The real Brash affair: can he present a centrist party?

Between March 1 and last Friday Judith Collins became a kinder, gentler person.

On March 1 in Parliament she called David Benson-Pope a “pervert”, a savage accusation for which there was no evidence — damaging to Benson-Pope and damaging to his family, which includes teenagers.

On Friday on Radio New Zealand Collins waxed emotional about the damage to Don Brash’s family from the outing of his run-of-the-mill affair. “I am not going personally to attack people’s families, no matter what the error,” she said.

Families are collateral damage in political warfare. A Labour leader’s daughter committed suicide.

The only sure way to keep families safe from the cluster bombs and shrapnel of political battles is to do nothing that puts the families within range.

Brash did, calling his opponents corrupt and inviting rough retaliation. His leadership is the weaker for his loose language and the low-life response. The familiar deep-throat internal destabilisation, which consumed Jenny Shipley and Bill English before him, has begun. His all-consuming quest to be Prime Minister has got harder.

And he is not quite three years leader.

But it is not last week’s trivia that is his trouble. That just added piquancy, of a sort, to a deeper question: is the Brash brand the right way to present National to win well in 2008?

The Brash brand reassembled the right-of-centre vote in 2005. The next job is to re-cement National liberal votes, remove the leverage the hard 2005 message gave Labour with Maori, Pacific islanders and state house dwellers and win voters off Labour.

That is, National must present a centrist face — centre-right with the accent on “centre”.

Brash is not that face.

That may not matter if the 2008 election turns into a “drover’s dog” contest, an Australian saying for a sure thing. In 1983 in Australia and 1984 in New Zealand colourless Bill Hayden and Bill Rowling would have won for their respective Labour parties.

But in both cases the parties took no chances and swapped their drover’s dogs for stars, Council of Trade Unions boss Bob Hawke in Australia and mercurial David Lange in New Zealand.

Doing that helped turn wins into handsome victories on which foundations were laid for more than one spell in office.

This factor is even more relevant for National in 2008 because, unlike at the time of those 1980s elections, the government here now is not terminally unpopular.

It is accident-prone, too prone to try to bluff its way out of tight spots and no longer sure-footed. If the economy really sours, from an overseas shock or a house price slide, it could become seriously unpopular.

But it is not that yet. And if it heeds the sobering lessons from the past few months stumbling and the economy eases through its low patch as economists are predicting, it will not be a pushover in 2008.

Which puts the heat on rightwinger Brash. And, in turn, on the party.

Another cobbled-together coup would leave the same wounds and similar uncertainties as those of 2001 and 2003. It would not lay the policy and political management foundations the party needs for a long John Howard-type spell in office.

Take policy. Under Bill English’s strategic prodding, some MPs have been set to work on discussion papers, to underpin durable policy — durable in the sense of widespread buy-in and sound thinking.

It does seem an environment paper will be ready for the Blue Greens’ conference in early October and another on aged care soon. But the promised innovation paper is now aimed for next year and there is no sign of progress on two really big ones, the Treaty of Waitangi and health. There is a real prospect not much progress will have been made a year from now.

A coup would interrupt such progress as is being made. It would disorient and distract MPs. Hence the need for thorough political management.

And that implies that a new leader (if there is to be one) will be not the victor in a gunfight but installed by acclaim to fill a vacancy, so that the party is united, not divided, by the change — which requires the uniting to be done before the event, not after. Brash will not selflessly create a vacancy. He would need to be levered into creating one by being presented with a long and representative list of signatures inviting him to.

And that long list needs to present a durable team, combining the best talents at the top. If, for example, the new leader is to be centrist John Key — who isn’t ready yet but he learns fast — he will need a deputy of the sort Michael Cullen is, a top organiser, intellectually strong and with a long history in and strong links with the party.

The obvious such deputy is centrist English but he would take a lot of convincing that Key would be a party man and collegial and unifying, not trader John doing deals on the fly issue by issue.

So right now that dream team is dream, not team. And, as National has yet to prove to itself, dreaming is no substitute for hard slog and top policy.