Brash is yesterday's politician who simply irritates a lot of younger people. I suspect his electoral appeal is being wildly over-rated by journalists who are themselves as old and out of touch as Brash.

Anonymous said...

John Key has always cast a dark shadow. The smiling assin, remember. Don't be fooled by that smile. It's all teeth, no eyes.

Doom for NZ?

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to underestimate the effect of a bit of Maori bashing these days. Not that it was any different years ago, but they knew their place. It seems to me to be New Zealand's own birther controversy, where "one law for all" or "we are all New Zealanders" essentially means "why doesn't he show us his birth certificate" – dog whistle for - black.

Loz said...

The appearance of Don Brash at the head of ACT won’t increase any general appeal of the organisation. He wasn't a popular politician nor is he particularly charismatic as a leader. Still, his job is only to bring the party over the 5% threshold and he may well have enough of a following for that. The highest percentage of the vote ever received by ACT at the polls was only 7% at a time when National's support had completely collapsed. This is an indication that the maximum support base for the party isn’t very high.

John Key personally played a monumental role in the first-term electability of National. His personal power within National has (temporarily) restrained the more extreme, Friedmanite elements which Don Brash represents. For ACT to be reignited as a focus for market fundamentalists the only foreseeable area that can provide that support is the alienated right-wing from within National. If Brash supporters are successfully rallied out of National and into ACT it must strengthen John Key within his own party.

I can't help but wonder how much John Key is really the big winner out of all of this.

Anonymous said...

"In vain do Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich assail the Obama Administration with dire Keynesian warnings."

This is true, but it seems to me that those on the left are resorting to conspiracy theories in order to explain why this is. Sure, money means political power, but it has ever been so. What we have witnessed in the last ten years is something different. It isn't anywhere near as bad in NZ as it is in the US, but it appears to be coming here at pace.

In short, it's that facts no longer matter. Progressives cling to the belief that if only they could demonstrate that the facts are on their side, they would win the debate. This no longer wins. Political debate is not about true, but about sincerity. In postmodern politics there is no reality, only pandering to the various, incompatible desires of the electorate. The left can repeat endlessly that the Emperor has no clothes, and they would be right. But everyone is right these days and truth is just a form of kitsch to be consumed along with everything else. Look at our societies (particularly the US) and tell me that isn't what it is like. Hell, this is academic orthodoxy in the less intellectual areas of the humanities and social sciences and has been for a long time.

This is just what democracy looks like when it is perfected. I'm talking about the reality of democracy, not the idealised form that the left loves to rhapsodise about. Democracy has nothing more to offer us. Let's at least give it a decent burial. As someone upthread said, we're either going to be ruled by fascists or communists. The way the western left is going will make sure it's fascists. Lucky us.

WAKE UP said...

Most of New Zealand AGREED with Brash's Orewa speech.

Anonymous said...

No they didn't, WAKE UP: nor did most of the Jews agree with Pilate, most Germans agree with Adolf, nor most yanks agree with the mad hatters of the Tea Party.

Sadly, WAKE UP, there's a raw, neolithic streak of suceptibility to evil in the chemistry of our complex human cocktail that's easily masturbated to frenzied insanity by any tin-pot, mild-mannered cretin with a heart sufficiently ice-cold and vicious to ignore the bloodshed and misery that inevitably results from his or her own ruthless pursuit of self-aggrandisement.

But Brash and his Hollow Puppeteers have left this scungy run far too late. National needed Maori as insurance against ACT, so has spent two years at their bosom: and Jo Public has developed a taste for that salubrious milk.

Wake up, WAKE UP: your raw neanderthal meat is now toast. Milk toast.


Victor said...


I'm interested in your comment about young people being irritated by Brash.

Another group he tends to irk consists of most of the baby boomer women I've come across.

And it's not just Brash's condescending, patriarchal manner that seems to annoy them.

They also, in my experience, focus on his being a known double adulterer and not, therefore, to be trusted with the family silver.

As my wife's old school friend (the unreflectingly Tory daughter of a Waikato farmer) put it this very morning:

"Yuck, one totally unspeakable man replacing another! Yuck, Yuck!"

So I think I agree with you that the commentariat may be a bit out of touch with public sentiment on this issue and it might not be a game changer at all.

However, if you prophesy an unlikely outcome firmly enough and often enough, you can sometimes end up making it inevitable.

WAKE UP said...

Anonymous 10.16: I repeat, most of New Zealand agred with Brash -- which sent people like you into a tailspin, and gave rise to the nefarious activities of Nicky Hager and co. We could have had a very different and better New Zealand had that bit of chicanery not happened.

Well, some things may take a while, but the wheel doesn't stop spinning, NZ is in a mess, and here we are, eight years later - and, as the ad hominem abuse level rises, instead of proper debate (your response to my simple statement being a classic example) you're all running scared again.

Because MOST of New Zealand STILL agrees with what Brash said at Orewa.

Anonymous said...

The problem in part is neither Brash or Goff is a political leader, neither has any real high level public political skill or leadership abilites, they are basically high level bureacratic or corporate types. The assumption of Brash, Douglas, Prebble and Richardson was always that they could avoid politics, real debate or forming a real political consensus. Thatcher only succeded because of the military action in the Falklands inspired by the RN and the military and police actions against Scargill and the miners and the slightly more subtle neutralisation and redirection of militant tendency and Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council. Ultimately even the Argentinian juntas and generals were not prepared to proceed with the standard IMF approach and that of the Chicago boys when they realised the standard approach of hard right politics and the bankers involved pauperising half the Argnentinian population. They were tough enough to deal to the hard marxists at the naval engineering school and throw them off aeroplanes but they were not really prepared to deal to the ordinary people.
The problem with Act and Brash is they do not have a real political strategy or any conception of how a real austerity package can be implemented and the also lack a strategy to break the lefts hold on education and medicine in a far more intelligent and liberal way than Mary Agnes Brooke or Muriel Newman or Lindsay Perigo could concieve. It will actually be very difficult because it wont be like l988 he will not have the defaco support of H1, H2 and Margaret Wilson. Study the film of the protests in the UK and Greece. An absent minded professor in charge will be about as exciting as the blind and eccentric professors who were given leadership of Indonesia and decided it would be better to allow the Timorese to vote on their future. If Brash gets a chance it will be very turbulent and even Bismark and the National Socialists required politics and a political streategy, always. Only Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao Ze Dong dispensed with politics totally, even the SS were engaged in politics.

markus said...

"Another group (Brash) tends to irk consists of most of the baby boomer women I've come across."

Let's not forget here, Victor, that Brash was a teenage pop-sensation in the 1960s.

Originally billed as 'Little Donny Brash' (a somewhat crass attempt to cash-in on the 'Little Stevie Wonder' phenomenon of the time), he went on in the mid-60s (as just plain 'Donny Brash') to send teenage girls wild (and their parents mad) with his outrageously lewd hip gyrations and pelvic thrustings (particularly at gigs in his favoured haunts - smaller provincial centres like Dargaville, Huntly, Ohakune, Levin, Picton, Westport and Temuka).

Tragically, by the late 60s he was suffering from what has come to be known as "Prince William Disease" and his promoters reluctantly had to accept that Donny's teenage fan-base was becoming less and less fervent as huge clumps of hair started falling out on a daily basis. Premature Male Pattern Baldness thus forced Don into retirement and a future devoted to fiscal restraint.

Mind you, the love of music never really left him. He's been spotted on more than one occassion, for instance, walking down Lambton Quay and suddenly, spontaneously, breaking into a very passionate (almost erotic) rendition of the old 'Porgy and Bess' number "Bess, You Is My Woman".

I'd argue that by wearing a reasonably convincing toupee and the sort of sparkly costume that befits a showbiz-celeb, Don should have little trouble re-capturing his former fan-base: the 'Older-Boomer Female' demographic.

Incidently, I'm the proud owner of a very rare copy of one of Donny's earliest recordings - the hit single 'I Will Blow Your Mind' (released by DCD Records in 1966). The flip-side is, of course, 'Love Explosion', a song initially dismissed by critics in 66 but later reissued to critical acclaim, reaching number 3 on the NZ pop charts and number 5 in Aussie.

Victor said...


Every now and again my immigrant status (of a mere quarter century) betrays me.

I had no inkling of Don's earlier incarnation and will view him with more respect in future.

Perhaps Little Donny is on YouTube along with other icons of the past. I'll have to look!