Decline and Fall? Part II
As the cliché has it, a week is a long time in politics. There may never have been – at least in New Zealand – a better example of that maxim than the week of 13 to 19 September 2010. I began the week giving a speech on “three strikes” to a Rotary Club in East Auckland on the Monday evening. The “three strikes” law had passed, and I was doing everything I could to communicate to voters that it was a major policy win for ACT. By the following Friday, I had resigned from the ACT caucus in disgrace, and was on the run in the South Island, trying to shield my children from the howling dogs in the media who were trying to find us.
The reason for my downfall has been written about ad nauseum – including by me – and there is little point going over old ground here. Suffice it to say if Rodney’s trip to Europe was the first large nail in ACT’s coffin, for those whose agenda was personal aggrandizement rather than the interests of the party, my downfall was a godsend.
To the best of my knowledge, my friend Roger Douglas never joined the “Hide brought Garrett into the party and therefore it’s all his fault” bandwagon, although he certainly would not have been unhappy that Rodney was once again having to endure a grilling from both the media and those in the Party who were determined that he should be replaced.
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 03: ACT MP Heather Roy talks to media after the first ACT Party Caucus Meeting on May 3, 2011 in Wellington (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Heather Roy however suddenly developed a serious case of amnesia about what had been discussed in my office in Albany when I disclosed the details of my sorry scam 27 years before. Following her own agenda, she was at the front of the “it’s all Hide’s fault” pack of baying hounds determined that my downfall would quickly be followed by Hide’s.
Following my resignation, I was largely out of the loop, but I record my everlasting gratitude to John Boscawen, who continued to extol my virtues and my achievement with “three strikes”, and was personally a great support to me and my family during the worst crisis of our lives. John Boscawen’s decision to leave politics immediately prior to the 2011 election was another mortal blow to the ACT Party. John is one of those rare people who no-one dislikes, but who also holds firmly to his principles, and is totally unafraid to stand out from the herd. I am very honoured to count him among my few true friends.
The real problem for Rodney following my departure was my replacement, Hilary Calvert, a long time ACT stalwart from Dunedin. From my limited acquaintance with her, Hilary is a delightful woman, but she quickly became known for a series of gaffes, and she provided even better sport for the left leaning media than I had been. More importantly, whereas with me the ACT caucus was firmly 3 -2 behind Rodney as leader, Hilary’s loyalties were soon revealed to be far less committed.
When the end came for Rodney seven months after her arrival, Hilary’s support for Don Brash over Rodney became decisive.
Don Brash – in many respects a most unlikely politician – had led National in 2005, and but for the debacle involving the Exclusive Brethren church, probably would have led National to victory in the election that year. There is certainly no doubt that his “Orewa” speeches about “one law for all” – another long time ACT policy – were directly responsible for the National Party virtually doubling their vote as compared with the previous election in 2002. The quite brilliant John Ansell billboards – the best of them the now legendary “Kiwi not iwi” series - reflected the concerns of middle New Zealand, and expressed in visual sound bites what Brash had articulated in much more detail in the speeches.
Following National’s defeat by a whisker in 2005, Brash was quickly replaced as leader by John Key, and Don largely disappeared off the political radar – although I do recall him not infrequently coming into the chamber and watching the proceedings from beside the Speaker’s chair, as all former MP’s are entitled to do. Clearly “the Don” was not finished with politics.
At one time, Brash was known among ACT insiders as “ACT’s tenth MP”. His sympathies were and clearly always had been in favour of the free market, limited government, a hard line on law and order, and no laws favouring one race of New Zealander over others – all key ACT policies. That notwithstanding, during February and March 2011, as it appeared more and more obvious that he would challenge Rodney for the leadership, no-one anywhere on the political spectrum could quite believe it. Political soufflés rarely rise twice – particularly in two different parties.
Two who did rise a second time were Brash – albeit fleetingly – and Peters.
Leaving aside differences in political principles and beliefs, the contrast between the wily, suave and teflon coated Peters and the bumbling Brash could not be more stark. That is the main reason no-one in ACT – or the media – initially took Brash seriously.
But by early 2011, ACT’s poll support was dismal, and major backers had deserted the Party. Brash promised that he would rejuvenate the Party’s fortunes – both in financial terms and in the polls. There is no doubt he truly believed that the 40% odd support National had gained in 2005 was down to him personally, and that were he to be leader, ACT’s support among voters would leap dramatically.
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 28: Dr Don Brash speaks to the media after ACT leader Rodney Hide resigned.
As the “Mr Magoo” like Brash managed one astonishing and unexpected triumph after another in his drive for the leadership of ACT, the tide against Hide became stronger and stronger. Hilary Calvert – whose vote in support of Hide was crucial – changed sides a number of times. Eventually, even the loyal and stalwart John Boscawen came to believe that Rodney ought to step down for the good of the Party.
I firmly believe Rodney Hide always had the good of the Party – and the country – paramount in his mind. Although he has been accused of “selling out for the baubles of office”, I am convinced that is not the case. As a recent interview with the reptilian Guyon Espiner makes clear, once Rodney saw the writing clearly on the wall, he did his best to assist Brash carry off his coup – although he did draw the line when Brash asked him where he should park his car before administering the coup de grace at ACT headquarters in Newmarket, before a phalanx of eager reporters and their cameras
I watched that press conference from a back room, and after it was over, saw Rodney take Brash into a private meeting with then Chief of Staff Peter Keenan to discuss the mechanics of the handover. I was astounded at Hide’s dignity and apparent good humour, when a lesser man would, at the very least, have simply walked off and left Brash to it.
And so Dr Don Brash – who joined ACT on the day of the coup which made him leader – took over the reins of the party, firmly convinced that in short order he would deliver not the 15% of the vote which he publicly claimed, but the 40% he truly believed would defect from National and follow him to ACT. The third four inch nail in the ACT coffin – the first two being Rodney’s disastrous trip, and my departure in disgrace – was nailed home.