(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, October 5.)
It’s hard to recall a more concerted gang-up against a public figure than the one that followed last week’s 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 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 him 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 no 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 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 uppity.
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, people of Maori descent have demonstrated time and time again that they’re perfectly capable of getting themselves elected to Parliament and councils on their own merits. It’s patronising to assume that the only way they can succeed is through designated Maori seats or the creation of non-elected positions 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 at the next election.
I heard one academic on TV3’s The Nation last Sunday contemptuously suggest that the people who supported Brash then 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 2004?
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 existence depends on Maori seats, are National's allies.It’s only a few years since National officially favoured the abolition of Maori seats in Parliament, 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.
Footnote: A few days ago I cast my votes for the Masterton District Council. I made my choices partly on the basis of which candidates opposed giving unelected Maori representatives decision-making powers on council committees.
Sixteen percent of the Masterton population identify as Maori and there are people of Maori descent here who would have got my vote had they put themselves forward for election, but none did. If Maori wish to participate in governance then they should do it the way everyone else does - by contesting elections.