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Karl du Fresne

The gang-up on Don Brash

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It’s hard to recall a more concerted gang-up against a public figure than the one that followed the launch of former National Party leader Don Brash’s Hobson’s Pledge movement, which wants an end to race-based preference.

The mild-mannered Brash is no stranger to public kickings, but even he must have been taken aback by the sheer venom of the backlash.

Maori broadcaster Willie Jackson said he was crazy. Labour leader Andrew Little called him racist (now that’s original). Prime minister John Key, Brash’s successor as National leader, belittled him by saying he sounded like a broken record.

Almost without exception, the media reaction was sneering and contemptuous. One political editor dismissed Brash as a jack-in-the-box – “wind him up and out he pops, shouting ‘boo’ over race relations”.

Columnist Toby Manhire suggested Brash and his supporters should start a colony on Mars. Hone Harawira labelled Brash a redneck – the default option for Maori activists stumped for a proper argument.

Media interviewers, including Radio New Zealand’s Mihingarangi Forbes andTV3’s Lisa Owen, were openly hostile. There was not even a pretence of the journalistic neutrality once required of broadcasters. No surprises there.

Some of the media coverage verged on dishonest. A headline on Radio New Zealand’s website, for instance, proclaimed that the Act Party rejected Hobson’s Pledge. This would have been damning, given that Brash is a former leader of Act and it’s a party that has consistently opposed entrenched privilege.

Only thing is, the headline wasn’t accurate. Act leader David Seymour faulted the way Brash’s group had gone about things, but he reaffirmed his party’s opposition to race-based parliamentary seats and other appointments – the issue at the heart of the Hobson’s Pledge campaign

In any case, it was arguably in Seymour’s interests to distance himself from Brash. Act may once have been a party that challenged the status quo, but Seymour’s precarious place in the political power structure depends on him not getting too far out of line.

Two common threads ran through the overwhelmingly disparaging response to Hobson’s Pledge. The first was that Brash’s critics seemed determined to muddy the water with extraneous issues – anything to deflect attention from his core message. None of his critics made a serious attempt to engage with the substance of his arguments.

Little, for instance, raised the shameful matter of 19th century land confiscations and unlawful detentions, but that’s no argument for separate Maori seats in Parliament or on councils. There are other ways of atoning for historic injustices than by subverting fundamental democratic values that guarantee equal rights for all.

Besides, as Brash pointed out on radio, Maori have demonstrated time and time again that they’re perfectly capable of getting themselves elected to Parliament and councils on their own merits. (Mike Tana, the newly elected mayor of Porirua, is Maori.) It’s patronising to assume that the only way they can succeed is through designated Maori seats or the creation of non-elected positions – such as Auckland’s Independent Maori Statutory Board – that take power out of the hands of voters.

The other common line running through the anti-Brash invective was that he should shut up and pull his head in because no one’s listening anymore – at least according to the critics.

But New Zealanders were listening in 2004 when Brash’s “one law for all” speech to the Orewa Rotary Club triggered such a dramatic resurgence in National’s popularity that Helen Clark’s Labour government came within a whisker of being toppled.

That Orewa speech is still routinely labelled in the media as “infamous”, which makes me wonder whether journalists understand the meaning of the word. Or do they genuinely believe Brash’s words were abominable or notoriously bad (which is what infamous means)? If so, it follows that they must view their fellow New Zealanders as being susceptible to racist rabble-rousing, which they are demonstrably not.

On TV3’s The Nation two Sundays ago, I heard one academic contemptuously suggest that the people who supported Brash in 2004 are a dying minority. I suppose that’s one way to marginalise people whose views you don’t like. But have public attitudes changed so markedly since then?

I don’t believe so. In recent years, voters in several places – Nelson and New Plymouth among them – have overwhelmingly rejected proposals that would have created special Maori wards.

In any case, Brash isn’t expounding some fringe extreme-Right idea, as his detractors would have us believe. All he’s doing is affirming the importance of equality before the law.

This isn’t something that changes according to whatever happens to be ideologically in fashion. It’s a fundamental principle of liberal democracy.

But make no mistake: Brash’s attackers want you to believe that we’ve “moved on” since 2004 and that Brash is just an irritating anachronism.

They all have their own reasons for wanting to shut him down.

For Key, the India rubber man of politics, it’s all about political practicalities. The Maori Party, whose survival depends on the continued existence of Maori seats, is National’s ally. It’s only a few years since National officially favoured the abolition of Maori seats, but ssshhh – we’re not supposed to remember that.

For Brash’s Maori critics, the sentiment expressed by Captain William Hobson on the original Waitangi Day – “now we are one people” – must be resisted because if it caught on, it could undermine Maoridom’s increasingly pervasive exercise of political power through the back door.

As for left-wing Pakeha, their bitter dislike of Brash can be attributed to blind adherence to the prevailing ideology of the day, which elevates fashionable identity politics over long-standing democratic fundamentals that guarantee equal rights for all.

If Brash has made a silly mistake, it’s in allowing the Hobson’s Pledge website to include rhetoric that’s almost comically colonial in its sentiment and could be construed as anti-Maori – something he’s been careful to avoid in the past.

Intentionally or otherwise, the website conveys the impression that at least some of the people behind Hobson’s Pledge pine for the days when we all stood for God Save the Queen at the movies and sang Anglican hymns at school. It also expresses sympathy for a visiting Danish politician who objected to being confronted by a “half-naked man shouting and screaming in Maori” (that is to say, doing the haka).

It’s one thing to oppose constitutional preference for Maori, but quite another to disown Maori culture or feel shamed by it.

In allowing this stuff to be published on the website, Brash has played into the hands of critics who are eager to portray Hobson’s Pledge as a bunch of sad old men who yearn for a return to the comfortable 1950s, when Maori knew their place and the whites were in charge. But his core message is no less valid because of that misjudgement.

Disclaimer: The writer has no association with Don Brash or any members of the Hobson’s Pledge group.

This article was first published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail.