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Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 10

Sep 15, 2014 Politics


Illustration: Joshua Drummond.


Election 2014, bastard and demented son of election 2005! The last two elections were pretty much complete fizzers – the only thing that happened last time was when John Banks went to pour boiling water into his teapot, but someone bumped his elbow and he poured it over John Key’s lap; the only thing that happened the time before that was when Helen Clark tripped over in a shopping mall, and never really got back up – but the dirty politics of 2014 have been full of incident, and upset, and visitors from outer space, a lot like the 2005 campaign when Labour so narrowly triumphed over an incredible race run by National leader Dr Don Brash, who joins us today in the studio.

Actually he joins us today from his home in Papakura, or thereabouts, where he agreed to an email interview between 8.30am and 10am. O good doctor! Brash, 74 next Wednesday, a singular and tremendously likeable character, very nearly became Prime Minister in 2005 thanks in special part to the dark, backroom manoeuvrings of strategists Murray McCully, Matthew Hooton, and many others – later exposed as The Hollow Men, Nicky Hager’s first book to reveal weirdness and malpractice within the National Party.

What a time it was for National! There were strange dealings with the aliens from the Exclusive Brethren, who got busted for hiring Dunedin private detective Wayne Idour to root through Labour’s rubbish bins. Plus there was That Orewa Speech which said that which must not be said but which so many thought: “We fly Maori elders around the world to lift tapu and expel evil spirits from New Zealand embassies… a farce… embarrassing,” etc.

And what a time it was for New Zealand! Generally there was such a mood of fear and excitement. There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air. Revolution! In his great windy poem “The French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement”, Wordsworth wrote somewhat in the manner of a Whale Oil,

Oh! The times!
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Monsieur Brash and his angry mob of wealthy peasants stormed the palace gates. But it held firm, thanks in crucial part to Winston Peters, who threw his lot in with Labour. Brash stepped down as National about 12 months later and made way for that smooth beast John Phillip Key.

He made a surprise political comeback in 2011 when he rolled Rodney Hide as leader of Act, but that Didn’t Quite Work Out. Former governor of the Reserve Bank, former leader of two political parties, he remains an alert, astute observer of politics and economics, and he joins us now on the line from Papakura or thereabouts.


Good morning, Don! D’you think there will be a new government after Saturday, or will National survive?

I really think it’s too close to call. If National leads the next government, they will almost certainly need not only ACT and United Future, but on present polling NZ First and/or the Conservatives as well. Not a great combination. On the Left, there seems likely to be an even more mixed bag. But I agree with JK and DC when they say this election is on a knife edge.

How do you think Key will be going into this final week? Consolidate, play it steady?

Quite a lot depends on what Dotcom’s “bombshell” does. JK appears to feel that he can answer any accusations made this evening. If his answers don’t ring true, the “bombshell” could do National considerable damage and that may well determine what else National does this week. If the “bombshell” turns out to be a nothing, then I suspect JK will play it steady.

A lot of people wrote off Dotcom as a clown and he may still possibly be a crook. But politically he’s actually played it really well with the Internet Party – hooking up with Mana, and getting Harre onboard, and now bringing this character Greenwald into the country. What do you make of Dotcom?

Yes, he’s certainly played his cards well – even if totally cynically – although perhaps the cynical people are those he’s hooked up with! For Hone Harawira and Laila Harre to be in cahoots with an extremely wealthy white capitalist must be one of the great ironies of New Zealand political history! I have met Dotcom twice and when I met him I didn’t see what has subsequently emerged, namely a totally focused campaign to try to destroy JK.

Oh so you are one ex-leader of the Act Party who remembers meeting Dotcom… Was it at the mansion? What did you make of the guy?

Yes, I met him at the mansion (but no helicopter ride!). I went once at the invitation of a couple of friends who had been invited to meet with him, and I went along out of curiosity. The second time, a few weeks later, he asked me to come again but without anybody else, and simply sought a briefing on the New Zealand political scene. To meet him, he seemed a friendly guy who was genuinely interested in New Zealand politics. I could not have imagined that he would subsequently get into bed with Hone and friends.

I was at the mansion yesterday. His lawyer Ira P Rothken was there squeaking around in a new pair of Nikes, Greenwald was there, people who I guess were employees sat around the pool smoking big cigars. But the whole place felt empty and deserted, more like a boring conference centre than a home, and it made me think Dotcom must be desperately lonely.

And of course he currently has no wife, so that would make him feel lonely too.

We have to talk about Winston. Once again, yet again, he holds the balance of power – probably. Is it inevitable he’ll go with National? Is it a matter of waving the most appealing baubles of office in front of his nose?

Yes, I find this perhaps the most depressing aspect of the campaign. Winston, the man whose policy promises are so outrageously expensive that NZ First policies are the only ones which Dr Michael Dunn (on behalf of the Taxpayers’ Union, and for 12 years the man responsible within the IRD for costing political promises) can’t put a price tag on.

He was the man, you’ll recall, who held up a big sign saying “NO” when he should have said “yes”, he had received funding from Owen Glenn.

He’s the man who campaigns about the need to change the Reserve Bank Act, as he did in the 1996 election campaign – and nobody asks him why, when he was Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer in 1997 and 1998 (and therefore the minister responsible for the Reserve Bank Act) he made not the slightest attempt to change that Act.

On balance, I think he is more likely to go with National than Labour because (a) he would not enjoy playing third fiddle to the Greens in a Labour-led government, and (b) he went with Labour in 2005, and won’t want to be seen as locked in to Labour. But at the end of the day, he will also be influenced by what is in it for Winston, as he was in 2005.

That’s a revealing answer about Peters and I think it’s also revealing about yourself. It’s a bitter reply.

Yes, as some of your readers will know from the last chapter of my book, I’m quite deeply pessimistic about the future of democracy, and this election campaign illustrates my concerns rather well. There is a huge bidding campaign going on, with virtually no party putting forward policies which would actually deal with some of the fundamental issues facing the country. Some parties are being more responsible than others, but almost all are offering extremely expensive policies that the economy has little ability to pay for.

Of the two major parties, my preference is certainly National (which will surprise nobody!), but even National has, over six years, done nothing very material to lift New Zealand’s trend growth rate, despite the promises made during and shortly after the 2008 campaign to close the gap in wages between New Zealand and Australia by 2025.

Indeed. But I was talking about the bitterness you seemed to exhibit pretty powerfully towards Winston – he who did the dirty on you in 2005.

No, of course I regret that Winston didn’t come with National in 2005 but it was always a 50/50 decision in 2005. Helen had 57 MPs wanting her as prime minister; I had 57 wanting me as prime minister, and Winston held the balance.

I’m not sure whether it was the baubles that Helen offered Winston which made the difference or Winston’s anger at National for taking his Tauranga electorate off him (thank you Bob Clarkson!), as some observers who know Winston well think. But I have been pretty cynical about Winston since at least my experience of him after the 1996 election. Ironically, he asked me to campaign on his behalf in the election of 1984, and I agreed, though when the election was called early that year I never actually campaigned for him!

Ha. Well, enough of the Winston First Party. This election campaign – I think of Election 2014 as the son of Election 2005. Both pretty torrid campaigns. I remember seeing you on a balcony at a public meeting somewhere, with McCully, Richard Long and Brian Sinclair, and the three of you were whispering up a storm. I thought: good grief, they actually look like crooks.

Thanks! Actually, I think this campaign is more “torrid”. The only “crooks” in the 2005 campaign were the Labour Party which not only used Parliamentary funds to fund their “pledge card” but also over-spent the legal spending limit by about 25 per cent, according to their own auditors!

But in many ways, this campaign reminds me not of the 2005 campaign but of the 2002 campaign. Then as now, the main Opposition party had changed its leader and he was polling very poorly. The result was that right-of-centre voters deserted National in droves and went to ACT, United Future and NZ First, with the result that those parties got substantially increased Parliamentary representation.

Now, of course, with Labour’s polling being poor, left-of-centre voters are deserting Labour in droves and supporting other left-of-centre parties and also the two populist parties, NZ First and the Conservatives.

There are other similarities to 2002. That year, the National Party allowed some of their highest profile candidates to contest electorates but not be on the Party List (Murray McCully and Maurice Williamson being the obvious examples). This gave them every incentive to seek the electorate vote but no strong incentive to seek the party vote, which of course is the ONLY vote that matters for the parties which well exceed the 5 per cent threshold.

In 2005, I insisted on all National Party candidates being on the List. This year, Labour has allowed some of their highest profile candidates to not be on the Labour list (think Stuart Nash and Trevor Mallard for example), and this is a serious mistake in my view.

Them crooks I mentioned were among Nicky Hager’s Hollow Men. His book Dirty Politics has dominated this campaign. How do you regard him? To me, his work is like something Edward Snowden said: “I have been to the darkest corners of government, and what they fear is light.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that I totally despise Nicky Hager.

His book The Hollow Men didn’t come out till more than a year after the 2005 election of course, so had minimal impact on that campaign (though a small number of the emails he used in that book were leaked to the Sunday Star-Times and TVNZ ahead of the 2005 campaign).

Much of the stuff in The Hollow Men is factually correct but taken totally out of context, and some of it is factually wrong – as for example, the paragraph he quotes from a speech I allegedly gave at the caucus meeting where I challenged Bill English for the leadership. There were no speeches at that caucus meeting – no speeches at all – which anybody close to the National Party would have known. But yes, I wrote the words he quoted, on my home computer, in the expectation that there would be speeches, and took a hard copy of the speech notes to Wellington with me that day. How he got that text I have no idea. And there are other factual errors of greater significance which I can’t recount in the next few minutes!

As a liberal who has always really wanted to turn away from the dreary principles of collectivism and join the winning team of the right, I’ve looked and looked for a right-wing politician to follow and the closest I ever found was you in 2005 – I just thought you were so damned smart and had a genuine sincerity. But what stopped me from voting for you was the company you kept – all those crooked Hollow Men! One in particular I found fascinating. Brian Sinclair, who wore alligator shoes and had blond highlights. He was your “adviser”, and always sat next to you in the back seat of the car, whispering sweet or sour nothings in your ear. I thought of him as evil. Was he your Jason Ede?

No! Jason Ede was my press secretary, and Brian was a kind of aide-de-camp. Politically he would have been more at home in Act I think, but I never found him to be “sinister” or “crooked”. (And thanks for the compliment!)

Whatever your views of Hager, you would have to concede that his amazing book about Whale Oil and such has knocked Key around and perhaps made people see him more as he really is. You know Key. Is he ruthless?

Yes, I think JK is pretty ruthless – witness the way he dumped Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson from his cabinet a few years ago, though neither of them were guilty of a capital offence in my view. Having said that, to lead a major political party does require making tough decisions at times, so in itself that doesn’t disqualify him in my view!


Previously: Glenn Greenwald receives visitors at the sad and depressing Dotcom mansion – and the “little henchman” calls the Prime Minister a dirty liar.


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