Don Brash interviewed by Paul Holmes
PAUL Last Sunday on Q+A, Guyon asked Don Brash, former leader of the National Party, about why he wanted to take the leadership of Act off Rodney Hide. And Dr Brash called Mr Hyde's brand 'toxic', and he doubted Mr Hide could hold Epsom for Act. Dr Brash said they needed a new Epsom candidate; John Banks, the former mayor of Auckland, apparently wants to stand. By Thursday lunchtime, Rodney Hide was gone, stepping aside with a great deal of grace, it has to be said, and Dr Brash was yesterday confirmed as Act's leader outside Parliament. So congratulations to you, Dr Brash, and thank you for joining us on Q+A.
DON BRASH - Act Party leader
PAUL Are you like Hitler? Hone Harawira makes the comparison.
DON I find that really offensive. I mean, in what sense am I like Hitler? If he's talking about race, I certainly believe that all NZers are equal, and that's in fact what the Treaty of Waitangi says.
PAUL` Of course, they're not equal, are they? We've been talking about Maori represented in certain statistics.
DON Of course. But the Treaty of Waitangi says all NZers should be treated equally under the law. And that's what the National Party has stood for successively, but it's not, frankly, what the National Party is delivering now.
PAUL But Hone Harawira seems to think you want to, I think he used the word 'subsume' Maori culture, to essentially destroy the indigenous culture of this country.
DON I do not. He's got no justification for saying that at all. I want Maori, like Asians, like Pasifika, like Europeans, to have equal rights under the law. Right now they don't, they have preferential rights.
PAUL Where are you on Maori seats these days? In your famous Orewa speech you said, 'there is no homogenous, distinct Maori population,' so therefore we don't need the Maori seats. So could you join a coalition which included Maori Party members holding Maori seats?
DON Well, let me say first of all I strongly oppose the retention of Maori seats. That's been National Party policy since well before I became leader. Bill English announced that was National Party policy in the middle of 2003. So I strongly oppose separate Maori seats, and they're, frankly, not required. When I was in Parliament there were seven Maori seats but 21 Maori in Parliament. We don't need Maori seats to ensure that Maori are in Parliament. There are Maori members of the National Party caucus now, not on Maori seats.
PAUL No, but would that be a bottom line? Would that stop you joining a coalition?
DON No, no. I think one of the things we learnt about MMP, not many things can be absolute bottom lines. After the 2005 election, I talked with Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. They're both people whose integrity I respect, and we had a discussion about the possibility of forming a government together. Now, why? Because we agreed on the need for things like social welfare reform, the importance of choice in education. And I still feel those very strongly. But I still disagree with the retention of Maori seats.
PAUL What was it like at the board yesterday?
DON Very good. I had only met one of the board members previously, except, of course, the caucus members of the board. And they didn't really know much about me, and I was therefore keen to explain why I had taken the action I had, what my background was, whether I had had any criminal offending in my background, uh, a general discussion which was very useful.
PAUL When did it occur to you to do this? If I might say so, Hone Harawira again alluded to this. What kind of a wacko-the-chook party is it where you don't have a seat in Parliament and you don't even belong to the party - in fact, you belong to the National Party, not the Act Party, you may have joined yesterday, I don't know - but can suddenly, within a week, take the leadership?
DON Well, of course, as I have made public, and, indeed, Rodney Hide has also agreed, he approached me over a period of months to join the Act Party as a candidate. In fact he offered me the-
PAUL Yeah, but not to cut his throat.
DON No, no, he offered me the co-leadership, to be frank. And I thought about that carefully. As I say, Rodney's been a personal friend for a long time, but I think the widespread public perception is he could not have won the seat of Epsom and he, in fact, had done damage to the Act Party brand. And I thought I could, perhaps, improve it.
PAUL When did it occur to you to give it a go, to do the impossible?
DON I'm not sure that I ever regarded it as impossible. But I think what motivates me, Paul, is the feeling that this country is in serious trouble. We're borrowing 300 million bucks a week. And one person said to me recently that's 1.2 billion dollars of borrowing a month. And I think when people started saying that to me, I realised something had to be done.
PAUL Nobody doubts that you're a conviction politician.
DON That's encouraging.
PAUL I don't think anyone doubts that you're a conviction politician. But what is questionable is, sometimes in leadership, your judgement. Will you be allowing the Exclusive Brethren to meet you?
DON Now, listen, I've always taken the view that an elected politician should be willing to meet with anybody. That's not the question. I meet with Catholics, Presbyterians, atheists, and if, perforce, Exclusive Brethren. The question is not whether I'll meet with them but whether they'll influence my policy. And the answer to that is, clearly, no.
PAUL Of course, what they were going to do last time is put a great deal of money in what was a parallel campaign. But the other question was that you, when questioned about it, seemed to be none too honest. So why should people trust you this time?
DON I'm glad you said 'seemed not to be none too honest,' because I didn't at any point lie. The perception was caused when Rod Donald confronted me outside a restaurant in Rotorua and said, 'Did you produce this pamphlet?' I said no. He said, 'Who did?' I said, 'I have no idea.' That was true, I did not know that. Later, the Exclusive Brethren said, 'Hey, it was us.' And I had met with them and they said they were putting out some anti-government-
PAUL Yes, yes, but I think you said, on record, you had not met with them.
DON No, I did not. I have never denied meeting with them. I met them first of all at Whangarei airport. And let's face it, also, Paul, most political parties met with the Exclusive Brethren before the 2005 election. They're quite clear about that.
PAUL All right, let's again go to your triumph this week and your gaining the leadership of Act. You made a suggestion that you had been getting very strong messages from the business community that they're worried about Act, that they saw Act as the only hope for real, common-sense economic management. Is that one of the reasons that prompted you to have a go for the leadership?
DON I was getting that message from the business community, but also a very wide range of ordinary NZers. National Party members in many cases saying, 'Look, National Party in principle stands for limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility. We're not seeing that.' Government spending as a share of GDP is now higher than at any point under Labour.
PAUL All right. Quick questions - who going to be the Act leader in the House?
DON That's to be resolved by caucus.
PAUL It wasn't discussed yesterday?
DON Of course it was. But I need to discuss it with the caucus also.
PAUL Will it be Heather Roy?
DON Listen, I'm going to discuss it with the caucus.
PAUL What happens to Rodney Hide? He's going to stay on as a minister until the election at least?
DON Listen, I have to discuss that with the prime minister.
PAUL Well, the prime minister said he wants that.
DON Well, I mean, he said to me when he phoned me from a train between Paris and London that he would meet early this week.
PAUL Can Rodney Hide stay on as an Act MP after the election?
DON That's a question to be resolved.
PAUL So the man who kept Act alive through two successive elections against all the odds, and has worked his backside off for Act for years and years and years and kept Act alive, he's just cut the throat, he's gone?
DON Well, no, I don't see it that way, Paul. You're right, he did save Act. In 2005, he scraped back with two seats in Parliament. I encouraged him to join the National Party at that point. He, I think rightly, in retrospect, said, 'No, National needs the party to keep it on the straight and narrow.' And, frankly, I agree with that.
PAUL So presumably then, Rodney will not be standing for Act for Epsom.
DON I think that certainly would be my preference.
PAUL And is John Banks ready to go?
DON You have to ask John Banks.
PAUL I've tried to. He doesn't return calls.
DON John Banks' decision, but it's also an Act board decision. The Act board will decide who stands in which seat.
PAUL But see, straight away, Dr Brash, with your election-with your accession, with your becoming the leader, the horses are frightened. Straight away you've frightened the horses. Key labels you extremist, Labour think you're a gift. Some of your policies John Key - who likes winning elections, apparently - won't go near.
DON Look, what is extreme about prudent budgeting? What is extreme about one law for all? These have been National Party policies for most of the last decade.
PAUL Which have been rejected. National Party policies in '02, '05, they were rejected. John Key changed things around in '08 and won.
DON Well, I'm saying that if the National Party wants to govern responsibly they have to change some policies.
PAUL So what would be some bottom lines, then? For example, say you were to get your party vote up to, what, 10%?
DON Well, I hope for at least that.
PAUL How are you gonna do that?
DON Well, I'm campaigning on the things which matter for NZers.
PAUL OK. Just a couple of questions. The age at which one can get the pension in NZ. Is that a bottom line?
DON I don't think it's prudent at all to talk about bottom lines in anything. I certainly think that John Key is being irresponsible in saying that it must not go up. I mean, Australia, UK, US, Germany, Denmark - all are raising that age, and every objective observer says it has to gradually - and I stress gradually - change over a period of a decade.
PAUL Yeah, but it might be an election loser in NZ, the age of the pension, scrapping the minimum wage, ending free doctor's visits for kids under 6, no interest on-
DON No, no, no, no, no, no. I have never suggested ending free doctor's visits for kids under 6. What I objected to is the Labour government's extending subsidies to every single person in the community, irrespective of health, of wealth or of age.
PAUL Right. And what about this one, would you charge interest on student loans?
DON John Key labelled the abolition of interest as a huge election bribe, and it was. I mean, let's try and be objective. The Labour government in the first two terms were quite responsible, fiscally. They didn't have a great burst of government spending. In the last term, they went bonkers. And National said so, not just me but John Key said so, again and again. But in government we've done nothing about it.
PAUL And what would you do about your nuclear ships policy?
DON Well, I think that's now irrelevant. I mean, no American naval ships carry nuclear weapons except submarines, and they don't come here.
PAUL So would you have them back?
DON I can see no point in denying the American navy the right to come here if they don't carry nuclear weapons.
PAUL And what did Rodney Hide say to you in private after you rolled him?
DON We had a very constructive conversation in private for about an hour. I was very impressed with the way he handled his stepping down. He handled it, as you said earlier, with dignity, with grace, and a very generous way.