Don Brash and Populism – an essay

In his short time as leader of the National Party, Don Brash employed a strategy of populism that was unfamiliar to New Zealand.  A broad explanation of populism is a concept that ‘exists whenever there is an ideology of popular resentment against the order imposed on society by a ruling class’.[1] A key element of this concept that was employed by Brash is a commitment to nationalism.[2] While not quite reaching racism, populists will vigorously defend the needs of their nation before the needs of any minority foreign or racial group.[3] A subsequent key element that Brash also utilised is the manipulation of feelings of resentment and suspicion that the public have towards bureaucratic institutions and special interest groups that they may cater to.[4] Brash used these elements to position New Zealand against the government and special interest groups. A common identifiable theme that these elements are based around is a push for ‘one law for all New Zealanders’, whether along racial, economic or social lines. This highlights the relevancy and need for awareness of populism in New Zealand due to the capacity for politicians who are able to exploit underlying trends to potentially mislead the general public in their intentions.

Nationalism was a dominant theme in National’s race policy, which was the central part of their election strategy. The policy was announced in a speech at Orewa Rotary Club in 2004. In this speech, conveniently titled ‘Nationhood’ Brash alleged that the Labour government gave ‘special privilege’ to Maori, who had ‘a birthright to the upper hand’.[5] Brash held that this attention to Maori in cases such as the Foreshore and Seabed controversy put them on a pedestal above other New Zealanders, and vowed to end this through steps such as abolishing the Maori seats, and removing the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi from New Zealand legislation.[6] This kind of nationalism is particularly effective in New Zealand, a nation whose identity was forged as soldiers died as equals on the beaches of Gallipoli only a century ago.[7] The shared experience created a powerful sense of national unity, which is why any sign that one group enjoys special privilege over the others is particularly grating.[8] Brash was therefore able to utilise this key element of populism to arouse resentment towards both Maori and the Labour government, whilst still insistent on his nationalist ideology.[9] The idea of New Zealand nationalism was played on throughout the entire National campaign, and is shown particularly well in the adverts that give New Zealand a choice between ‘Iwi’, choosing to support Maori special interest with a grumpy looking Helen Clark, or ‘Kiwi’, uniting as one New Zealand with a smiling Don Brash.[10] This nationalist campaign demonstrates Brash’s populist streak as it highlights the importance of New Zealand abandoning special interests and banding together as one nation free of both positive and negative discrimination based on race.[11]

However, Brash’s ‘unifying’ populism wasn’t entirely positive. Through his race policy he also mirrored another key populist element – manipulating feelings of resentment towards particular groups that enjoy special privilege. His motivations were also not entirely based on a desire to see New Zealand united either.  Leaked emails between Brash and his campaign staff show that the subject matter of the Orewa Speech was based on the need for a ‘big populist issue’ to revive National’s flagging polls.[12] Race was identified as an issue that could do this after a particularly racially charged speech by Winston Peters that won him popular acclaim.[13] Brash combined the aforementioned belief in national unity, as well as an underlying suspicion towards any kind of race based privilege that Peters revealed, and exploited them through a subtle employment of ‘dog whistle politics’, or ‘political actions and rhetoric that contain language, claims and racial stereotypes designed to exploit the prejudices of certain target audiences’.[14] This manipulation is a textbook mirroring of the populist technique of manipulating suspicions and prejudice. Because of this, the pervading attitude in New Zealand was of resentment towards Maori and their Labour Party benefactors, automatically turning voters towards Brash and his talk of ‘Nationhood’.[15] In this way, Brash utilised both the nationalist and manipulative elements of populism towards his own electoral ends through his race policy.

Brash’s cultivation of a populist image continued throughout his leadership. In 2005 Brash became a vocal supporter of public referenda for key issues, particularly the Civil Unions Act and Prostitution Reform Bill.[16] Brash is quoted as being uncomfortable with ‘profound and often deeply controversial changes’ in legislation being made without the assent of the general public.[17] Brash also cited the ‘heavy number of submissions opposed to this bill’ to justify his decision to vote against Civil Unions. [18] This is easily identifiable as populism and shows an ongoing employment of the key populist element of nationalism. However, like his race policy, Brash was manipulating public resentment towards these minority groups towards his own ends. Referenda are generally recognised as being the best way to gauge what true public opinion is and so by calling for them to be held, Brash could accuse the Labour government of wanting to grant more special privileges to minority groups with no public mandate – in this case the homosexual and sex-worker communities. Because a majority of New Zealanders did not fall into the categories of society that the aforementioned reforms advocated for, Brash could make the allegation that the government were neglecting the issues of wider New Zealand society. To a populist, social cohesion is valued above anything else, and this is precisely what Don Brash was calling for as he once again evoked the treasured nationalism of New Zealand and manipulated it against the minority interests of Labour.[19]

Accompanying the populist manipulation of underlying public trends, and cultivation of a ‘people’s champion’ image was a palpable shift to centrist politics for both Don Brash and the National Party. When Brash became leader he was widely known as a staunch supporter of neo-liberal policy.[20] However, Brash underwent a significant political rebranding that complimented his populist push for nationalism and unity in New Zealand. One of the policies that most reflects this shift was National’s tax reform plan. Early in his leadership Brash signalled that he was in favour of tax cuts for high income earners.[21] However, as the election approached National announced that it would support cuts for low and middle incomes. [22] This policy is a continuation of Brash’s nationalist ‘one law for all theme’, recurring in economic promises. Just as Brash said that particular groups should not receive special attention based on race or social status, he also pushed for an image of economic equality, that would not see any particular group favoured in terms of tax cuts. At the same time Brash is again able to manipulate public suspicions of government – in this case wariness of big spending, or ‘the nanny state’. When he announced the across-the-board tax cuts Brash emphasised the fact that the cuts would be paid for by eliminating ‘wasteful expenditure’ while leaving vital professions like teaching and nursing unharmed.[23] The idea that Labour’s spending was reckless and out of control was one that Brash could exploit and manipulate, to create the impression that the government was irresponsible with money whereas Brash’s centrist tax cut could provide sensible relief for all New Zealanders. Through a blending of both nationalism and manipulation of key suspicions of the general public in his economic policy, Brash again demonstrated a populist streak in his drive for votes.

As the preceding discussion shows, Brash ran the National Party’s 2005 campaign based on the twin populist elements of nationalism, and exploitation of public suspicions and prejudices targeted at Labour and minority groups. However, Brash had a hidden agenda that ran contradictory to many of the claims he was making. Much of Brash’s rhetoric was designed to create an image of him as a nationalist, caring about the unity of New Zealand against special interests. However, Brash had many special interests himself. Early in 2004 Brash met with US political and military representatives on key US interests including the deployment of New Zealand forces in Iraq, and the abolition of New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation.[24] Both of these policies serve the United States interests, but provide no benefit for the social cohesion of New Zealand. Similarly, Don Brash was a committed supporter of neo-liberal reform, and was influenced by ‘special interest’ groups like the Business Roundtable. [25]  He had recommended an expansion of New Zealand’s privatisation model, as well as advocating policies like abolishing the minimum wage.[26] These are both free market policies that fly in the face of Brash’s claims of economic equality.[27] The purpose of revealing these contradictory policies serve as a reminder of the relevance of studying the populism of politicians like Don Brash. Brash was able to utilise populism to identify and manipulate underlying social trends in New Zealand, such as the drive for national unity and the suspicion of big government and small interest groups. Brash pushed all the right buttons during the election campaign, telling New Zealanders what they wanted to hear. However, through his ‘dog whistle politics’ Brash was also manipulating the public into voting for him, and the agenda that he hid from them. Therefore, analysis of populism is relevant to New Zealand to ensure that a politician who knows the right things to say can be held accountable for their true views. While Don Brash never became Prime Minister, the revelations into his economic and foreign connections suggest that he would have pursued policy goals quite contrary to the ones that he had suggested. New Zealanders need to be aware of this to ensure that they are aware enough to avoid a repeat of this manipulation.

When his policies and approach to New Zealand politics is analysed, it quickly becomes evident that Don Brash was a populist. His employment of the two key elements of populism – a drive for nationalist unity and a manipulation of inherent suspicions towards bureaucracy and special interest groups in society, were extensive.  It can be identified through all aspects of his policy, wheteher  social, racial or economic. By exploiting and manipulating the underlying social trends in New Zealand society Brash could effectively position New Zealand in his favour, subtly activating these trends through his utilisation of these elements. However, Brash’s real motivations and intentions lay far from his professed notions of nationhood, social cohesion and economic equality. Through the study of populism it becomes evident that knowledge of elements employed by politicians like Don Brash is relevant and vital to ensure that New Zealand is able to hold its leaders fully accountable, thus ensuring a stable and democratic future.


  • Hager, Nicky, ‘The Hollow Men’,  (Wellington: Craig Potton, 2006), p 79
  • Levine, Steven and Nigel S. Roberts, “The General Election of 2005”, in Raymond Miller (eds.), New Zealand Government and Politics, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Miller, Raymond, ‘Party Politics in New Zealand’,  (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2005)



  • Taggart, Paul ‘Populism’, (Philadelphia: Open University, 2000)



[1] Paul Taggart, ‘Populism’, (Philadelphia: Open University, 2000), p 11

[2] Ibid, 156

[3] Ibid

[4] Raymond Miller, ‘Party Politics in New Zealand’,  (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 156

[5] Nicky Hager, ‘The Hollow Men’,  (Wellington: Craig Potton, 2006), p 79

[6] Ibid

[7] Glyn Harper, “Gallipoli cemented our national identity”. Scoop,, (accessed 29/08/13)

[8] Hager, p. 75

[9] Paula Oliver, “Brash the patriot claims fervent nationalism”, New Zealand Herald,, (accessed 29/08/13)

[10] “Iwi/ Kiwi billboard”, Te Ara,, (accessed 29/08/13)

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid, 84

[13] Ibid

[14] Hager, p 88

[15] Ibid

[16] Kevin List, “Don Brash, Civil Unions and the Exclusive Brethren”, Scoop, (accessed 29/08/13)

[17] Kevin Taylor. “Brash’s referendum call rubbished as ‘desperate’”, New Zealand Herald,, (accessed 29/08/13)

[18] New Zealand National Party, “Don Brash backs public mandate on civil unions”, Scoop,, (accessed 29/08/13)

[19] Miller, 157

[20] Hager, p. 72

[21] Hager, p 128

[22] Ibid, 129

[23] Audrey Young, “Brash pledges tax cuts for everyone”, New Zealand Herald,, (accessed 29/08/12)

[24] Hager, pp 105 – 110

[25] Steven Levine and Nigel S. Roberts, “The General Election of 2005”, in Raymond Miller (eds.), New Zealand Government and Politics, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 342

[26] Hager, 72

[27] Ibid

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s