Now for the post-coup turbulence

Rodney Hide
Rodney Hide
The political landscape stretching predictably out before the November 26 election with barely a wrinkle in sight just got more interesting - or at least unpredictable.

While the Act New Zealand party has been at pains to portray the transition as an orderly, almost routine handing on of the baton, Thursday's leadership coup, in which former National Party leader Don Brash ousted incumbent leader Rodney Hide, conceals a sustained period of dysfunction and disunity.

If it was a bloodless coup, then this was only because the blood had, at least temporarily, congealed in the veins of its various players - primarily those of principal "victim" Mr Hide. The question on many minds will be the extent to which that blood, thinned under the pressure of pent-up acrimony, might begin to boil between now and the end of November.

There was little sign of that dis-ease at the announcement. Among other skills acquired by Mr Hide during his parliamentary tenure, most notably during his "sabbatical" on the popular television programme Dancing with the Stars, has been a certain stage presence.

He has learned to "hold the moment". But there will surely follow a degree of chagrin, if not bitterness, as Mr Hide's political exile beckons and he begins to measure his perceived accomplishments against the brutal manner of his toppling.

Despite protestations to the contrary, notably from Dunedin Act list MP Hilary Calvert, that toppling occurred because the incumbent leader had lost the unqualified support of his caucus. And most likely also - although details of this are yet to emerge - because the party's corporate backers had lost faith in Mr Hide's ability to protect, even enhance, their political brand.

The canary yellow jacket, the lowlights of TV's dance floor, the one-time perk-buster's high-profile hypocrisy in taking advantage of travel perks for himself and his new partner, the embracing of reactionary social policies and concealment of former Act MP David Garrett's criminal past - all these accruing around the abrasive personality of Mr Hide were seen to have damaged and diluted the Act brand, particularly the purity of its radical economic project.

Those backers, it would seem, are a good deal more comfortable with Dr Brash - not without good reason, for despite his sometimes other-worldly demeanour and occasional outbreaks of foot-in-mouth, the 70-year-old former governor of the Reserve Bank is a world-respected economist, albeit of an uncompromising kind, and has the track record as leader of the National Party of having led it back from the brink of oblivion.

Prime Minister John Key has to date greeted the prospect of a Dr Brash-led Act party with equanimity, but that may change as he finds himself the butt of Dr Brash's criticism. Mr Key has been plain that he sees Dr Brash as something of an extremist, albeit allowing some common ground between the two parties' goals.

National has been harsh, almost to the point of ridicule, on the proposals of Taskforce 2025 headed by Dr Brash and charged with investigating means of closing the economic gap with Australia. And should Labour's campaign to highlight the Government's plans for partial state asset sales in a next term take hold, Mr Key will not welcome the constant trumpeting of more of the same to his right.

For now it appears Mr Hide will remain a minister in the Government, although with Dr Brash as the party leader outside Parliament, a new - temporary - leader inside the House will be required.

That is most likely to be Heather Roy, but given the ill-feeling over her demotion from the deputy leader's position, to be replaced by John Boscowen, the next few months could be rocky for the caucus and for the coalition as well.

The uneasy relationship between the Maori Party and Act, for instance, is likely to be thrown into sharp and potentially problematic relief. For all that, a recalibrated and re-energised Act will pose equal if not greater challenges for the Opposition.

The party may cannibalise votes to the right of National, but this may allow Mr Key and his cohorts to consolidate in the centre, leaving less room for Labour.

And while Dr Brash may appear a mild-mannered, ageing, and unlikely leader, there is steel in his core and intellectual grit, too. Political friends and foe alike will underestimate his return to the centre-Right stage, and the potential repercussions, at their peril.


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