When Don Brash got up to speak at the debate on free speech at the University of Auckland last night 50 or so protesters – who had mostly sat quietly and listened to the arguments of five other debaters – rose to their feet.  

This was the moment. The Tino Rangatiratanga flags waved, the megaphones were drawn, and the singing started.  

Brash was drowned out and sat down. Journalists Simon Wilson and Fran O’Sullivan (who were on the other side of the debate) consoled him.

Chris Ryan, University of Auckland debating society president, decided to move the show on and called for the team leaders to start summing up.

The crowd of about 900 was having none of it, they were galvanised, they had come to hear Brash.

Many stood and most started chanting Brash’s name.

The protesters realised their victory had been fleeting. The Don rose to his feet again.

The group, who were holding anti-racism placards, had earlier been rocked by a stinging and probably unexpected attack from Brash’s teammate Elliot Ikilei.

The Canadian alt-right duo might have lit the fire but a 77-year-old retired politician is now basking in its warmth.  

Ikilei, who was introduced as the deputy leader of the New Conservative Party, gave a high-volume address. Speaking for the affirmative – has PC culture gone so far as to limit freedom of speech – he told the protesters that he had Tongan, Māori, Niuean and Palangi blood and that Pacific and Māori people did not need protection from the likes of Brash.

Both his grandfathers had fought in WWII and he was proud that they had defended the right to free speech.

Simon Wilson and Fran O’Sullivan both slammed Massey University Vice Chancellor Dr Jan Thomas for stopping Brash giving a speech to the University’s politics club. But her decision, they said, had nothing to do with political correctness.

Wilson described Thomas as an “outlier” and there was nothing to panic about.

O’Sullivan said we had more to fear from “group think” and “moral cowardice” than we did from political correctness. Then it was Brash’s turn. The protesters, by now silenced, listened, and the former National Party leader began in an almost conciliatory fashion.

Free speech was not without its limits he said. But, as it has throughout his political career, Brash’s capacity for pushing the boundaries surfaced.

The audience seemed unsure as to where he was leading them when he stated that 0.2 percent of the world’s population was Jewish. 

He then listed the disproportionate number of Nobel prizes and Oscars for film directing that Jewish people had won. This, plus the high number of CEOs in top US companies and the fact that Jewish entrepreneurs had started Facebook and Google led him to wonder if “Jewish culture is more advanced that other cultures”.

The crowd seemed partly stunned and partly bewildered by his claim.

Brash moved quickly on to more familiar territory. Political correctness meant it was now okay to insult many religions but not Muslims. Gays were being put to death in some parts of the world – these people were not welcome here, he said.

It’s unlikely that Brash has ever received such an enthusiastic reception from a crowd as he did last night. Many were on their feet applauding.

In a valiant attempt to turn the tide of the debate, Simon Wilson argued that this was “not about the martyrdom of Don Brash”.

He was wrong. The Canadian alt-right duo might have lit the fire but a 77-year-old retired politician is now basking in its warmth.  

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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