Why 2004 was not Brash's year and what he could do for 2005

This could have been Don Brash’s year. Ten months ago the potential was there. But the real Don Brash took time out.

The Don Brash I knew for two decades exuded integrity and depth, principle and authority. He was a classical liberal — valuing personal liberty on moral and social matters (voting for prostitution reform and the Civil Union Bill’s first reading) and backing the free-market economy.

That Don Brash had high international standing as a central banker and could now be in a top job offshore.

That Don Brash was meticulous, honing the grammar and spelling of the Reserve Bank’s quarterly reports. Alan Bollard allows “anytime soon” (meaning “soon”). Brash was a stickler on commas.

That real Don Brash backed himself. He made decisions and took stands and stuck to them, even, as in a speech to the Knowledge Wave conference which amounted to a credo, when he angered politicians. He acted to put that credo into effect by going into politics.

As finance spokesman he set an exacting challenge to the National party’s conference in 2003: to hold government spending rises to no more than the rise in inflation and population — which, he said, meant cuts in superannuation and health because, if left unchanged, those two programmes alone would expand the core government sector by 8 per cent of GDP in 30 years.

Fast forward to November 30. “By mid-century we should be able to manage the rising cost of superannuation and health services — rising incomes solve many apparently insoluble problems.” He now backs the Cullen fund.

Fast forward to December 2: he turned against his principles and voted against the Civil Union Bill’s second reading, thereby voting to deny the option of an amendment in the subsequent committee stage to enable the referendum he gave as his backflip reason.

Fast forward to December 9: his principled opposition to four weeks holiday whiplashed into support.

Expediency rules.

This expedient Don Brash equated the Maori seats with apartheid. A moment’s study of apartheid would set him right. He condemned a government Treaty of Waitangi programme for saying past governments “deliberately undermined and destroyed Maori authority and social systems”. A quick read of Claudia Orange and the 1860s Native Land Acts would illuminate past governments’ aim to stamp out Maoris’ “communistic” habits.

Nifty slogans. Poor history. Not the thoughtful Don Brash I knew, the man of intellect and rigour.

What has been going on?

He has been doing his political novitiate, that’s what. Not yet having the requisite fingertips feel for politics, he has, rightly, taken advice.

Only a novice would have toyed with political pariah John Banks as candidate material or not turned up to lead the second reading debate on the Foreshore and Seabed Bill, which he had made into a cause celebre in January at Orewa.

And only a novice would have followed advice which has had him playing to his weaknesses instead of his strengths, chasing tactical quick fixes instead of pursuing long-term strategic positioning.

This has not been a pretty sight for those who, like me, held him in respect approaching awe in his time at the Reserve Bank.

Brash has been in the grip of two problems that beset National.

One is an urgency for power after five years out of it. That urgency has, from 1997 on, discarded three leaders and promoted new ones before their time.

The second problem is a combination of good times and a capable government. It is horridly difficult for an opposition to make headway against a government riding an economic boom. And (whatever one’s views on policy content) this government has doubled that difficulty by being — compared with any government since the 1960s — capable, united and well-managed.

It is therefore understandable that Brash has not added a fourth M — momentum — to the three Ms he gifted National in January: double the members (by reconnecting with the core vote), a flood of money from hopeful business and a leap in morale.

Those three Ms are reflected in National’s current average mid-30s poll rating. Yes, that is far down from the mid-40s in March (in the wake of what ACT’s Ken Shirley correctly called a polling “referendum” on Treaty issues). But it is a huge lift from the mid-20s Brash inherited.

The proper lesson to take from that is that it is a base from which the real Don Brash could yet build a creditable result for his party in next year’s election.

And maybe the lesson is being taken. The tax policy speech on Friday set out principles, not slogans — a flash of the real Don Brash. That Don Brash might have tempered the government’s advantages this year.

Fast forward to his second Orewa speech next month. If the real Don Brash backs himself, we will hear a far-seeing, intellectually sound address of the sort that made him leader material.

And then he might generate the elusive fourth M — momentum — for his party in 2005. Don’t write this ferociously hardworking fellow off.