Who, Hu and Dr Who: a tale of two political weekends

Don Brash could do with a short course in politics — national politics.

Who was first item on TV1 news on Saturday evening and on yesterday’s front pages? Not Hu, who should have been. Instead, Dr Who.

Whether Brash or Bill English is National party leader today is trivial in the grand scheme. Getting on well with an immense and fast-enriching country is vital to the nation.

If China can manage the strains of its express-train economic growth — and so far it has — it is on track to be the world’s pre-eminent trading nation by mid-century. Free trade with China holds more promise for this distant archipelago than free trade with the United States.

Hence the huge importance of the first steps announced by President Hu Jintao and Helen Clark on Sunday towards a “framework” trade agreement.

This is a long way short of free trade but it is more significant than the detailed trade- and tourism-related agreements signed at the weekend, which any of the surprising number of high-powered Chinese who come by from time to time could have handled.

The visit, by far the most important by a foreign leader so far this decade, was more about atmospherics than detail. And the atmospherics are good: accidents of history and 30 years of a friendly foreign policy stance have given this tiny speck some sort of inner running in Beijing. It would be in the national interest to leverage that goodwill.

Most thinking people understand that.

Instead, the National party spent the weekend gazing at its ingrown navel. Brash chose the moment of Hu’s arrival to launch his own second coming: to be National’s leader. Exquisite judgment for a man who would be Prime Minister.

Why the navel gazing? In part because English hasn’t cut the mustard. But that in turn has partly been because too many National MPs have not grasped that they are in opposition. They still think they are a government in exile and voters will come to their senses.

That has greatly complicated English’s difficulties. While he has been trying to develop a mildly reforming right-of-centre new conservatism to counter Clark’s mildly reforming left-of-centre new conservatism, his troops have been machine-gunning everything that moves and much that doesn’t. Others have been extolling 1990s radicalism. Hence many voters still say: “I don’t know what National stands for.”

An English win today does not settle matters. He still must convince National’s doubting core vote, crucial to get the polls to 30 per cent. For that he must be more decisive, manage his public relations 200 per cent better and develop real personal authority (which Clark had even in her darkest days).

Only then can English play to his strength as a middling New Zealander, a new conservative.

So he needs a decisive win over Brash. Expect him then to act with authority: a portfolio reshuffle (fast-learning new boy John Key somewhere high in finance?); completion by Christmas of the foundation policy work he started last year; then hard work on himself.

Brash has oodles of personal authority. He has standing with critical parts of National’s core vote. A Brash win today might readily lift National to 30 per cent.

But middling voters see Brash as a standard-bearer of the radicalism they rejected in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2002. Can he get to 35 per cent, let alone the 40 per cent needed for stable government? Can he develop into a mildly reforming new conservative?

Perhaps, just. Deep inside Brash is a liberal Presbyterian who bothers about social justice and cohesion.

But learning is best done before taking office. The risk for Brash in becoming leader as a political novice carrying the 1990s flag is a short leadership ended by a loss in 2005 — all the more so if he is leader on a modest margin won by putting a gun at undecideds’ heads.

Brash jells with ACT. Having an Asian wife, he has problems with Winston Peters and his and Peters’ economics (such as they are) are mutual anathema.

But what about United Future? One of English’s worst tactical mistakes — though it is perhaps more deputy Roger Sowry’s — has been to villify the moral conservatives who make up most of United Future’s contingent.

This old politics of whacking has helped keep United Future with Labour, despite the fact that its moral conservatives’ instincts (and the party’s economics) are nearer National’s. The whacking has strengthened Peter Dunne’s hand with his conservatives as he tries to build a centrist party that above all stands for stability.

Dunne’s problem is that he has yet to demonstrate to voters that he is influencing Labour, restraining it from its leftward and PC leanings which the Greens are all too willing to help along.

So United Future’s rush of votes in 2002 has ebbed. That is unremarkable for a new political force yet to impress on the public what it can do.

But that very predicament will cause the same word to hang over United Future’s conference this weekend as over this Labour weekend just past: Who.