Hard News by Russell Brown

Clever, creepy

On Morning Report yesterday, Don Brash declared that gay people are "clearly not mainstream New Zealanders … they're a very small minority." Pressed on whether they might reasonably aspire to be part of his "mainstream" he eventually quoth "I'm sure some of them absolutely are." And what, pray tell, are the others?

For all the fretting from the moral conservative fringe, the "normalisation" of homosexuality that they fear has long since taken place. Ordinary gay New Zealanders have simply got on with their lives, made their homes, pursued their dreams and paid their taxes. They are largely accepted, they are us - and we are all minorities in one way or the other.

I'm sure Brash knows this very well, which is why he makes such an idiot of himself when he's drawn to talk about it. His flip-flop on civil unions last year showed no sign of really coming from personal conviction (and provoked his memorable blurt about gay MPs to Camilla).

He is, rather, under direction. The wedge politics underlying National's pitch to the electorate would be neutered by woolly inclusiveness. The idea is to foster a budding sense of resentment, of "mainstream" people feeling they are being ignored or done down at others' expense. It's the same strategy that sets "Iwi" against "Kiwis" on the billboards. Maori are not mainstream either. Very clever; very creepy.

John Armstrong looked at the the strategy yesterday in his column Driving a wedge, the National Party way; noting that Gerry Brownlee's weekend conference speech deployed the word "mainstream" no fewer than 15 times:

National is saying the mainstream is "you and me", thus creating an us-versus-them mentality which seeks to portray Labour as pandering to extreme lobbies, noisy minorities and the politically correct.

While National would deliver tax cuts to the struggling mainstream, this scenario has Labour accused of wasting huge dollops of tax revenue on favouring its mates.

National's five core campaign messages - tax relief, ending the Treaty of Waitangi "gravy train", getting people off welfare and into work, stopping violent criminals getting parole and fixing slipping education standards - are based on focus-group research of what worries mainstream New Zealand.

They consequently enable National to claim it speaks for the mainstream, whereas Labour's tax blunder is being exploited as evidence of that party's increasing neglect.

The upshot is that, on the basis of its rhetoric, the 2005 model National Party is radically more socially conservative than the one that added protection on grounds of sexual orientation to the Human Rights Act in 1993 and, indeed, more so than any in the 1990s. It's easy to forget that the first Prime Minister to hold out the promise of civil unions was Jenny Shipley. Now it's us versus them.

But "blunder" is certainly the word for Labour and tax; an immediate realignment of tax brackets in this year's Budget might have produced only modest gains, but it was due, everyone (including me) expected it, and Labour missed it badly. Hence, today's horrible poll result in the Herald, whose only glimmer of light is that voters continue to favour Helen Clark over Brash as Prime Minister by a margin of two to one.

And National? Having initially promised to publish its alternative budget within two weeks of the real one, the party is now tossing out hints that it might not publish such a document at all; just some broad outlines. It has guessed that Labour, having settled on the slogan 'You're better off with Labour', has been poised to make enthusiastic and public calculations as to exactly how much better or otherwise its core supporters would be if they kept the faith. It makes sense for National to announce as little as possible as late as possible.

You'll have seen David Slack's handy tax cut calculator yesterday (and so has Colin Espiner). The thing to note about it is that is doesn't factor in National's spending promises. And I simply cannot see how National can pay for, to take one example, its vast law and order policy. That wasn't bothering Tony Ryall over the weekend - he just made a speech that was astonishing for its treatment of the facts. Crime was, he claimed, "out of control". And the statistics that say the opposite? Lies, apparently.

Ryall also declared that Labour "repealed National’s tough home invasion laws". Well, no, the home invasion law was superseded by the far more coherent Sentencing Act. And that original, wretched piece of headline-driven legislation is the reason that Ryall is the Justice minister from Hell. In 1999, he responded to criticism of the draft law by both the Law Society and the Law Commission by trying to shove it through under urgency, within a week, and without select committee scrutiny.

National has some genuine talent, especially in its prospective new intake. But Ryall? I shudder. But don't necessarily believe me. Michael Martin sent me a good email after I expressed the fear about National's law and order policy last week:

I am not a man of the Left at all (in fact, as an Orthodox Christian, I consider Labour's social engineering to be anathema), but I tend to agree with your comment. Here's why.

Every longitudinal social study that has ever been done, shows without a doubt, that the single biggest predictor of criminality in children is the absence of the father. I would go so far as to say, that there is simply no such thing as disagreement about this subject, by anyone who has actually sat down and studied it. Large numbers of fatherless children = high crime rate. The divorce and illegitimacy bone is connected to the crime bone, in other words.

Shortly after Brash's Orewa II speech, I made an appointment with Judith Collins (Welfare and Family Spokesperson for the Party), and discussed National's family law policy with her. I told her of my grave concern that National thought that the solution to all the woes of family life in New Zealand was to throw all "deadbeat dads" in gaol. I further pointed out to her, that this has been done for 15 years in America. The result is, that not a week goes by, but that some non-custodial father in America, bankrupted by child support payments, and prevented by restraining orders from even visiting his children, takes a firearm or axe, murders his ex-wife and kids, then commits suicide in despair. I told Judith, that if she wants an increase in these horrific crimes in New Zealand, that National's policy is just the prescription to achieve that.

Anyway, having thought that I wouldn't mind seeing the All Blacks dick the Lions 3-0, I found myself feeling a little bit let down by the sheer lameness of the Lions effort on Saturday night. It has, however, been fascinating since, seeing the Lions' spin machine swing into action, with Clive Woodward's multimedia demonstrations of the "spear tackle" that dislocated Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder. I have watched the incident several times: O'Driscoll was picked up and dumped after wandering through a ruck in the first minute of the match. But I couldn't see a spear tackle - and neither, apparently, could the citing commissioner.

I did have an excellent night out after the game, though. Murray Cammick invited me along to see the Accelerants, up from Wellington and playing at Eden's Bar. They've been compared to The Checks, on the basis that both bands offer some sort of R&B. But not really - The Checks are precise, the Accelerants are primitive. And, in K Road bar full of indie kids on a Saturday night, really bloody good fun.

And finally … I'll talk more about the Great New Zealand Argument book tomorrow, when I'm sure it's in the shops (and yes, there will be a way for offshore readers to get it) - but for now, the Book Council is running an event for us at the Film Archive, 84 Taranaki Street, Wellington, 6pm this Thursday night. I'll make a speech, there will be a screening of David Lange's Oxford Union speech, and Jim Traue, Gemma Gracewood and I will discuss ideas arising from the book.

It should be fun and we’d love to see you there. You can get yourself a ticket ($15, $12 unwaged) by contacting the Book Council by phone (04) 499 1569, fax (04) 499 1424 or email: events@bookcouncil.org.nz. Get in there.