Allister Heath talks to Don Brash, leader of New Zealand’s National party, and finds him much more robust than Cameron on tax cuts, welfare and the environment
If you were to cross Clark Kent with Josiah Bartlet of The West Wing, you would end up with somebody very much like Don Brash, leader of New Zealand’s conservative National party.
A mild-mannered, grey and softly spoken 66-year-old, he is endearingly wonkish; thanks to eye surgery, he no longer wears thick glasses but his hobby remains growing kiwi fruit on his orchards. But first impressions can be deceptive and there is another, steely side to Dr Brash: like Martin Sheen’s character, he is a highly respected economist, probably the best to run a major political party anywhere; and he displayed his secret super-strength at last year’s election, doubling his party’s share of the vote from 20.9 to 39.1 per cent.
While this astonishing performance wasn’t quite enough — he lost by two seats — the resurgence of Dr Brash’s conservatives is a story that David Cameron ought to study closely, even though the two leaders’ styles are very different. When I asked Dr Brash last week what his one overriding objective was, he answered that it was to make New Zealand wealthy again, a bread-and-butter goal radically different from Mr Cameron’s focus on softer quality-of-life issues.
‘We’ve seen a major exodus of New Zealanders across the Tasman,’ Dr Brash told me. ‘Thirty years ago, per capita income in New Zealand was identical to that of Australia. Today, the per capita income in Australia is 30–33 per cent higher and the gap is increasing. If New Zealand is to remain a viable economy and society, we have to begin reducing that gap or else we will lose all the people on which a modern economy depends.’
His views on education, crime and welfare are robustly conservative. He supports parents’ right to choose and wants to make sure good schools have an incentive to expand by taking over failing institutions and effectively developing into chains. ‘In some respects our policy at the last election was a quasi-voucher system,’ he says.
Dr Brash also wants real welfare reform. ‘There has been a big exodus of people from unemployment benefit to non-work-tested sickness and invalid benefit. We were going to take a much firmer view to avoid people getting trapped in these demoralising dependency traps.’ Needless to say, there will be no hugging hoodies in Wellington under Dr Brash. He believes in ‘abolishing parole for repeat and violent offenders. We have a surprisingly high level of crime.’
‘Treaty issues’ — relations with the Maori — are a massive deal in New Zealand. Dr Brash supports compensation payments to the Maori for past injustices, but believes these should not ‘drag on for decades’. He also rejects some of the affirmative action programmes that now favour the Maori, deeming them to be ‘completely inappropriate’. ‘As long as Maori tribes feel that some large compensation is due, the temptation is to look backwards over their shoulder and to some compensation payment which will somehow make them prosperous,’ he says. ‘The reality is that you don’t get prosperous by lump-sum payments of this kind. We support accelerating and then bringing to a conclusion the compensation payments. But from that point on, we want New Zealanders to be treated equally under the law, on the basis of their need, not on the basis of their race.’ Needless to say, this resonated extremely well with the electorate at the last elections.
Don and Dave do have something in common, however. ‘The National party didn’t have policies that were as strong as they should have been in two areas: health and the environment,’ Dr Brash says, echoing Mr Cameron. Dr Brash believes he lost the women’s vote because many worried that tax cuts were tantamount to spending cuts in health and education, a perception which he wants to correct — though not by moving to the left of Labour.
He also wants to appeal to the Green party’s 5 per cent of the vote, though his environmentalism is of a refreshingly moderate variety. ‘The science around climate change is not yet unanimously agreed but it is fair to say that the majority of scientists now believe that there is global warning taking place and it is related to greenhouse gases. Therefore, we propose measures to reduce the rate of growth of emissions, starting with the electricity generating sector. We would review the need for more or less policies as the science becomes clearer. There is still some ongoing debate, Sir Nicholas Stern’s report notwithstanding.’ I suggest that Sir Nicholas’s is a strange piece of work. ‘Certainly, I’ve seen some very strong attacks on it including that of Nigel Lawson,’ he replies. He calls Labour’s recently announced commitment to make New Zealand ‘a carbon-neutral country’ a ‘ridiculous target in the foreseeable future’.
He also supports tax cuts. ‘You want a tax system which encourages investment, savings and effort.’ I ask him what he thinks of the huge increases in public spending in Britain under Gordon Brown. ‘They have to be quite destructive of long-term growth. These sorts of increases are, from my point of view, very regrettable. They are particularly regrettable if you spend money in a way that doesn’t produce much in the way of benefits, which is what strikes me about the huge expansion of spending on the NHS.’
What about the terror threat? ‘It’s a very important issue globally. New Zealand is mercifully off the beaten track. But we don’t take it lightly. After September 11, New Zealand should have been increasing defence spending. There are groups under close observation, nothing like as bad as [in Britain], but there are groups that people watch pretty carefully.’
Dr Brash was in London at the weekend for the unveiling of the New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. These are difficult times for him. He was forced to announce in September that he and Mrs Brash ‘have been having some difficulties in their marriage and as a result he has taken leave for a couple of days to spend time with his family’. Dr Brash had an affair with his Singaporean secretary Je Lan Lee in the early 1980s. He eventually left his first wife and married Je Lan in 1989.
He was forced to announce that his second marriage has run into trouble after pressure from Labour MPs; Wellington is an even nastier place than Westminster, as a recent withering attack on Dr Brash by the prime minister, Helen Clark, testifies. ‘I can’t state too strongly that Labour regards Dr Brash as a corrosive and cancerous person within the New Zealand political system,’ she said.
All this has prompted much leadership speculation, with National’s finance spokesman John Key the most likely contender. So far, however, the mud hasn’t stuck, with the latest rolling poll putting National on 41.6 per cent and Labour on 39.9 per cent. I ask Don Brash whether he is planning to remain leader of his party. The Clark Kent of Kiwi politics turned to me and smiled gently. ‘That’s my intention,’ he said, and I for one believe him.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 18, 2006