—Joseph J. Fullerton, The Burnside Polemic
On Friday the 10th of August 2018, The Burnside Polemic interviewed Gerry Brownlee. Brownlee, for those who are not aware, is the M.P. (member of Parliament) for Ilam–the electorate in which Burnside High School, and many of its students, are situated. Brownlee is a member of the New Zealand National Party, which governed New Zealand in various coalitions from 2008 through to 2017. He has been a Member of Parliament since 1996, which was when he began his tenure as Ilam’s M.P. This means that his career in the position has spanned over 22 years, prior to which he was a teacher of woodworking and Māori.
During the interview, Brownlee showed a pride in New Zealand’s tolerance and history that placed him squarely in the twenty-first century. Despite his initial confusion about his own presence at the interview, Brownlee proved informative on a vast breadth of subjects.
Note that The Polemic has edited much of the interview in this article to enhance accessibility for its audience; those interested in the full transcript can access it on The Polemic’s website.
The first agendum was his role as M.P. for Ilam; Toby Govin-Fowler (henceforth T. Govin-Fowler) began by asking for a description in his own words, to which he responded by summarising his role as “representative of the interests” of those in his electorate. The Polemic apologises for the dearth of data in this section; a technological fault has damaged its recordings of the interview at this point.
Joseph Fullerton (henceforth J. Fullerton) proceeded by asking him about the changes he’s seen the Ilam electorate experience. Brownlee commented by pointing out that “The electorate reflects the demographics of New Zealand as a whole; Ilam is a remarkably representative electorate as far as the makeup of New Zealand is concerned, and even the income spread of New Zealand—but, the demographics, it’s almost a mirror.” Brownlee reported, with a touch of pride, that ethnic shift had been ongoing during his tenure in the role, as “When I just got elected to Parliament, the demographics had the European population at 82%. Now that’s fallen back to almost 50%. That’s been the increase in numbers of people who formerly would’ve identified themselves as European now choosing to identify as Māori.” He also attributed the demographic shift of Ilam to immigration from “Pacific islanders and families settling from Asian countries.”
Lewis Grey (henceforth L. Grey) made inquiry on the effects of the Christchurch Earthquakes on the Ilam electorate; Brownlee said that even though “Ilam didn’t suffer the vast extent of physical damage that was seen in other parts of the city”, there was “Damage to the below ground infrastructure and to individual homes in the part of the electorate closest to the city.” More pertinent to the school, perhaps, Brownlee also described its effects on education by pointing out “Burnside High School effectively double-bunked with Avonside Girls’ High School and similarly, damage to the university and the need for temporary accommodation for that.” He summarised the effects as “Generally dealing with a big disaster.”
Stating that he didn’t feel isolated, he also pointed out that “All M.P.s from all electorates worked very cooperatively” following the Canterbury Earthquakes.
Moving the agendum to education, J. Fullerton asked about the impact of N.C.E.A. on New Zealand education. Brownlee believed “It’s had a largely positive effect”, disparaging the system that was in place prior to it as “About making sure only half the people who participated, or even studied for, those qualifications actually got them”, and that N.C.E.A.’s “Standards-based approach and progressive learning approach has been a positive thing.”
Returning to the subject of societal change, T. Govin-Fowler asked about those which Brownlee had seen in New Zealand as a whole. Brownlee, again somewhat proudly, replied that “I think we’ve become a far more tolerant society, which is a good thing.” In the less obvious part of his answer, he also described how New Zealand has “Become slightly more willing to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t know whether it’s just Christchurch, because people had to do stuff during the earthquakes, but it was interesting to me to read of someone asserting we are now an entrepreneurial city that a lot of people are doing things differently, having a go at things, particularly in the business field and I think that’s a good thing. I think people will always find their niche, but you do have to have a strong, vibrant economy and that means you have to have risk-takers and so I suspect there’s one thing I’d say that New Zealand’s improved on; there seems to be a greater respect for people who take those sorts of risks.”
Returning the topic to the present, J. Fullerton asked—for the benefit of some of The Polemic’s readers who may have assumed that Brownlee’s role as Shadow Leader of the House makes him a parliamentary ninja—Brownlee to describe his role as Shadow Leader of the House in his own words. Providing context, Brownlee explained that “Parliament itself sits under the direction of the Speaker, and the legislate program is proposed or put forward each day but it’s planned out some months ahead by the Leader of the House, who always comes from the government. When we were in government, I was Leader of the House for nine years. The Opposition has an honourable Shadow Leader, and so you have communication between the two at a fairly high level. It’s not detailed, it’s that now I’m told what their program is—and when I was Leader of the House, I’d tell the other side what our program was. And there’s a degree of negotiation about how that might progress, to make sure that Parliament’s spending as much of its time on stuff that’s really important as possible. Essentially, the role is to engage in negotiations with the government parties on behalf of the Opposition.”
Furthering the questions related to Parliament’s current members, L. Grey requested a comparison between Winston Peters, who held the Premiership for several weeks, and his predecessors. Brownlee, however, demurred, saying that in addition to the fact that “Six weeks is not enough time to make a reasonable comparison, he didn’t in that time face any particular crisis—in fact, it was a remarkably quiet time.” However, in Peters’s favour, he said that “He held the fort quite well.”
Bringing the focus from government to the opposition, T. Govin-Fowler began to ask a potentially contentious question, “The National Party, in opposition, has effected a number of what might be called roadblocks, such as forcing the leader of a working group to resign over what some may describe as a minor concern—”, until he was interrupted by Brownlee’s raised voice:
“What is your example?”
Brownlee’s irritation became clear as he cut himself off mid-stream to protest the characterisation:
“The case you’re talking about is the review the government has set up to look at the appointment process for a police commissioner—deputy police commissioner. There’s two things that are important here—was it described as a roadblock?”
Amid T. Govin-Fowler’s protests that it was not The Polemic’s characterisation, Brownlee loudly proclaimed that it was a “Totally wrong description!”
Speaking at length on how “New Zealand is a country that has a very high level of international respect for lack of corruption” and “a trading nation which enjoys a lifestyle far in excess of what we could enjoy if we were a totally domestic economy”, Brownlee extolled the virtues of “keeping those markets open” on China and Europe by saying that “In every case, public appointment or public expenditure, there is a declaration of interests that people might have so that everyone knows what the situation is. We have to have a police force that is totally trusted, so we have to have the best people in the job. In this case, there was a question raised about the appointment process for a particular gentleman. There was a choice made to put someone in to chair that investigation. But as soon as you find out that there is a connexion between that people and the person who was appointed, then you start to ask that question: How objective can the inquiry be? And it took the government days to realise that a more neutral person should be important. And if that’s described as obstructive, then those who make that accusation fail to recognise that the Westminster System’s opposition has an obligation to protect the things that really contribute to the betterment of New Zealand.”
Redirecting the topic to the Westminster system, as Brownlee had closed by mentioning it, J. Fullerton asked whether the party system under which New Zealand is governed reduces individual M.P.s to subcomponents of their leaders’ media images, as well as placing them at the mercy of their chief whips.
Seizing the opportunity to criticise a controversial bill spearheaded by Winston Peters, he related how on the preceding days “Parliament spent a lot of time going through committee stages of the Electoral Integrity Bill. The Electoral Integrity Bill basically means that if a member of Parliament steps outside of the party line, a leader of a party may decide that is ‘distorting the proportionality of Parliament’ by not representing the views of ‘the party’. The only judge of that is the leader of the party. If that law is passed, the law would say the party leader is paramount in determining who sits in Parliament for that party. And that’s not democracy. That’s dreadful. I joined the National Party because we are able to speak freely but all choose to belong to a caucus. And we have disagreements inside that caucus, but we reach compromise positions or come up with a different solution. But we’re able to speak publicly. On behalf of our electorate, on behalf of our party, on behalf of the people who work to get us elected. And the idea that the party leader, under this new law can simply say ‘Oh, I don’t like that’, it’s not going to happen. And people say ‘well, it’s not big deal, parties are paramount’. Well, the Westminster system is supposed to encourage people to turn up to Parliament, and get sworn in with allegiance to the crown and to the country as free and unencumbered individuals. That free and unencumbered individual might choose to work with other people. That’s fair enough. But if something were to happen to cause that other commitment to change, that doesn’t take away the fact that they’ve sworn their allegiance to the Crown to be a member of Parliament. And for the law to change that is quite a drastic thing.” He went on to describe the Labour Party’s origins from “Individuals in Parliament at the time decided to leave the parties they were with and form the Labour Party”, and its subsequent “Split, and you had the Social Democrat Labour Party”, as well as describing how the National Party itself was “Formed out of members of Reform and the Liberal Party both leaving those parties and forming the National Party inside Parliament. In more recent times, you’ve had the breakdown of the Alliance in the early 2000s, the Green Party had previously been a member of the Alliance and they’re on their own and got re-elected as a separate party. Jim Anderton was exactly the same with his New Labour party. So you can’t constrain the ability of people to engage in free political expression. You start to chip away at democracy. It’s a very bad bill, and it’s there largely because of New Zealand First who want it because Mr. Peters has had a lot of trouble with people leaving his party.”
Brownlee’s comments ring true with many voters, as the National Party and the Greens both claiming to stand heavily on their principles—including freedom of speech. Those parties have vociferously opposed it, but the Green Party is forced by their coalition with Labour and New Zealand First to support it, which they themselves have described as a “dead rat”. Labour’s support for the bill is very much reluctant; as Brownlee stated, only Winston Peters truly supports it—ironic, as he himself began his illustrious political career when he severed himself from the National Party.
Moving the subject from one which the M.P. could speak at such length on, L. Grey asked about his opinion on Obama’s competence.
Brownlee stated that he believed that Obama had “squandered his great deal for affirmation for him in the United States and internationally when he became President. The President is effective for six years if they get two terms; halfway through the second term, everybody’s thinking about the next guy. My view is that he squandered that. And I know people are critical of Trump and there’s a lot of things I disagree with Trump on, particularly on trade and that sort of thing—he’d go back to the Dark Ages on that—but you’ve got to say that his very firm hand on North Korea has started a process that will take many years to sort out. And I think there’s a lot of that sort of stuff that Obama could have done in a more refined way, but he just seemed to never get to it.”
Perceiving the answer as of interest, T. Govin-Fowler quickly asked if Brownlee believed that despite his boorishness, Trump is getting things done in a way Obama didn’t.
Brownlee simply stated that “I think you’ve got to look at the growth statistics of the United States. Bill Clinton coined the phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, which meant that if the economy’s right, then the president’s going to be okay. And that’s where Trump has a bit of an ace at the moment. The opinion polls don’t like him, but I think if there was a presidential election tomorrow, or if he stands again in 2020, he’d win.”
Further inquiring on Trump’s ‘firm hand’ and ‘boorishness’, J. Fullerton asked about Trump’s decision to move the United States of America’s Isræli embassy to Jerusalem and the subsequent United Nations resolution (backed by New Zealand) condemning the move. Brownlee simply stated that “I don’t have a view on it.”
Attempting to secure an avenue in which Brownlee did have an opinion, L. Grey inquired about Simon Bridge’s 10% respondent rate of preferred prime ministership and Brownlee’s view on Bridges’s leadership.
The response was complimentary; praise flowed through Brownlee’s description of “A very good leader, a very capable leader.” But the description became dourer as he described how “The problem we’ve got is that since Helen Clark, there has been a move towards the cult following of leaders. She was at 4% when she became Prime Minister, and was a formidable and capable Prime Minister. John Key was always popular, because he was capable and really was an engaging type. He went up from 8% at the start. Then we had Jacinda Ardern who’s come out of the blocks really quite strongly and is considered to be a popular prime minister. That popularity will be dependent on how well her government does, and that will come down to how much New Zealanders feel better—or otherwise—off. Simon Bridges is at 10%; I think he’ll go up. He’s quite capable of doing that, but I don’t think it’s in any way a concern at the present time because people in New Zealand don’t actually vote for specific leaders. So vote for a policy mix, whichever you think is going to be best for the country.”
Continuing the questions concerning the National Party, T. Govin-Fowler asked if Brownlee believed that an instance in which Simon Bridges declined to discipline Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins for disseminating ‘fake news’ on Twitter was overly lenient and ultimately problematic. Somewhat enigmatically, Brownlee rejoined with “in politics, what is discipline?”, refusing to comment beyond “there’s fake news and there is news specifically for the government.”
Asking a student-submitted question from an Anonymous Eskander, J. Fullerton asked what Brownlee believed to be the most pressing issue concerning young New Zealanders. After a small back-and-forth in which the phrase “Young New Zealanders” was exchanged repeatedly, Brownlee replied “Flexibility of workforce. When I left school, it was an expectation that you would train to do something for the rest of your life. The reality is, for most of my generation, that never happened. There were lots and lots of things that you did. And that’s going to increase in future. The rapid expansion of technology is not going to slow down. So it’s flexibility in the workforce and workplace that we’ve got to keep on top of.”
As another student submission, J. Fullerton inquired about “New Zealand’s prospects of becoming a republic”, to which Brownlee simply responded “Slim”. Elaborating further, he asked “What’s so bad about things that we’ve got to tip it on its head? In the end, I have a huge respect for the royal family—I wouldn’t want to be one of them. They don’t have their own life, it’s prescribed. People say ’oh, it’s great, they’ve got this, they can do this, and they can do that and they’ve got enormous amounts of money’ or something, but they’re slaves to the system—”
Brownlee was cut off by J. Fullerton’s facetious joke; “Just like the politicians at the mercy of the Chief Whip?”
Disconcerted, Brownlee replied that “the politicians have the ability to change the chief whip”, whereas the royal family “don’t have the ability of change their masters, unfortunately.”
Recovering from the joke, he described the complication to republicanism that the Treaty of Waitangi posed by explaining that “it historically was quite a significant document because it meant that there was a Westminster-style democracy put in place for New Zealand, but it was largely done without the concept of conquest and that’s pretty unique. The direct commitment of that is to the Crown, so removing the concept of the Crown is a very important distinction.”
Asking about recent controversy surrounding Victoria University, T. Govin-Fowler asked if its refusal to allow talks by right-wing speakers was justified, and for opinions on public responses to that.
Brownlee’s response was quite contemptuous of the speakers in question: “No, it was a very silly move. I’ve got no respect for them, but I know who those two people are now. A large number of New Zealanders know who those two people are now, and what their way of thinking is now. Had they just come here and done their speech, a small, small, small number of people would have met them, listened to them, and made a decision about whether they want to subscribe to that view and they’d be on their way. The moment you start shutting down free speech, then you really do chip away at the freedoms we have. We’re an enormously free country and we take so many things for granted. When you look at Zimbabwe at the moment, they’ve just had a general election and now they’re at war with each other because they won’t accept the result. We had a situation in New Zealand when a party got the biggest number of votes, and weren’t government. No one picks up sticks, guns, bullets. It doesn’t happen. We’re not that sort of country, we’re a free country. And you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t destroy that by getting too upset about the more nutty things people go out and say. The other thing is, you can’t know what you’re against or for if you don’t hear the things that are completely contrary to what you believe.”
Cutting in on the basis of the final comment, L. Grey asked if Brownlee believed all views should be heard equally.
Brownlee, a note of triumph entering his voice, said “Within reason. I saw him on Sixty Minutes, on T.V.! He’d never have got that sort of coverage if they hadn’t kicked him out. It fascinated me when he said to the reporter ‘how do you feel in this world as a white woman’ and she said ‘Well, I’m not’—did you see her?—she said, ‘I’m not!’
And he said, ‘What?’
And she said, ‘What are you, then?’
And she said, ‘I’m a Māori woman!’”
As Brownlee relayed the tale, jubilation entered his voice and he displayed his pride for what he’d touched upon in earlier answers. He continued the story by saying “And at that moment you could see, on T.V., that’s the difference in this country! We don’t wander around branding people, and it goes back to that thing I said before where the demographics are changing so rapidly you wouldn’t go around saying ‘so-and-so is Māori and so-and-so is European and so-and-so is Asian’, it’s becoming an irrelevance in this country.”
Cutting off Brownlee’s victorious proclamations, L. Grey asked, “So just ‘New Zealanders’ rather than ‘Asian New Zealanders’ or ‘Indian New Zealanders’?”
Brownlee responded at the apex of his triumph: “That’s right!”, before ending by cautioning that “That’s why that voice should never have got all that newspaper coverage, all that radio coverage, and all that T.V. coverage. Yet the people who objected to them being here created it. Crazy.”
For more details, look into The Polemic’s other articles on local and national politics, as well as read the full transcript of the interview. Remember to be on the look-out for future interviews conducted by The Polemic, as these will be posted to our website.