The Right Stuff?
Interview with new National leader Don Brash by Lindsay Perigo
At SOLOC 2 you said you were not a libertarian. We already knew that, of course, but as a matter of interest, just why are you not a libertarian? If we take "libertarian" to mean one who believes all adult interaction should be voluntary, what fault do you find with that principle, and with its applications?
I certainly understand the appeal of the libertarian position but, perhaps because I was trained as an economist, I instinctively think in terms of trade-offs, not absolutes.
I guess my greatest concern about the libertarian position arises from the free-rider problem. We all want to live in a society which is free of crime, which is protected from external enemies, and which cares for those who cannot care for themselves. Many of us would be willing to contribute voluntarily to those objectives. But some might be content to let others pay: why should they be permitted to enjoy the benefits of living in such a society while others pay the cost? Or to take another example: as long as world markets regard wine from New Zealand as having some desirable qualities, shouldn't those who strive to maintain those desirable qualities have some right to restrain those who are happy to exploit that reputation by selling plonk?
How important is individual liberty in your lexicon of values? Your five-point plan doesn't mention it once.
I rate liberty very highly. There need to be strong reasons to constrain another person's freedom. That was a major reason why I voted for the Prostitution Reform Bill. But liberty was not in my "five point plan," because liberty is a fundamental value, not a policy issue to be fixed, such as welfare dependency, poor educational outcomes, and so on. Liberty, freedom, and choice feature in our core statement of National Party values.
One of your MPs said to me recently that freedom is the hardest thing to fight for—that kiwis just can't get interested in it. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?
Yes, I suspect that kiwis are pretty apathetic when it comes to freedom. This is no doubt because in most respects, on a day-to-day basis, people are free, and freer now than we used to be. We can import foreign goods and services without needing to get a licence and we can buy wine in supermarkets. The latter was an example of a relatively petty freedom, but once people have that additional element of choice they would not consider going back. There is plenty more to be done along these lines, as well as to build more genuine choice into some of our key institutions, such as the provision of education and health services. Most of us have never seen some of the most egregious examples of the suppression of freedom which totalitarian regimes exemplify, and people realistically know that in this society that is not a risk they face.
You used to be a socialist. What changed your thinking?
A combination of seeing first-hand how often even well-intentioned governments make a mess of things and reading books like "Free to Choose" by Milton and Rose Friedman.
I encountered one of the most dramatic examples of well-intentioned governments making a mess of things on my first visit to Peru as a World Bank economist. I found a hydroelectric plant donated to the Peruvians by the German government aid programme, built high up in the Andes near Cuzco. The German government had meant well, but after the plant was built there was little use for the huge increase in power supply. So the Peruvian government decided to build a nitrogenous fertilizer plant to use the power, and to supply fertilizer to the peasants. The Peruvian government had meant well, but failed to explain to the peasants that while using a little fertilizer helped their crops, using too much killed them. So next year, the peasants refused to use the new fertilizer. The Peruvian government decided that the best solution was to truck the fertilizer down the mountains and hundreds of kilometers up the coast to use on the commercial sugar plantations. But of course, the high transport costs made the fertilizer very expensive to the sugar plantations, so the importation of cheaper fertilizer had to be banned, and sugar production became less competitive on the world market. All well-intentioned efforts with unintended consequences.
So apart altogether from the loss of freedom which is implicit in socialism, it doesn't work.
Your Dad was a churchman of some note ... indeed of some notoriety among conservative Christians?! What are your own religious beliefs now?
For most of my life, I regarded myself as a Christian, and attended church almost every Sunday. Some years ago, I read "Why Christianity must change or die," by Bishop John Spong, and that book made me realise not only that I did not believe most of the things which are associated with the conventional view of Christianity—the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, a personal deity, and so on—but that many intelligent people shared that scepticism. But I nevertheless take Christianity seriously, because much that is good about our civilisation (as well as some of the things which have been bad in our history) stem from a Christian world view.
With the methamphetamine "epidemic" supposedly threatening to bring ruin upon the nation right now, there's a real feeding frenzy going on, with all parties trying to outdo each other in getting tough with drug-dealers, declaring gangs to be criminal organisations, etc. Your own Tony Ryall wants to reverse the traditional onus of proof when it comes to gangs, and require them to prove their possessions were legally acquired, rather than have the police prove they weren't. Does that ring alarm bells with you and, as you say in Parliament —if not, why not?
Yes, we would need to be very careful before changing the presumption of innocence. But it is also true that the leaders of the gangs pushing methamphetamine are very careful to distance themselves from the front-line pushers. Tony Ryall has indicated that a National Government would reverse the onus of proof so that convicted drug dealers would have to prove their assets were legally obtained, and has proposed that the police have powers to require individuals whom they have reasonable grounds to suspect have obtained assets through illegal means to prove the origins of those assets without needing a conviction. We haven't yet discussed what hurdles the police would need to jump in order to exercise those powers, but clearly there would need to be appropriate safeguards.
Quite apart from this, I believe the police need more resources to deal with what is clearly a very serious problem, the law needs to be enforced more vigorously, and sentences need to be enforced.
Why should such drugs be criminalised in the first instance? Isn't criminalisation both a violation of a person's right to put into his body what he chooses, and a wrong-headed commitment to Prohibitionism that we know from history does not achieve its objective?
I guess this is where I differ from the Libertarian position. I don't favour banning cigarettes, even though they are mildly addictive and lead to health problems for the smoker and those around him. But I do favour taxing cigarettes to discourage their use, and prohibition on selling them to people who are too young to make a mature assessment of the risks involved. Why? Partly because the smoker's health problems cause a cost to society given free hospital care and the effects of cigarettes on non-smokers nearby. But I do favour banning the supply and use of methamphetamines because the substance is extremely addictive (more addictive than heroin I am reliably informed), the acquisition of the substance is expensive and so the cause of a great deal of property crime, and the physical effect on the addict and those around him is, in a very short time, very serious indeed.
Do you believe in a continued role for the state in health, education, and welfare? If so, why?
Yes, because I believe there are significant benefits to all of us in having a healthy and well-educated population, and in living in a society where people affected by some temporary or permanent problem are cared for. In saying that, I am not, however, defending the present form of state involvement in these areas. While I believe that the state should fund an appropriate level of healthcare and education, it does not follow that virtually all healthcare and education should be provided by state-owned institutions. On the contrary, there would be much to be gained from much greater involvement of private providers in both healthcare and education. And the present welfare system is a disgrace: to have 350,000 adults of working age reliant on a state hand-out at a time when the economy is very buoyant indeed, with most employers unable to find even unskilled staff, is totally scandalous.
What about broadcasting? You said shortly after becoming leader that you'd like to sell TVNZ. Was that a promise, or were you just thinking aloud (and well!)?
My starting point in thinking about which assets should be owned by the state is that the state has been shown to be a poor manager of commercial businesses, in New Zealand and elsewhere. There have been exceptions, but they have been few and far between. So the presumption has to be in favour of private ownership of commercial businesses.
I'd make an exception for two kinds of businesses. The first is the natural monopoly, where private ownership would have to be so tightly regulated that it would have few benefits as compared to state ownership. For me, the best current example of that is Transpower: because there is no current, or foreseeable, alternative to the national electricity grid, I can see a good case for retaining it in state ownership.
The second exception might be a situation where we collectively decide that there is merit in promoting New Zealand culture in a way which would not be done by the commercial market. This is a potentially dangerous exception because it can too easily be used by the political and cultural elite to get others to subsidise their own preferences. But I could see some national benefit in having a non-commercial television channel, a la the BBC in the United Kingdom. TVNZ is a very long way from that model, however, and indeed to most viewers is indistinguishable from TV3. If creating a non-commercial BBC-like television network out of TVNZ is too expensive, then certainly the logic of keeping it in state ownership looks very thin.
And the Ministry of Women's Affairs, a truly obnoxious piece of statism. Will you really abolish it?
That would certainly be my intention and, though we have not formally discussed this issue while I have been in the National Party Caucus, I suspect that that would also be a view commanding strong support in the Caucus. You will, of course, have seen Judith Collins' excellent article on this issue in The Free Radical of May-June 2003.
You and I both share a horror at what has happened in education. It's been going on for so long now that we don't just have illiterate pupils, we have illiterate teachers. What would a Brash-led government do about political correctness in education, including the dumbing down and retreat from numeracy and literacy that has gone on? Much of the corruption occurred under a National Government. What assurance have we that Don Brash's Minister of Education won't cave in to the teacher unions and the bureaucracy the way Lockwood Smith did?
Let me try to answer both of these questions together. Yes, we share a horror at what has happened in education, with far too many children coming out of school barely able to read and write and even more children unable to write or speak grammatically. As you suggest, we now have teachers who can't write or speak grammatically, and are therefore quite unable to teach their pupils to do so.
It is probably a fair comment that governments from both sides of the House have found that the educational bureaucracy and the teacher unions have taken control of education, and as a result New Zealand children have become the guinea pigs for a lot of politically correct educational experimentation.
Could a Don Brash-led Government do any better? All I can pledge is that doing better in education is one of my top priorities. For me, the starting point needs to be about giving parents more choice about where they educate their children. We need to ensure that a system of testing is in place so that parents can assess the progress their children are making. We need to ensure that teachers are paid according to performance, and that poor teachers are encouraged to improve their performance or are removed from the school system.
We both understand the connection between freedom & prosperity. Given the myriad ways in which the present government discourages business, including the appalling tax burden, does it amaze you that the economy is doing so well?
Yes, the economy is currently buoyant and, thanks to the reforms of the eighties and early nineties, our growth over the last decade has been one of the fastest in the OECD. In the last few years, we've also been helped along by a very low exchange rate in 1999, 2000, and 2001, and by a weak world economy and security concerns overseas, which together created a strong surge in net immigration.
But with the recent strong rise in the exchange rate and tighter restrictions on immigration, it seems likely that the economy will slow over the next few years. The Treasury is forecasting GDP growth to slow gradually over the next decade to about 2% annually. Little wonder, given that the present Government erects new barriers to growth at almost every turn.
Your own programme of tax cuts and reducing the size of government is considerably less ambitious than ACT's (which is considerably less ambitious than Libertarianz'!). Don't you need to be bolder?
Fundamentally, political parties in a democracy can only do what they can sell to the public at large. Most New Zealanders would like to pay less tax (except the significant number who pay no income tax of course—they favour increasing taxation, paid by the rest of us!). But not many favour a radical reduction in the size of government. For that reason ACT will never be a major party, although there is clearly a solid small constituency for those views.
Take the RMA. National passed that abomination, and only accepted there was anything wrong with it after being voted out. Tinkering with it won't do. Why not ditch it, affirm the sanctity of private property and allow that to be the basis of anti-pollution laws?
Well, not quite accurate. National recognized that there was something wrong with the RMA before losing office in 1999, and introduced a Bill to deal with most of the most serious problems. But I admit that we were late in trying to deal with those problems, and as a consequence the Bill was not passed before we were voted out.
The RMA is a complex area, but I believe it can be reformed. The problem is that, as currently framed, it is wildly out of balance, making it too cheap and easy for objectors, and too difficult and costly for those attempting to develop this country. Just ditching it will not do. Pollution issues are all about how to deal with 'externalities' (third party effects) and that simply requires a more complex set of regulatory responses than just an assertion of property rights. And there is a role for planning, for zoning, and so forth. But these sorts of interventions must be in the service of the way people want to live, not the imposition of the way the planners feel people should live. We need to recraft the RMA to make that possible.
Talking of private property, in the current seabed and foreshore debate you are taking the position that seabed and foreshore should be owned by the Crown. Aren't you on the wrong side?
The Crown has "owned" the seabed and foreshore for over a hundred years, and that has been recognized by almost all New Zealanders, both Maori and non-Maori. That was embodied in legislation. So National is not on the wrong side of this issue. And while some Maori have had a close historical relationship to some parts of the foreshore, and in the 19th century that relationship may have been important to their subsistence life-style, we happen now to be in the 21st century. The Treaty grievance industry is wildly out of control, and the latest set of Government proposals simply hitch another wagon to the gravy train. Getting the Treaty process back under control will be a crucial part of our job when next in Government.
What about the "Brat Pack" and others in your caucus who want to steer the party to the murky middle?
I've asked my colleagues not to use that expression to describe those who entered Parliament in the 1990 election.
There is a range of views within the National Party Caucus, as there is in every Caucus. But there is strong support for the core values of the Party as agreed at the constitutional conference of the Party last April. These values include a respect for freedom and a preference for choice rather than compulsion. These will guide us as we develop specific policies.
Let's say you got elected, and had a clear run for three terms, nearly a decade. What sort of New Zealand would you like to see at the end of nine years?
By the end of three terms, I'd want to see New Zealand's standard of living approaching that in Australia; all children emerging from school able to read, write and handle basic mathematical concepts; a drastic reduction in the number of those dependent on a benefit; the final resolution of all historical grievances relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, with all New Zealanders henceforth treated with absolute equality before the law; a sharp reduction in crime; and the restoration of a close relationship with Australia. If that could be achieved— and I believe it could be over three terms— New Zealand would be a much better place, with a high degree of meaningful freedom.
What are the things that "spin your wheels" when you're away from the public gaze and free to indulge your private passions?
Alas, there isn't much time for indulging in "private passions" these days, but what limited time I get I spend with my family, and on my kiwifruit orchard. There is something uniquely satisfying watching 100 tonnes of export-grade fruit leave one's orchard, even though I know perfectly well that my contribution to its production is, these days, very limited.
Dr Don Brash, MP,
National Party Leader
05 November 2003
Brash - Five Point Plan For National
In his first general debate speech as National Party Leader, Don Brash has underlined his five point plan for the main Opposition Party.
"There is a mood for change and this spin-doctoring Labour minority Government is failing miserably to recognise this.
"My commitment to New Zealanders as Leader of the National Party is to deliver on five key goals:
"We have to start narrowing the gap between our living standards and those of our cousins in Australia, a gap which sees every Australian getting nearly $200 per week more than the average New Zealander.
"We have to ensure every child leaves school able to read and write, no matter what their parents' income or where in the country they are.
"For the sake of those receiving it and those paying for it we have to end the creeping paralysis of welfare dependency. As a country we spend $20 million a day on social welfare, nearly a million dollars an hour, 365 days every year.
"We need to head off the dangerous drift to racial separatism and deal fairly and finally with historical grievances. We must ensure all New Zealanders are treated equally before the law.
"And we need to ensure all New Zealanders feel secure. That means not just dealing firmly with crime, drugs, gangs and vandalism, but also making sure that our relationships with new friends in Asia and old friends in Australia, the UK and the US are put on a firm footing.
"I am not interested in trading personal insults with the Prime Minister or members of her Government," says Dr Brash.
"I am not interested in sarcasm. I am interested in, and indeed desperately worried about, New Zealand's future.
"I am committed to doing everything in my power to ensure the future holds prosperity, racial harmony, security and hope for every New Zealander," Dr Brash says.
Inquiries: Jason Ede (021) 411 561
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