Don Brash: 'I've been hiding too long'

06:04, Jul 22 2014
Don Brash
DON BRASH: The pursuit of political power means "you become someone different".

In his first in-depth interview since losing the leadership of the National Party, a remarkably candid Don Brash reveals to RUTH LAUGESEN his profound political regrets and what he should have done as National's leader.

DON BRASH is fighting his emotions. His voice crumbles, his eyes brim with tears.

He is telling the story of a "profound" old Labour Party minister who once advised an aspiring political candidate don't do it. Don't enter parliament.

Don Brash flip
DIFFERENT SIDES: Brash the political realist looks back with a clinical eye.

"He said, `when you start you've got all these principles. And in the political process, you have to hide some of them'.

"So you put them in to a box, like roses," says Brash. There is a very long pause. He looks away, and sniffs.

"And when you open the box. They're dead.


"I set out in life to do some things," he says, his voice trembling, "and I achieved some of them, and I feel good about that. Other things I no longer want to do. And that's, I suspect, because I've been hiding too long."

Hiding? What does he mean?

We are sitting in Brash's rented Auckland waterfront apartment where he lives alone, six months after separating from Je Lan, his wife of 18 years. Although one gossip columnist has called the apartment, with its polished blue mock marble floors, a "chick magnet", the overwhelming impression is less of a bachelor pad than a lonely bolthole.

Eighteen months after Brash stepped down as National's leader in a blizzard of controversy over leaked emails, an alleged affair with businesswoman Diane Foreman, and a looming challenge from then finance spokesman John Key, Brash is looking back on his sensational political rise and fall.

And in his first in-depth interview since leaving parliament, he is confronting the regrets politicians rarely discuss. Without polls to worry about or minders to curb him, Brash can finally say what he really thinks.

The consistent thread running through Brash's 67 years has been fierce personal conviction. At 16, he declared himself a Christian pacifist and refused to do school military cadet training. As Reserve Bank governor in 2001, he came out of the closet as a radical reformer, laying out a hard-right plan for restoring New Zealand's living standards. His speech, to the Knowledge Wave conference, included proposals for swingeing welfare reform and tax cuts for the wealthy.

And yet when he became the leader of the National Party in 2003, the old Labour minister predictions came to pass. Some of Brash's dearest personal convictions had to be hidden away. Brash went for the jugular on race issues with his landmark Orewa speech, but the views aired in the Knowledge Wave speech were quietly buried. Brash was repackaged as unthreateningly "mainstream".

The new, saleable Brash was a huge success. He brought National storming back from its disastrous 2002 performance, and came within a whisker of winning the election.

Another quote, Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent..." there is a long pause "...about the things that matter," says Brash, his voice breaking.

Why is he so emotional? Brash isn't quite sure. He talks of his boyhood pacifist ideals, and his failure to say even a word in National's caucus when MPs debated whether to support the US invasion of Iraq. National ended up supporting the invasion. Brash says his silence was something he still feels "deeply ashamed" of. "Straight gutlessness."

At the time he thought, "all I need to do is just keep quiet, and I'll be able to change things down the track. Which of course you can't.

"The thing that happens is you actually change in the process of hiding who you are. You actually change who you are. And you become someone different."

So just what were those roses that Brash shut away in that box? Brash points to the long-ago Knowledge Wave speech.

"That was as clear a manifesto of what I would have done had I had an open chequebook so to speak, or a free hand as anything."

In it, he suggested the government could "drop all benefits to the able-bodied and scrap the statutory minimum wage", impose a lifetime limit on receipt of benefits, gradually raise the age of eligibility for superannuation, cut the top rate of tax, and restrict to $500,000 the amount of tax wealthy individuals would pay in a year.

But surely this "hiding" Brash speaks of goes to the very heart of Nicky Hager's claims in his book The Hollow Men? Drawing on sheafs of leaked National Party emails, Hager's book exposed the realities of modern political branding, documenting the cynical reshaping of a controversial candidate into a vote-winning product. Hager argued that the price Brash and National paid for their expedience was they became hollow men, unsure what they stood for, empty at the core.

Brash barks in annoyance. The book, he says "was at least an honest attack". But the recent play, based on the book, "made me appear not so much sinister as totally naive and manipulated".

"It just irritated the hell out of me, quite frankly."

Brash is trying to make it all add up. Although part of him mourns his lost ideals, parliament changed him. The seasoned political operators taught him cold-eyed realism. Now he accepts there can be only slow movement towards radical policy goals.

"In a democracy, the inertia is very, very powerful. You simply make changes at the margins."

On the one hand, he insists, he went into the 2005 election largely happy with National's manifesto. He approved of its policies on education, race and welfare. On welfare, it had a "work for dole" plan to make the unemployment benefit after six months conditional on undergoing training or taking part in a work scheme.

"I was 60-65% happy with economic policy." Tax wasn't nearly bold enough. And the health system needed radical reform, "but radical change wasn't even remotely an option".

Overall, he maintains he hadn't had to swallow too many "dead rats" by bowing to centrist policies. Although National had signed up to four weeks' annual leave and the Cullen superannuation fund, these were not the major backdowns some claimed, says Brash.

"If I'd had a chance to put in place the things that were in our platform in 2005, I would have been extremely happy. I don't think we had a Labour-lite platform."

And yet, and yet, there are regrets too.

"The thing I most regret in a political sense, I regret not using the political standing that the Waitangi Orewa speech gave me. I should have used that speech much more effectively to stamp my own views and policies on the National Party, and I could have done that at the time," says Brash.

The now-legendary January 2004 speech, in which Brash claimed Maori were getting special treatment on the basis of race rather than need, saw National's polling leap 17%, vaulting ahead of Labour for the first time since the 2000 election.

Now, way too late, Brash has realised how much power he really had.

"When you're riding high in the polls you can announce policy, and effectively challenge anyone to challenge you. And it isn't going to happen if you're riding high in the polls.

"I could have made some announcements unilaterally if you like, which I chose not to."

In contrast, he says his successor John Key understands the strength stratospheric polls give him. Key has "made a few statements as leader which I strongly suspect haven't been through the whole party process".

So what sort of unilateral announcements could Brash have made, and dared his caucus to disagree?

Iraq tops the list. He could have reversed the party's position of support for the war. But Brash also has a shortlist of other, more incendiary policies he saw as crucial to the country's future.

"My whole motivation for being in politics was to raise New Zealand's standards relative to Australia. And the big risk is that we will tinker around the edges and our gradual drift backwards will continue."

First up, he thinks he should have announced new policy on the most politically dangerous of all policy areas superannuation.

His plan was two-pronged a gradual lift in the age of entitlement from 65 from 2020, and cancelling superannuation for those over 65 who worked. The sweetener would be that when an over-65 finished working, their super would be actuarily adjusted to be paid at a higher rate, compensating for the years of lost payments.

Brash says change is still needed to control the ballooning superannuation bill for baby-boomers.

"I have long felt that as we live progressively longer, some government is going to have to do something about superannuation," says Brash.

Also: "I would have been a bit more forceful on tax". He says he could have announced abolition of the top tax rate of 39c. He wanted to slash the 19.5c rate to 18c, and the 33c band to 30c, as recommended in the 2001 McLeod tax review. Such cuts would have delivered massive windfalls to the rich. But, argues Brash, they would also strengthen incentives for hard work.

Would he have been able to ride it through National's caucus? "I don't know, I don't know.

"It seems to me there's no point in winning the Treasury benches if basically you're going to continue exactly what's gone before."

Brash's education in real politik began within two days of becoming leader in 2003. He gave an interview in which he gaily laid out his views on cutting the top two personal tax rates to 30c.

"Well!" Brash gives a hollow laugh. "Perfectly sensible statement!"

The Dominion-Post put the story on its front page, saying the average worker would gain just 94c a week from the tax cuts, while someone on $100,000 would pocket $81 a week. Brash, and his wealthy finance spokesman John Key, would do particularly well from the tax cuts.

"And that was the end of that," says Brash. When National announced its election tax policy, there was no cut to the top two personal tax rates.

Brash boils the jug and makes cups of instant coffee. The last time he was living on his own was in 1985, after his 21-year marriage to Erica Brash broke up in the wake of his intense affair with Je Lan, whom he of course later married.

Biographer Paul Goldsmith painted a depressing picture of those days, of a small Glenfield flat and a man awash with guilt. Every fortnight or so Brash would cut up a slab of corned beef into portions. And each night he would put on a pot of peas, his dinner plate with two slices of frozen corned beef resting on top. By the time the meat was defrosted, the peas were cooked.

This time, the surroundings are more luxurious. Some things don't change, however.

Brash is back eating corned beef. "I like it," he says.

The slightly ludicrous blue leather lounge suite is rented, as is all the other furniture. The towering pot plant in the corner is plastic. There are no books, no pictures, no personal effects to speak of. Everything is in storage, says Brash.

Brash politely refuses to talk about his personal life. When news of Brash's alleged affair with millionaire businesswoman Diane Foreman broke in September 2006, it was a bolt from the blue for those who knew only Brash's austere public face. Britain's Independent newspaper called Brash "an unlikely Lothario".

Two months later, when Hager's book came out, Brash abruptly stepped down. He maintains he had been about to quit anyway. He says a trusted colleague had told him there was a growing view he would be too old to fight this year's election.

In the wake of his lost leadership, he says many people blamed his right-hand man, National MP Murray McCully. McCully had been at the heart of the project to seamlessly reshape Brash.

"Lots of people, including in the media, were absolutely convinced that if I hadn't listened to McCully I would still be leader.

"One particular person was convinced that if I had remained true to conviction politics... that I would have attracted probably more support, than if I had swallowed all those dead rats."

Is it something he thinks about, whether he could have got more votes by remaining a conviction politician?

"Of course! But I don't know the answer, and I don't know that anyone can."

And although Brash the idealist may shed tears, Brash the political realist looks back with a clinical eye.

"It's one thing to say conviction politicians attract more votes. Well, let's see what happens at the next election you've got a conviction party out there," he says, referring to Act and its microscopic poll ratings.

Now Brash is a director on three boards, including the ANZ bank, and an adjunct professor at an Australian university. He may also have an ambassadorial career ahead of him should National take office. Key has reportedly dangled a post in London or Washington.

And once again, Brash can be the man of conviction he couldn't entirely be as National's leader. But it may be too late.

He gave a speech recently on his favourite theme, raising New Zealand's living standards. His proposed flattening the income tax scale, introducing electronic tolling on roads and halting any further growth in government spending in real terms.

He warned the coming election would see "a vote-buying tax auction while leaving the basic structure of the tax system, and the high effective marginal tax rates, substantially untouched".

But despite forwarding it to a number of journalists, the coverage was "zip, zilch".

"It had policy implications! If I had said those things when I was National's leader, they would definitely have been reported," he says.

But if he had been National's leader, would he have been free to say those things? "No, I suppose not." Brash says.


In a nutshell

Dr Donald Thomas Brash

Born Wanganui, September 24, 1940. Son of Alan, a Presbyterian minister, and Eljean. Education: Christchurch Boys' High, Canterbury University (MA Econ), Australian National University (PhD). Career: World Bank (Washington), Broadbank chief executive, Kiwifruit Authority chief executive, Trust Bank managing director, Reserve Bank governor. Political career: Elected on National's list, 2002. Became National's leader, 2003. Lost election 2005. Quit as leader in November 2006. Personal life: Separated from Je Lan Brash in December. The couple have a teenaged son. Brash has two adult children from his first marriage to Erica Brash. Currently: Director of the ANZ Bank, Huljich Wealth Management and boutique investment bank Ocean Partners. Adjunct professor at Australia's La Trobe University in the Faculty of Law and Management.

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