The liberal leftie who learned maths, Matthew Hooton

Incredible Luck
Don Brash
Troika, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473269081

The tradition, when a New Zealand political book is published, is for our small but self-absorbed political class to rush to the nearest bookshop – often Bennetts at 1 Bowen Street, now sadly closed – to check the index, read any bits pertaining to themselves, and put it back on the shelf. Compared with, say, Craig Potton Publishing, the publisher of Don Brash’s autobiography has been more commercially astute: Incredible Luck has no index. To find out if you’re in it, you’ll have to buy it and read it all the way through.

Those who do will be well rewarded: there is plenty here to thrill those who lean right with reminders of why Brash for a time carried the hopes and dreams of The Movement. Similarly, those who lean left will enjoy the warm glow of schadenfreude and a reminder of why they fought so hard to keep him out.

The publisher also wisely left in the author’s headline-grabbing bits: Brash contemplating suicide and his startling plan not even to complete a single term as prime minister before handing over to John Key, whose government he disparages as “disappointing, marked in too many areas by timidity and hypersensitivity to opinion polls”.

The commercially astute publisher was Brash himself, and he decided to go it alone after established houses wanted changes to his book’s structure and some of its content. That makes it a highly unusual read. Many political autobiographies are overly long: Margaret Thatcher took 461 pages just to get to 10 Downing Street. Brash takes only 17 pages to provide a chronology of his life, from birth to the present, and the whole book is only 330 pages.

The political genre also throws up autohagiographies bordering on the unintentionally satirical: did you know Bob Hawke was pivotal in bringing peace to the Middle East? In contrast, Brash divides the main part of his book into three sections: “Some Successes I’m Proud Of,” “Partial Successes,” and “Some Failures and Regrets”. Most political autobiographies then include policy sections proving the author was right on every issue. To some extent Brash follows this model. He strongly makes the case for: the economic reforms he was so closely associated with; the “One Law for All” message that marked his political career; and his decades-long fears about house prices. But he reverses his previously laissez-faire public position on immigration, supports the legalisation and regulation of all drugs (just as the poll-driven Key government is moving towards prohibition of more of them), expresses concern about the implications for New Zealand of China and the United States falling out, and raises questions about whether democracy has a future in an environment – fast approaching, if not here already – where the vast majority of people are net beneficiaries rather than net taxpayers. His chapter on “Religion, Christian Fundamentalism and Islam” addresses whether a liberal democracy should be tolerant towards intolerance, especially Muslim fundamentalism. He concludes no.

Reversing himself is not new for Brash. Like many who led the economic reforms of 1984-93 he is, in a sense, a liberal leftie who learned maths. As he outlines in the first of his “success” chapters, “American Corporate Investment in Australian Industry”, his masters at the University of Canterbury found foreign investment to be harmful. He redid the maths for his doctorate at the Australian National University and concluded it is almost always beneficial.

Brash’s personal reversals are as profound. In the chronological section and chapter on religion, he describes how he grew up in a loving but devout household, with parents who “instilled in me a rather puritanical view of life, especially as it related to alcohol and sex”. I can report Brash remains relatively puritanical when it comes to alcohol – one glass of wine at lunch – and his reversal on sex has been more than well-enough documented elsewhere. He greatly admires both his mother and father – a Christian pacifist, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church and Waitangi Day protester against breaches of the Treaty – and considered following him into the ministry. He was involved in the Student Christian Movement at university and was still attending church while setting our interest rates, stopping only in the 1990s when in his 50s.

Now aged 73, the first piece of “incredible luck” that Brash cites is taken from a Richard Dawkins lecture and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. If any religious faith remains, it is the Christianity of John Spong and Sir Lloyd Geering, whose writings Brash says he has read “recently and belatedly”. Religion, and the idea of social justice that can stem from it, clearly remain major preoccupations.

His final break came when he found that he “regularly returned home [from church] depressed, and angry that I had wasted my Sunday morning listening to one of two kinds of ministers”:

One kind of minister was a well-meaning person who wanted to do good, and who saw doing good as essentially synonymous with being a socialist. … There were lots of clergy like that – well-meaning, without doubt, but with no understanding of economics. …

The other kind of minister of course was of the fundamentalist variety [with] no interest at all in issues of social justice, but believ[ing] in things that no educated person in the late 20th century should be expected to believe – a virgin birth, walking on water, and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

I found neither of these options – that Christians should be socialists or that Christians should believe in the unbelievable – in the least bit attractive.

 

What he does not say – exasperating this right-wing atheist! – is that had he extended that policy to meeting with representatives of the fundamentalist Exclusive Brethren, he would almost certainly have become prime minister in 2005.

Likewise, on the question of a “just war”, Brash did not automatically follow his father into pacifism, enjoying three years in the cadets before deciding himself to become a conscientious objector at age 15. He writes of regretting ever since not having the courage of Maurice Williamson and Paul Hutchison, who alone stood up to the rest of the National Party caucus to oppose the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Instead – and he doesn’t address this properly in the book, either – he fluffed around on the issue through the 2005 campaign as leader. Had he been true to his own beliefs, and insisted his party oppose misadventures like Iraq, he would almost certainly have become prime minister.

Having sought political power, and held enormous economic power, Brash has played something akin to god, but appears not to relish it. On his time working with Vietnam-era US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the Programming and Budgeting Department of the World Bank, he writes:

I was acutely conscious that in recommending a loan for $30 million to assist the education system in, say, Mali rather than Chad, I could be blighting the life prospects of literally millions of children in Chad. It was an awesome responsibility.

 

Be warned, Incredible Luck was written by a professional economist. True, Brash sometimes achieves something approaching a romantic style, inevitably with a religious tinge:

My eyes have seen great natural wonders … great human constructs … and intensely personal sights. … I have been able to read great books … and able to watch great movies. … My ears have heard great traditional classics … and great modern classics.

 

But readers need also be prepared for passages like this:

Grimes and Smith saw … that growth in what economists call total factor productivity – the increase in output which is not associated with a simple increase in labour and capital – was “markedly worse” in New Zealand … They referred in particular to the distortionary effects of New Zealand’s relatively high inflation rate over much of the four-decade period, to the trend deterioration in New Zealand’s terms of trade … and to the deadening effect of extensive import controls, tariffs and licensing on the incentive to innovate … .

 

This is a book by a complex individual, but anyone with an interest in one or more of philosophy, politics, economics, sex, religion, drugs, international finance or corporate governance is likely to get something out of it. And anyone actively involved in politics over recent decades has a good chance of discovering they are mentioned in it somewhere.

 

Matthew Hooton is managing director of Auckland lobbyists Exceltium, a centre-right political commentator on Radio New Zealand and a columnist in the National Business Review and Metro magazine.

 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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