How come the farm girl and the socialist's son swapped sides?

Fourth in a series A farm girl leads the left party. A socialist preacher’s son leads the right party. We are truly the Antipodes.

There was a rule: farmers vote National. Helen Clark’s parents were National, her father a minor office-holder.

Clark went off to boarding school in Auckland, as brainy rural offspring did, even girls, then to university, where she got social democracy — bad enough to join the Labour party, stand for Parliament on the home patch in 1975 and become an MP in 1981.

That didn’t make for honeyed conversations around the hearth.

Don Brash’s parents were Labour. Father Alan was a Presbyterian minister with strong fabian socialist opinions, who rose to deputy secretary-general of the social-liberal World Council of Churches in Geneva. Don emulated his father’s conscientious objection to war and became a pacifist — an act of principled courage at Christchurch Boys High School, which took seriously its boys’ militarisation.

Though brought up in leafy Cashmere, the family was not well off. Brash “grew up steeped in awareness of poverty and inequality and one’s duty to do something about it”, in his biographer Paul Goldsmith’s words. In his early 20s he described his “burning concerns” as “international peace and economic development” and he hankered to go into politics (Labour) in due course.

But his doctorate at the Australian National University confronted him with empirical evidence that the poor are better off under market disciplines. Judging by his letters home, it was an agonising switch of creeds.

That conversion, coupled with his youthful idealism, gives his politics an almost Jesuitical feel: a mission to save his country. That’s sometimes how it sounds on the stump as well. So of course he could give away international fame as a central banker in 2002 for the grubby game of politics: whatever the sins of politics, the high morality of his mission gives him absolution.

At least, that is one plausible explanation for this usually straight-up guy veering perilously close to a double standard: signing off starkly negative billboards and then complaining that Helen Clark attacks him. Or is that not dissonance but insouciance — the same other-worldliness that could cause him as a young man to be unaware of a young woman’s keenness on him?

And could that insouciance also help explain why, oddly for a modern leader, he has not mastered the detail of his party’s policy nor even the name of his Samoan candidate? Perhaps the mission is above such minutiae.

Contrast Helen Clark, mistress of mass-detail. Her university mentor, Professor Bob Chapman, said as a student she sorted large amounts of detail into “analytical order” and “proper argument”. She demonstrates that weekly at her press conferences and now in the election debates.

But wait a moment. Brash is no dreamer. As Reserve Bank governor he checked his staff’s grammar, spelling and commas in the Bank’s quarterly monetary policy statements before publication. Clark, by the way, is also a stickler on such matters.

And note that similarities are creeping in. Clark also started out a Presbyterian (and, like Brash, turned apostate): she, like him, lived in a frugal household. Clark’s father, George, demanded probity, once punishing Helen’s sister, Suzanne, for playing a card game called Cheat: “When they (the Clark sisters) were young,” he is quoted in Brian Edward’s sympathetic biography of his daughter, “if they’d sworn at me, it wouldn’t have worried me because I swore at the dogs. But if they’d ever cheated or lied, I’d have been down on them like a ton of hot bricks. So at least she’s 100 per cent honest.”

Well…Clark avoids untruth and has generally run a more open government and punished erring ministers. But she also habitually shies away from close-to-the-bone truth, as in the paintings episode last election and the motorcade this. The motorcade would have been a fraction of the bother it has become for her if she had said straight off: “I didn’t order it myself but my press secretary did and he speaks with my authority. I wasn’t aware quite how fast we were going but I knew it was fast. I take responsibility and I will do my best for the drivers.” One gets the impression she wouldn’t have been anywhere near George Washington’s felled cherry tree.

Contrast Brash’s version of oldstyle Presbyterian honesty. Taxed with the infamous “gone by lunchtime” quote on anti-nuclear legislation, he declared he couldn’t remember. A real politician would have denied it — plausibly in his case because that is not his habitual phrasing. His line on the cherry tree: “I cannot tell a lie. It might have been me.”

But is there another dimension? A puzzle of Brash’s leadership is the apparent ease with which he has moderated his economic policy compared with the Rogernomics-plus challenge he set out for National while still finance spokesman in 2003. How does that fit the mission?

More to the point, how does it fit Goldsmith’s description of a man who, having reached a conclusion, is certain he is right? “I was absolutely convinced that what I was doing was beneficial to New Zealanders,” Goldsmith quotes him saying of his Reserve Bank years. If Brash was right in his 2003 speech and in the many similar preceding speeches, the much toned-down economic policy he is pushing in this campaign cannot also be right — unless, as his opponents insist, it is a first instalment of a much more ambitious agenda.

Contrast Brash’s self-assurance with the “shy retiring unworldly girl with her head buried in books” in Edwards’ biography of Clark. As a first-year student she didn’t drink, smoke or go to parties and joined no clubs or organisations. Deputy leader Michael Cullen once remarked of her reluctance when newly leader to dress and make herself up for the marketing side of politics that she was happiest debating policy in back rooms.

But Clark was and is no shrinking Violet. Almost prophetically, she was cast as Elizabeth I in a primary school end-of-year concert. The Virgin Queen overcoming men’s scepticism, scorn and scathe is an apt simile. Hard old union men put Clark through the fire in her early days in the Labour party. That is the opponent whom Brash is facing.

Not that Brash has ever just coasted. Brash’s mother was a busy, organised woman who set and met demanding goal and a strict regime of study and tidiness that left him uninterested in later life in novels. Time in the Brash household had to be useful.

So Brash was unusually tidy as a child and drove himself punishingly hard at school, university and in his career, meeting ever more ambitious goals and always determined to finish every day’s tasks on the day (including answering all his emails until well into his leadership).

Goldsmith several times uses the word “obsessive”. Brash neglected his young wife and children for his work and didn’t take holidays.

This points strongly to an impressive and able Prime Minister in the making, though, not having had Clark’s long apprenticeship, he would have to learn on the job.

Clark’s mother was also a goal-setter and well organised and so is Clark. She exacts high standards and work rates from staff and colleagues. But the word “obsessive” fits neither mother nor daughter.

Clark insists on holidays and maintains close contact with her parents, sisters and their children. She makes little of this but her colleagues do: she is very “family”, they insist. She and husband Peter have a close bond, despite the denigrations centred on her childlessness (which some opponents seem to rate next to godlessness).

Colleagues also say she takes a warm interest in her ministers’ and MPs’ . “She looked after people and she looked after me,” sister Suzanne told Edwards.

So is it warm Clark versus cold Brash? Clark can indeed be funny and kind. But no one who has experienced one of her 20deg-below stares or a wounding putdown doubts the cold steel at the heart of her prime ministership. Conversely, for all his flinty reputation, Brash is resolutely courteous even under provocation and the likeability in his frequent, large smile could not be faked.

None of which, however, explains the central paradox: the farm girl on the left and the child of a socialist on the right. There seems to have been a genetic mixup.

But ponder this: Brash’s paternal grandfather was a self-made free-market businessman, so maybe Brash just reverted to ancestral type when he junked socialism for market-liberalism. Clark, too, may have reverted to type: numbers of her older relatives were Labour-voting. According to sister Suzanne, the young Clark not agree with the acquisitive principles on which the Monopoly board game is based.

Perhaps after all, there is no paradox. Perhaps, deep down, the answer does lie in part in the genes.

Next week: The refreshing challenge