Hard News by Russell Brown


Strange as it may sound, some of Don Brash's colleagues will regard yesterday's strong One News Colmar Brunton poll as a mixed blessing. Even as they inevitably profess their loyalty to him, it will be occurring to them that perhaps Dr Brash does not feel all the loyalty he ought to them.

Brash's interview on Agenda on Saturday morning (video here, transcript here) was, frankly, astonishing.

After telling news reporters last week that he had not met recently with the Exclusive Brethren, he admitted that he had in fact met privately with Brethren leaders since the election, without bothering to tell his caucus.

And, with the news sinking in that the Brethren has been employing private investigators to conduct creepy and unprecedented covert surveillance of Labour ministers and their families (I'll believe the PI Wayne Idour's belated claim that Labour has been doing the same thing when there's a shred of evidence for it), Brash declined to rule out further such meetings and declared that he hadn't "the faintest idea" what his caucus might think about that.

What some of them thought was clear enough on the front page of the Sunday Star Times yesterday:

Two senior National MPs are now blaming the Exclusive Brethren for the party's election loss - and the support of the religious extremists is dividing its caucus.

One is economic development spokeswoman Katherine Rich - the other is Don Brash's deputy Gerry Brownlee.

The Sunday Star-Times has learnt that before last year's election, the National caucus discussed whether it should have a policy on accepting help from the Exclusive Brethren.

The discussion didn't lead to a policy and nearly every National Party candidate - the noted exceptions being Rich, Simon Power and Maurice Williamson - accepted help from the sect with billboards, pamphlets, canvassing and other campaign activities. This is a rather different picture to that offered when the Brethren issue blew up in the campaign - where almost everyone claimed no knowledge of the sect's formal involvement - but it is what this blog has been saying all along.

There is nothing wrong in principle with people helping political campaigns: it's democracy in action. It's the lack of transparency that bugs me, especially light of the EB's less savoury activities.

Brash managed to put his foot in it several other times in the interview, most notably here:

"I've met with them once since the election more than a year ago, am I gonna rule out meeting with anybody. Look we're talking about hate speech here, do I meet with Muslims? Yes. Are some of them terrorists? Possibly. I'm not gonna stop myself meeting with any group who wants to talk with me as Leader of the National Party."

Good grief. Would Dr Brash like to expand on which local Muslim community leaders he thinks are "possibly terrorists"? Or are they all under suspicion?

Brash's weekend also featured his suggestion that Maori no longer "remain a distinct indigenous people," moving Pita Sharples to observe: "He is so stupid."

Or something.

I do wonder where Brash's allegiances lie, because that point sometimes seems to be outside his Parliamentary party. He responded to the story of his extramarital issues by taking the counsel not of his colleagues, but of the somewhat notorious political fixer Bryan Sinclair. He seems deaf to the concerns of his MPs about the Brethren connection. I can relate to National's other leadership candidates; I can see where they come from. But Brash? I have less idea than I did when he first stood for Parliament. Is he the cuckoo in the nest?

Labour will be sanguine about the poll result. Its sample period predates tthe Brethren-spying story, and it's only a Colmar Brunton: the same poll that had National nine points ahead three days out from the general election.

But it would be foolish to ignore the signal of public disapproval, especially against the same poll's backdrop of increasing optimism about the economy. Labour could quite easily recover any ground, but only on one condition: that it climbs down, accepts the Auditor General's ruling on election spending and pays back money found to have been misspent. I have yet to meet a Labour voter (well, one who's not a member of the party) who doesn't think the same thing.

They might also wish to encourage the Prime Minister to take the edge off her tongue, lest her behaviour be seen to diverge from her party's interests.

Amusingly, the SST's intriguing Brethren backgrounder notes that the sect published a booklet calling on Labour "to apologise for opposing the Iraq War and (its) anti-American attitude."

Uh-huh. Meanwhile, a long-delayed report reveals that the consensus view of the US government's 16 different intelligence agencies is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicals and increased the risks to America and the wider world of Islamist terrorism. It notes the probability that Islamists who have gravitated to Iraq to fight will return to their home states, "exacerbating domestic conflicts or fomenting radical ideologies."

Ask Riverbend about that. Her most recent post focused on the flight from Baghdad of its middle class - Sunni, Shia, Arab and Kurd - many under threat of death from the new militias, and on her new reality:

For me, June marked the first month I don’t dare leave the house without a hijab, or headscarf. I don’t wear a hijab usually, but it’s no longer possible to drive around Baghdad without one. It’s just not a good idea. (Take note that when I say ‘drive’ I actually mean ‘sit in the back seat of the car’- I haven’t driven for the longest time.) Going around bare-headed in a car or in the street also puts the family members with you in danger. You risk hearing something you don’t want to hear and then the father or the brother or cousin or uncle can’t just sit by and let it happen. I haven’t driven for the longest time. If you’re a female, you risk being attacked.

I look at my older clothes- the jeans and t-shirts and colorful skirts- and it’s like I’m studying a wardrobe from another country, another lifetime. There was a time, a couple of years ago, when you could more or less wear what you wanted if you weren’t going to a public place. If you were going to a friends or relatives house, you could wear trousers and a shirt, or jeans, something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear. We don’t do that anymore because there’s always that risk of getting stopped in the car and checked by one militia or another.

There are no laws that say we have to wear a hijab (yet), but there are the men in head-to-toe black and the turbans, the extremists and fanatics who were liberated by the occupation, and at some point, you tire of the defiance. You no longer want to be seen. I feel like the black or white scarf I fling haphazardly on my head as I walk out the door makes me invisible to a certain degree- it’s easier to blend in with the masses shrouded in black. If you’re a female, you don’t want the attention- you don’t want it from Iraqi police, you don’t want it from the black-clad militia man, you don’t want it from the American soldier. You don’t want to be noticed or seen.

What a horrible fuckup.

Anyway, to end on a cheerier note: on Friday evening, all eyes were on the new lineup drafted by the captain-player-coach, one rejigged even since pre-season training. And, to be sure, there were some nerves, the odd dropped ball and a few untried combinations in the team's first competitive game of the season. But there were also spells of great power and dazzling fluidity. Some of the familiar set pieces took on a whole new life, and seasoned observers agreed that the new lineup looked very good and would continue to improve as it developed match fitness. Yep, the Dimmer gig was great …