Don Brash by Karen Phelps
It may surprise most people to know that Don Brash could just as easily have ended up batting for the other side. It was the late seventies when Brash was approached by David Lange to stand for Labour and he thought long and hard before deciding to turn down the offer.
“I was dumb founded and very flattered to be approached. But I thought there were some significant problems including the fact that I didn’t think the trade union movement, which Labour was very bound up with, was suitable to a modern economy at all and was in fact holding New Zealand back.”
A year later he attended a political meeting with a neighbour. When he was dropped home the neighbour gave Brash a receipt.
“I asked him what it was for and he said that’s for your National party subs. I told him I hadn’t paid any subs and he said that I owed him $2.”
Turned out National Party MP Frank Gill was about to resign and it was deemed that Brash was the most appropriate one to take his place. This was Brash’s initiation into the National Party.
Although he dabbled in politics in the 1980’s twice contesting the East Coast Bays electorate for the National Party (he lost both times but did substantially increase National’s share of the vote) Brash is a relative newby to the political arena. Which makes his rapid ascension to National Party leader in less than 18 months all the more surprising.
“It was a huge shock to me losing those elections in the eighties because I hadn’t been accustomed to failing in anything I had done. And of course now the fact that I have become leader of the National Party has amazed me. It has been a characteristic of my entire career that the things I have done have astonished me. If someone had told me at the age of 21 that I would one day be Governor of the Reserve Bank it would have been implausible to me. I’ve been very lucky to have had such a stimulating career.”
Life is busy for the new leader of the National party. He is currently speaking to me from his car and halfway through the interview has to call me back from a landline once he moves locations. He says politics is not a particularly healthy lifestyle, as he no longer has time to exercise or spend at least one day a week working on his kiwifruit orchard in Pukekohe.
“I thought I was working all the hours god gave before but now I’m working from 6.30am till 12pm.”
When preparing to interview a politician any self-respecting journalist steels themselves for answers recited off a PR statement and certain coyness about personal matters. The expectation is that one has to be on ones guard and conversely catch the politician off their guard. Perhaps because he is relatively new to the game Brash doesn’t appear to buy into any of that. He is open, chatty and friendly and doesn’t resort to the phrase ‘no comment’. One cannot help but wonder how long it will take before Brash is taught ‘media speak’ and his vows of transparency of government fall by the way side as so many others have before him.
“Because I have come to politics quite late in my career I don’t feel quite as bound by some of the strictures of traditional politics as some might do. I’m hoping to prove [transparency of government] is possible.
“The danger is that most people you come across, not all of them though as I proved at Waitangi,” he laughs, “are telling you you’re doing a great job and are a great guy. The risk is that you might get led to believe it and you are vulnerable to becoming arrogant. I am lucky in that I have family who keep my feet very firmly placed upon the ground. I also only very recently got into this game and have had many years to be informed about what the real world is actually like.”
And his popularity is rising. The year's first Colmar-Brunton poll put National at 45 per cent, seven points ahead of Labour and a sizable 17-point jump for National since December last year. It was also the first time Helen Clark's government has been knocked from the top spot. But Brash still has some work to do - although he has risen 11 points to 24 per cent he was still 10 points behind Helen Clark as preferred leader.
Brash completed his early education in Christchurch at Cashmere Primary School and Christchurch Boys High School. He then went on to the University of Canterbury (BA in economics, history and political science) before completing a Masters in economics with first class honours (the thesis warned against the dangers of depending on foreign capital and particularly on private foreign investment).
When he was just 21 he went across the Tasman to the Australian National University to undertake a PhD in economics and discovered a new found freedom.
“I remember walking down the road and looking at an advertisement for something quite illicit and thinking – ‘there’s no one to stop me doing that’.”
So did he?
Unlike his Masters thesis his PhD concluded that private foreign investment was almost always of net benefit to the receiving country.
“I realized I was quite wrong. I don’t see embarrassment in that situation; I think it does show that if something is shown to be different I will say so.”
Brash probably had a fairly strict upbringing by today’s standards. His father Alan was a Presbyterian minister and mother Eljean (an unusual combination of the names Elizabeth and Jean) a milliner. As Head of the National Council of Churches and Deputy General Secretary of the World Council of Churches Alan Brash was active in both the national and international church scenes. The house was strictly a ‘tea totaller’ zone and political discussions the norm. Brash says he had quite a left wing upbringing in terms of politics and admits he consistently voted Labour as a young man.
He says it was his home environment that led to his interest in economics, which he quickly identified as providing the most relevant activity to address the question of poverty and suffering. Later employed as an economist at the World Bank Group in Washington working with the Commission for International Development this point was further reiterated.
“I became aware of the mischief often created by well-intentioned governments.”
He quotes a classic illustration that he witnessed when on a trip to Peru for the World Bank:
“A hydro electric plant had been gifted to Peru under a German government foreign aid programme. A fertilizer plant was built to utilze the electricity but no understanding was given as to how to use the fertilizer so too much was put on the crops. Of course the crops died and farmers would not use the fertilizer again. So it was trucked miles to some sugar plantations making the fertilizer more expensive than importing it and of course the sugar was less internationally competitive. Even well intentioned governments get it wrong so frequently that market solutions are often much better.”
It was a difficult decision for Brash to return to New Zealand in 1971. By now he had two children (Ruth and Alan) with his first wife Erica and had a significant role at the World Bank in the Programming and Budgeting Department. The offer of the position of General Manager of Broadbank Corporation, one of the first merchant banks to be established in New Zealand after government policy was changed to allow foreign bank participation in merchant banks in New Zealand, coupled with the opportunity to be nearer to family proved too much of a draw card.
After losing the elections in the 1980’s he went back to work briefly at Broadbank before being appointed Managing Director of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority. It was here he met his present wife Singapore born Je Lan.
In mid 1986 Brash became Managing Director of the Trust Bank Group, a newly formed entity set up to be the nucleus of a full-service bank created from 11 of the 12 regional trustee savings banks. In the end 2 of the 11 withdrew from the group but for the next two years Brash was engaged in helping to create the Trust Bank Group.
In 1988 he was appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and in the next 14 years created an internationally unique relationship between the government and the central bank with government involvement in determining the target for monetary policy but with full central bank operating independence to deliver that target. He says many changes took place – transparency with a high degree of exposure both of the objectives and monetary policy, coining the $1 and $2 note and re-designing all the other bank notes.
This is the background Brash brings to government. He says ditching his job at the Reserve Bank for the uncertainty of politics was a tough decision. National promised him a fairly high party listing ensuring he would probably get into parliament though of course no one could have predicted his rapid promotion to National Party leader and the controversy his policies would cause, especially with regards to Waitangi.
“The present [Waitangi] situation is a result of the behaviour of previous governments. Both national and Labour are responsible for where we are now.”
A Business Herald/Auckland Chamber of Commerce survey of 500 businesses late last year found that Brash was head and shoulders above other senior politicians when it came to understanding the needs of business. Brash's ‘core beliefs’ on his website show he favours low taxation, little government involvement in labour laws and freedom of choice.
He identifies some of the biggest issues facing New Zealanders as being the increasing gap in earnings compared with Australians (Aussies earn an average of $200 per week more than Kiwis) and the rising Kiwi dollar. His general view that government regulation is often not constructive or helpful is likely to find favour with business. A recent example of this, says Brash, is new labour laws which make it difficult to fire staff meaning employers are reluctant to take on any staff they view as being slightly ‘risky’. This, he says, disadvantages certain sectors of the community.
“The government has had quite a long honeymoon period but now the feeling is they talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk.”
Since becoming leader of National time out with family is now difficult. He cites a recent example when he was having a meal with Je Lan and their eleven-year-old son Thomas for the first time in a week.
“At least half a dozen people stopped by our table to wish us well. They were very gracious but clearly it is hard to understand for an eleven year old who wants to have dinner with his dad.”
So when was the last time Brash, a man many accuse of showing little emotion, cried?
“Well I don’t know about cried but the last time I did choke up a little bit was after I had finished a speaking engagement recently and someone asked me - what is a New Zealander? I replied that a New Zealander was someone who had been overseas and gets a lump in his or her throat when they fly back into New Zealand. When I said it I choked up because I could recall so vividly times when I had come back into the country and thought boy this is a great place.”