A tactical conundrum for a very promising Don Brash

John Tamihere had promise — bucketloads of it. Don Brash has loads of promise, too. Tamihere trashed his promise. Will Brash live up to his?

A year ago Tamihere had the political world at his feet, with his macho patter, charisma and ambition. A fortnight ago he was certain to return to the cabinet post-election. But it takes a big boy to live up to his sort of self-image.

It now appears he will, as the euphemistic phrase puts it, get some “help”. He needs it. Even before last week’s bombshell he had begun to get offside with his rightwing Labour mates. His interview and his behaviour were not those of a rational man.

And as for his denigration of those indulging in a victim mentality? Tamihere’s diatribe was a fine example of victim mentality. As the fallen leader of another party learnt recently, if you must preach, you must also practise.

Now Tamihere is in the past, a curiosity, a sad lost opportunity for us all. This column focuses on the future.

Which brings me to Brash. What will he make of his high promise?

Brash is a man of high intelligence and intense determination, who at his best embodies authority and gravitas. He is decent and courteous and thereby likeable.

Brash is also a man with a mission — to catch New Zealanders’ living standards up with Australians’ — and a set of precepts which guide him in that mission: lower taxes, lighter regulation, more of the state’s work done through private organisations and companies, less special assistance to Maori, less welfare and more exams in education.

So far, so good. There is a firm constituency for this “real” Don Brash and a truly Brash National party would imprint a clear image in voters’ minds.

But tactics have fuzzed the image.

Tactic No 1: the “third rail”, named after the rail in the middle of some electric railways from which locomotives draw their power. Touch it and you are dead. The political parallel is: touch some policies and you are politically dead.

That was why last month John Key backed the party away from Brash’s strong asset sale inclination (though he kept an important commercialisation plank — flotation of 20 per cent shareholdings in state-owned enterprises, which would inject discipline into their governance, as is the case with Air New Zealand and which Ports of Auckland is about to lose).

Tactic No 2 is to abandon unwinnable positions. So Brash now endorses the Cullen fund and doesn’t oppose four weeks holiday (though with an opt-out clause most of his critics have overlooked).

Tactic No 3 is to shuffle towards the centre. So-called softy Bill English’s tax policy was miles more ambitious than tough-minded Brash’s. Likewise much of the workplace regulation that English’s National was going to repeal would now stay in place.

Tactic No 4 is the wedge. Slice out a bad-egg segment of a group — for example, solo mothers who have children while on the DPB, Maori on “race-based funding” or with “special advantage”, parents whose children break the law. Tie Labour to the bad egg by identifying Labour with the whole group.

Brash the decent man seems uncomfortable with this tactic because he qualifies his comments — the benefit would not “automatically” be paid to solo mothers with too many children, for example — and he doesn’t always stick with the line — his welfare-dominated speech at the Canterbury regional conference last month omitted the too-many-children item.

But such subtleties get lost in the media noise. He sounds tough and target audiences get the message.

The parallel is Robsmob, the “ordinary blokes” Sir Robert Muldoon idolised in National’s 1970s-80s populist phase and who idolised him in return — moving on to Winston Peters when Muldoon moved on (and more recently attracted to Tamihere).

Such people can’t stand political correctness, gay marriage, smoking bans, Maori stirrers and Treaty genuflections and stand for tougher policing and harsher penalties.

And here is an irony. Three anti-muldoonists of that earlier era, Brash, close political adviser Murray McCully and chief of staff Richard Long, onetime Dominion political editor, are essentially running a muldoonist tactic.

In each of Brash’s otherwise mostly thoughtful speeches is a hook for Robsmob. The hook gets TV time and the thoughtfulness lies veiled.

The question for Auckland National party delegates at this weekend’s regional conference is whether the election will be fought only on such tactics or on longsighted strategy. A tactical win would be pleasing but would not set up a strategic, that is, long-term, government.

Well, I am assured policy is well advanced and the strategic dimension will come through nearer the election. Put that alongside the Brash-inspired strong morale and membership and focused one-tick marketing strategy and, I am assured, National’s campaign will be both strong and deep.

Maybe. But with at most five months to election day, time is running out to lift the veil and realise the promise in Brash.