Don Brash's way of thinking

Between his master’s economic thesis and his PhD Don Brash had a conversion from opposing foreign investment to extolling it. The “Christian socialist” turned believer in markets. He hasn’t looked back.

That sounds much like the born-again experience that took some Labour people to ACT. And, indeed, Brash comes from a religious family. His father was a Presbyterian minister of very high international status.

One can discern the Presbyterian in Brash still: a proper demeanour, a rectitude of belief that fits his public image as the flinty Reserve Bank governor who told people to rent when house prices soared in the mid-1990s.

Flinty Brash laid down a tough challenge to the National party conference in July: sign up to holding government spending per person to rising by no more inflation.

Sounds easy. But Brash spelt out the consequence: over 10 years that would reduce government spending as a proportion by 5 per cent — at the very time when an ageing population would add another 8 per cent to that proportion in super and health care. Even for a party which pays lipservice to tax and spending cuts, this is a hard ask.

To square the circle Brash dips into the classical liberal’s toolbox: lower taxes boost the economic growth rate and so make people wealthier faster, the better able to manage.

So he focuses on encouraging profits and investment. That entails repealing Labour’s re-regulation of the labour market, easier resource consent processes, selling non-monopolistic state enterprises and generally freeing business.

In any case, “people are generally in the best position to make decisions for themselves and their families. This argues for the maximum amount of freedom for the individual,” he said in his maiden parliamentary speech. Good classical liberal stuff.

Next item in the toolbox: education. Better education will enable more people to earn a living — and a better living. Labour agrees but not with his solution: more choice for parents in where and how their children are educated, encouragement of innovative schools and experimentation, “genuine diversity of provision”. “I don’t care who owns the schools,” he said in a speech on 8 May.

Then there are those who don’t or can’t get jobs. Brash says benefits are a dead end for those stuck on them and resented most not by toffs in Remuera but battlers on low wages.

For remedies he takes his cue from colleague Katherine Rich, who in turn looks to the United States, with its heavy focus on getting people into jobs — any jobs. This has yet to be tested in an economic downturn.

And super? He scorns the Cullen fund. He would raise the qualifying age.

So is this the Man of ACT his detractors see? That is how the government and the Greens will paint him.

Brash is not that simple.

He voted for the Prostitution Bill. He backed the Ellis petition. He is divorced and remarried. He is a liberal on those matters — a sharp contrast with Catholic family man Bill English’s moral conservatism. Brash’s residual Presbyterianism is of the liberal variety, not the stern Scottish brand.

And his “Christian socialism” lingers in a residual social conscience. A small government man he is — but that is “limited” government, not “no” or even “minimal” government, he told party delegates in July.

The government has a vital role, he declared, including funding education and providing a social safety net. A — perhaps the — defining element of his leadership will be whether he fleshes out that “vital role” to woo middle New Zealand.

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