The power in Brash's politics: his assertion of values

ACT’s campaign slogan in 1996 was: “Values. Not politics.” It could have been made for Don Brash. Which spells trouble for ACT.

Had ACT loyally implemented its slogan, it might be going into its conference this weekend in Christchurch upbeat. Instead, having succumbed too often to populism, it comes off a month of plummeting polls, a write-in poll asking members if it should throw in the towel and merge with National and Rodney Hide coy about not challenging for leader.

ACT’s predicament is not just because Brash’s values are close to those ACT professes in its many better moments. It is also because Brash’s values are his politics. That is a sizeable ingredient of his successful appeal on race.

Normal politics is number-crunching, poll-watching, leaks, rhetoric and other tawdrinesses. That politics has brought politicians into disrepute. A values-based politician makes broad, high-level statements with which people can identify.

When Brash states that everyone must be equal before the law, he states a value most would agree with. When he puts it in the context of race and says there should be no “race-based funding”, that resonates with large numbers.

Of course, this wouldn’t jell if said by a standard-issue politician who is up to all the tricks. But Brash is a newcomer. Moreover, his personal values are in tune: a decent politeness, a strong work ethic attuned to making the best of oneself, a duty towards others less fortunate, a spiritually-based belief that all human beings have equal value, which makes him a liberal on such matters as the Civil Union Bill.

That all comes from his Presbyterian childhood, though he is no longer god-fearing. From Milton Friedman, the neoclassical economist, comes his valuing of individual freedom, which meshes with his “equal value” belief.

Behind Brash there are standard-issue politicians, notably the machiavellian Murray McCully. They are into wedge-politics, described thus by British journalist Andrew Sullivan in the case of President Bush: “You use a disliked minority — black criminals, gay couples; you get your opponent to defend them; then you get to win over all those offended by the association.”

Marry values and wedge-politics but keep them distinct in the public mind (as Brash, not being a wedge-politician, can) and you have a powerful weapon. Hence last month’s polling earthquake.

This can be countered in three ways:

* by me-too-ing the attractive values or otherwise trying to neutralise them and the wedge — hence Clark’s review of Treaty policies to ensure they are needs-based and rewrite of the foreshore policy; or

* by counterposing competing values — Labour hopes its more mainstream economic and social services values will score over Brash’s 1990s free-market values; or

* by undermining the detailed policies that at some point must flow from the values — already Brash has softened his stance on Maoris’ degrees and has retreated from urging the abolition of the Maori parliamentary seats to the party’s policy of a referendum.

The first course risks leaving the high ground to Brash, since Clark has so far been less confident and clear on values than he is. Her mnemonic is not “let’s ride into the sunset” but “don’t frighten the horses”, which is not strong on vision. Moreover, Brash has myriad anecdotes, true and false, which voters widely share, to give credence to his value-statements.

The second course risks falling flat if Brash softens his economic stance and becomes less of a 1990s bogey. On cue the National caucus has been discussing much milder tax cuts than in its 2002 policy and than Brash’s own preferences.

The third course is Labour’s most promising. There is a year and a-half till the next election (unless Clark bolts early, which cannot be ruled out in these suddenly uncertain times). That is ample time to entice Brash off the high ground of general value-statements into the bogs of policy detail.

So the challenge for Brash is to keep clear of the bogs and keep people plugged into his high-level values-statements.

That has been Peters’ trick. Peters is notoriously slippery on detail and so manages often to ski on both sides of the trail.

Brash has three advantages over Peters: he skis one side of the trail only, so his values can be attractively unambiguous; he leads a major, not a minor, party; and, being new, he can for a time yet float statesmanlike above his machiavellians’ wedge-politics.

It is far too early to tell if he will succeed. But for the moment he is a reminder to ACT of the ground it might have occupied.

ACT delegates might this weekend wistfully eye the Greens at the other end of the spectrum. The Greens held their support in the wild winds of February.

The Greens have values. They parade them ad nauseam and, to a fair extent, practise them in their daily lives and their politics. For those who share the Greens’ values, that is a potent attraction, especially while Labour scrabbles about for an answer to Brash.