We've all known sixty year olds who have taken on new families and mortgages. Somehow it seems a bit reckless. At my age, tiredness is the first sensation that springs to mind. So I found Don Brash's announcement that he would embark on a political career at 61 a challenge. Yes, I know he's probably the best qualified and most experienced economist in the country. He's unfailingly polite, and often too modest. But he's setting off on an ambitious journey into the shark-infested seas of politics several years after some contemporaries began clambering ashore to bask on the less-threatening sands of partial retirement. I wish him well, and look forward to more of those carefully reasoned speeches that are his trademark.
What intrigues me, however, is the reception his announcement met. Michael Cullen was reasonably gracious. Not so his boss. Helen Clark made no reference to Brash's carefully phrased resignation speech, preferring to play the man, not the ball. On BFM radio she let fly with embarrassingly ageist remarks. The usual left-wing commentators who take their cue from on high fell into line: Anthony Hubbard of the Sunday Star Times; his editor; and the Herald's Brian Rudman. Each used Brash's age to dismiss him. Garth George in an incomprehensible Herald rant referred to Brash's "inhuman economics". None cited examples, or debated economic issues. It was enough to label him a "monetary ogre", a member of "the economic far right", an "extremist", or a "ghost of past mistakes". Oddly, this type of attack has become part of modern left politics and journalism. Brash isn't the only victim. Many Herald readers think journalist Bernard Orsman's detestation of Mayor John Banks borders on the pathological. Always the man, seldom the ball.
Why do such people refuse to debate economic issues? Deep down, I suspect it's because they know that they'd probably lose. They are economic illiterates who prefer not to engage. Conservatives at heart (some might even say reactionaries), they yearn for the "good old days" of tax and spend. Garth George even spoke approvingly of Muldoon! Civics wasn't taught at their schools, and sadly still isn't. Few read economics. Some were students of the liberal arts in the sixties and seventies, and took on the comfortable public service attitudes of their teachers. They read the news and arts pages, seldom straying into the nether regions of the business section. If they do, it's only to sneak a look at the value of the stocks and shares they've acquired like naughty children doing something behind the bike sheds. To alter the metaphor, they are eaters of the national cake, and care little about its baking.
Implicit in their harsh judgements of Dr Brash is the view that New Zealand had a good future before people like him gained influence in the 1980s; that it went down hill because of policies like his; and that keeping him away from office is likely to produce better economic and social outcomes. Only people unwilling to face facts can seriously believe such nonsense. If they were correct, why has their much-loved government kept in place all the major economic changes (including the Reserve Bank Act) of the 1980s? Everywhere, everyday, there is evidence that New Zealand is better off as a result of opening our economy to the world. Over the past decade, growth has averaged nearly three times what it was between 1981-91. Our inflation rate is now at the low end of the OECD average instead of leading it; public debt is a fraction of what it was; and job growth has moved at a much faster clip than before 1984.
But it hasn't all been gain. Figures also show that the number of working-age people on benefits has quadrupled over the last 25 years. Not surprisingly, crime is up, and these days family violence seems endemic. Too often they are linked to benefit dependency. Yet, Brian Rudman attacked Brash for continuing to "rail" against our welfare culture. Since when was pay without work a left-wing totem? I seem to recall Walter Nash telling us that work was the title to reward. In his day there were fewer state dependents. Isn't it common sense to worry about the rising number of non-workers of working age when there's a growing number of old people needing extra for health and geriatric services? Are our new age chardonnay socialists incapable of reasoning this through?
I suspect Don Brash with his Presbyterian modesty would concede he's made mistakes. We all have. But surely no one of his generation has tried harder to sort out the optimum set of economic rules needed to produce the greatest good for the greatest number? If he can now tackle some of the other blights of today that most current politicians seem content to ignore, then good luck to him. We'll all benefit.
Michael Bassett has written about the pre-1984 period in The State in New Zealand.