Despite being Leader for just over three years, I believe National will remain very fond and grateful to its 10th leader – Don Brash. Very rarely for an outgoing leader, he leaves the party polling significantly higher than Labour, and with greatly increased membership.
After the 2002 disastrous result of 21% (which was not just due to the then Leader I should point out), there was speculation National was finished as a major party that could compete with Labour. Mike Williams spoke openly how we may now have a Scandinavian model where there is not one dominant centre-right party, but three or four. This is what he wanted. No-one thought National could seriously challenge Labour in 2005, and indeed some said that it might never challenge them again.
In 2002 National only got twice as many votes as NZ First. In 2005 National had its best result since 1990, and by comparison got 6.5 times as many votes as NZ First, with National’s vote increasing from 425,000 to 890,000!!
I also believe NZ owes him a big debt for his original Orewa speech. It changed the political landscape, and very importantly brought to an end the near automatic practice of accepting the conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Waitangi meant that every law, every strategic plan must somehow pay homage to it. For the first time we had an honest debate about what does and does not the Treaty mean. Labour tried to label him a racist, and then did a poll driven backtrack, saying they agreed with him on need not race. Of course that was only spin, but nevertheless a significant concession.
I was lucky enough to work with and for Don – both formally during his time as a candidate, MP and Leader, and informally over the last couple of years since I left Parliament. I recall with some amusement that when he became Leader he did his 1st Caucus reshuffle. I had the job of checking prior to the press conference that no portfolios had been missed out (previous reshuffles had accidentally left Biosecurity with no spokesperson) and there were around 15 missing. When I gave Don the list of missing portfolios, I was delighted when he responded most of them were deliberate and that we no longer needed spokespersons for every cause people invent.
I also recall at functions etc that Don had the somewhat rare trait amongst MPs for wanting to actually engage in discussion. At functions the job of an MP is to meet as many people as possible, and hence spend no more than a minute or two with each person – you work the room. But sometimes Don would end up spending 20 minutes chatting to a group of us on issues such as finding that balance between what is popular and what is right. He actually enjoyed the engagement, and it was great to be able to have in depth discussions with the Leader on political issues.
Yet despite all he achieved, it had been clear for some time that a change was likely. Don’s biggest weakness is also his biggest strength – the fact he was not seen as a typical politician.
To put it baldly, Don’s major failing was that he was a very bad liar. Helen on the other hand is a first class liar. Now I should explain – I don’t mean deliberate totally incorrect falsehoods – MPs (including Helen) avoid those sort of lies as much as possible. It’s more the ability to obfuscate, to confuse, to even deceive the questioner. Don had the annoying habit of actually answering the questions people put to him, rather than answering the ones he wanted them to ask. The rare time he tried not to answer the question (often necessary), it was obvious – he was not skilled at such obfuscation.
I don’t mean this quite as cynically as it sounds. MPs every day get asked questions which they don’t want to answer, and part of the skills required is to not give an answer which is unhelpful. For example if hypothetically a journalist asks what the Caucus position on nuclear ships is, the answer should be “no change to the current policy is contemplated”, rather than “Well we think the ban is daft, but its popular so 18 out of 29 MPs voted to keep the ban”
The other weakness was, in my opinion, trying to be overly fair, and not not pragmatic enough. I don’t mean pragmatic policy-wise (The 2005 policy was relatively moderate) but pragmatic politically. The example here is the Exclusive Brethren, After it was revealed that some Brethren members had hired a private detective, the obvious political response was to use it as an opportunity to say one will not meet with the Brethren again.
But on Agenda a few weeks ago, Don tried to be fair. He made the very reasonable point that probably not all Brethren were involved with the decision to engage the private detective and it may be unfair to blame them all, for the actions of a few. He also made the point that the Brethren may turn up to public meetings. All very fair and reasonable to the Brethren, but not the political response needed. What was needed was a “I am shocked by the hiring of the private detective and will refuse to have anything to do with the EB in future”.
I was in fact shouting at the TV that morning for Don to say exactly that. But he didn’t. It gave Labour the room to suggest National might be connected to the private detective hirings, and it was 36 hours later that the required unequivocal statement was made. But it was too late, and in my opinion the Agenda interview was a turning point for many, where they felt that despite all of Don’s other skills, he was going to be a high-risk option for the next election.
To become Leader of the Opposition after barely a year in Parliament is an incredible feat. To double your party’s vote is also an incredible feat. To go head to head with a Prime Minister who has been in Parliament for 24 years is also no mean feat.
In fact both Don and John Key were first termers last election, both up against MP who had been there 24 years and having served in Government in both the 1980s and for the last six years. They both did incredibly well to keep the contest competitive (esp with Labour over-spending by $800,000) and now it looks to be John Key’s turn to take on the organ grinder instead of the monkey 🙂