(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, December 27).
Don Brash could be excused for feeling a little bruised as 2017 draws to a close.
The former leader of the National and ACT parties used his Facebook page to criticise Guyon Espiner, one of the presenters of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, for repeatedly showing off his fluency in Maori.
Brash objected because, as he pointed out, hardly any listeners to the programme would know what Espiner was saying. According to Brash, the presenter’s use of te reo is an example of “virtue signalling” – in other words, flaunting his moral superiority.
It was a legitimate comment about a high-profile figure employed by a publicly owned institution, but Brash’s Facebook post was the signal for one of the most brutal media gang-ups I can recall.
As the former leader of two right-of-centre political parties and the founder of a supposedly racist pressure group called Hobson’s Pledge, he’s considered fair game by the so-called “liberal” Left. And predictably, they piled in.
I put that word “liberal” in inverted commas because many of these people are angrily intolerant of opinions they don’t approve of. In other words, they are illiberal.
Many of the attacks on Brash were striking for their sheer malice and venom, and I’m not just talking about those that appeared in the Wild West of online social media. Some of the most vicious were published in mainstream media, where editors normally keep a check on spiteful and gratuitous personal attacks.
One columnist who makes his primary living as a comedian – a word which now seems interchangeable with “smug moralist” – harrumphed about Brash creating a “storm in a teacup” over te reo. But if there was a storm in a teacup, it was entirely due to the furious, over-the-top reaction from Brash’s attackers. All he did was write something on his Facebook page.
Brash was also subjected to an openly hostile interview (for want of a better word) with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand – a rare example of a state-owned broadcasting organisation publicly exacting utu against a critic – and was subsequently ridiculed for not pronouncing “whanau” correctly. If your name is Don Brash you can’t win, even when you try to play the game.
Brash, of course, has been a marked man ever since he delivered what is routinely described in the media as his “infamous” Orewa speech in 2004, when he was National Party leader. In that speech he espoused one rule for all New Zealanders and an end to special treatment in law for people of Maori descent.
“Infamous” it may have been in the eyes of some journalists, but it struck a chord with many New Zealanders. Brash took the National Party from its worst-ever defeat in 2002 to near-victory in 2005, which the Left explains by insisting that the 890,000 New Zealanders who voted for National were all racists. Yeah, right, as they say.
Since then, Brash has made himself even more unpopular with politically correct thinkers by forming Hobson’s Pledge, which has the mantra “one law for all”. The organisation takes its name from a statement attributed to Captain William Hobson at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi: “He iwi tahi tatou” – “We are all one people”.
In the eyes of his critics, Brash’s stance makes him a racist. But how do you define “racist”? A racist, to me, is someone who believes some races are inherently superior or inferior to others and discriminatory treatment is therefore justified.
By that definition, Brash could more accurately by characterised as anti-racist, since he opposes special treatment for a racial minority.
He mounts perfectly cogent arguments against racial privilege on the basis that it runs counter to the principle that everyone in a democracy should have equal rights. The most obvious example of Maori being treated differently is the anachronism of Maori seats in Parliament, which become very hard to justify when there are 23 MPs of Maori or part-Maori descent representing general electorates.
That’s not to say that Hobson’s Pledge doesn’t have members who are truly racist. It’s possible some are, although I would guess that many of the organisation’s members (I’m not one, incidentally) are simply older New Zealanders who are struggling to come to terms with the prevailing spirit of biculturalism. That may seem quaintly out-of-touch, but it doesn’t make them racist.
That raises another striking aspect of the attacks on Brash. A recurring theme was that he should shut up because he’s old, male and white, which apparently disqualifies him from having any right to express an opinion. We hear a lot of talk about the need to embrace diversity, but apparently it doesn’t extend to Pakeha men of a certain age.
We also hear a lot from the Left about the need for tougher laws against “hate speech” to protect vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities and the gay community. But ironically, the closest I’ve seen to hate speech in 2017, by far, was the outpouring of loathing for Brash.