Conviction politics: the power and risk of Brash's strategy

The ghost of Michelle Boag, the ill-fated former National party president, will stalk the party’s regional conferences which begin this weekend. Boag asked Don Brash to stand in 2002. And Brash has resuscitated the party.

Sure, polls are now showing National off its peak and logic suggests it will come off more over the next few months. But there has been a step-shift upwards of 10 per cent or more. Boag, who left under a cloud shortly after the 2002 election disaster, has been thereby in part vindicated.

National is now back as a true major party. Save some extraordinary occurrence, the next election will be fought between two potential alternative leaders of the government — the German model. There is even the possibility — hard heads in the National party do not yet allow “probability” — that Brash could be the next Prime Minister.

Strategically, he can be criticised for playing the joker first, the Treaty card. Nothing will have quite the impact of the Orewa speech and its effect has already begun to diminish. But National needed credibility: playing the Treaty card close to the election when the government would have had little time to recover would have come on top of continued weakness and maybe internal instability.

Instead, money and members have flowed in. Morale is high. Brash broke the 1990s spell. The Orewa play was tactically correct.

But since then, critics within the party suggest, there has been much fudging. The tax policy is a shadow of the 2002 election promise. A decision on such a mild move as repealing the part of the anti-nuclear legislation banning ships with nuclear engines is still unmade. Maori Television has not been condemned, though it is a clear example of race-based funding. (It gets off — for now — because it is “language”, not race).

Fudging policy is not unusual, especially for National which, when it is not diverted by radicals of the Ruth Richardson ilk, hugs the centre.

And, having won an advantage on so sensitive a matter as the Treaty of Waitangi, there is tactical logic in National making itself as small a target as practicable on other matters, especially if marginal voters might take fright or umbrage at a strong position on, say, tax or privatisation.

The objective is power. Brash wants power. Without it, there is no point to his being in politics.

So, logic dictates, detoxify Brash the hardline economist, the tax-cutter and spending-cutter, heir to Richardson, reminder of the 1990s. Hence the logic of presenting the much-softened tax policy as for low- and middle-income people — when what Brash wants to do is cut taxes for the better-off and well-off.

But there is a serious risk in a small-target tactic: the target may get too small to command voters’ attention. Something like that happened to the Australian Labour party in 2001. It squandered a substantial lead over John Howard even before the Tampa refugee and September 11 episodes.

There is another risk: that Brash loses his personal trump card on which National depends: his consistency, natural authority, gravitas and believability — his “conviction”.

It was “conviction” that got him attention for his Orewa speech: people believe he stands against something rotten in Maori policy and will fix it (though exactly what and how, most would be hard pressed to specify). For now and for many months ahead his firmness as a “conviction politician” (akin to Howard in Australia) will likely make him and National impervious to detailed criticism.

But if policy is fudged to the point where he is doubted as a conviction politician, that risks losing the whole gamble.

Brash’s defenders insist this will not happen. He has successfully insisted, for example, the party commit to repealing the fourth week’s annual holiday on the ground that, while politically dangerous, it is economically correct. On advice, he rejected “culture” as an argument to keep Maori Television (“culture” includes taniwha and much else). He refused to back off saying the qualifying age for superannuation will have to rise. Kiwibank will be sold.

So, Brash’s defenders argue, despite the compromises with the caucus centrists, there should be enough of the conviction politician to lock in voters — and then in office, be the reforming Prime Minister he came into politics to be.

We shall see. Brash is still a novice at politics. His mentor is Murray McCully, a schemer who got offside with four previous leaders. McCully pores over the party’s polling for pointers. If any party is poll-driven right now, it is National.

Brash’s next focus is the regional conferences — specifically the lower North Island one at Napier on 8-9 May. He plans to deliver there the next big speech, to drive a second wedge into Labour’s support — and reinforce him as a conviction politician.

Will it work? Probably not enough, on present evidence, to evict Labour from government. But almost certainly enough to lay a sound platform for a win in 2008.