I’ve mentioned this book in passing before, it was the subject of attempted censorship by self-appointed “free-speech warrior” Don Brash. Having now read the book, one can cynically understand why. Neither Brash, nor his colleagues have much to be cheerful about. Here, I’ll briefly cover my thoughts about the revelations in the book and what they mean for NZ politics. There was also a documentary version directed by Alistair Berry, which may be viewed at NZonScreen.
I was 12 years old at the time of the 2005 election, so I have some limited first hand experience about the events covered in the book. I wasn’t yet politically aware in 2005, only looking back now do I realise how close New Zealand came to disaster.
A Very Brashish Coup
Following the National Party’s humiliating 2002 defeat and the lack of any improvement in polling, a challenge to Bill English’s leadership was made by Don Brash in October 2003. Hager reveals the identities of the strategists who advised Brash during the challenge and afterwards. Most of them were not members of the National Party but a greatest hits collection of New Zealand’s far-right clown car.
One of the most obscene examples was that of Michael Bassett (one of the Labour MPs responsible for NZ’s neoliberal malaise), who secretly offered Brash advice while simultaneously talking him up by writing positive newspaper columns about him. Bassett didn’t see the need to disclose this conflict of interest in his thinkpieces.
Meanwhile National party donors threatened to withhold donations unless Brash was elected leader. In the end, Brash won the caucus vote by one. Bad news for National Party activists across the country: you don’t matter, the leader gets picked by the big donors and has-beens from NZ’s political past. The National Party strategists openly acknowledged this hierarchy of influence, dividing donors into 3 distinct categories: A dozen or so top donors (far-right multimillionaires), several dozen medium donors (businesses) and everyone else was viewed with contempt as ‘low value donors’.
Contrast this situation to the Labour and Green parties, where party members get to vote on their leader(s). If a major party claims to be a voice for New Zealand, then it must be possible for the public (via party membership) to have input on selecting the leadership and determining policy. The National Party’s system is opaque and incompatible with a democratic society.
Interference by donors and lobby groups wasn’t just limited to installing Brash into the role of party leader, it would form a significant part of the financing and communicating the election campaign. Notable examples included:
- The Exclusive Brethren cult financed and orchestrated a leaflet drop that was highly critical of the Labour and Green parties with the knowledge and consent of the National Party, while purporting to be independent. The Brethren is rightfully despised by most of NZ society, so the connection between it and the National Party was kept hidden.
- The horse-racing industry placed pro-National Party advertisements at prominent racing events, ostensibly as part of a campaign for tax regularisation with casinos.
- The Maxim Institute (an extremist think tank whose intellectual dishonesty I’ve covered previously) put out “research” about the education system that recommended National Party policies. The timing of the release of reports was chosen to ensure maximum political effect.
- The National Party colluded with the Insurance Council (alleged to have made a very large donation) on the details of its ACC policy press release and on the messaging for the ensuing damage control once this was made public.
This collusion is alarming in two areas. First, these arms-reach operations didn’t require any money to go to the National Party, meaning that the Party could effectively spend more on campaigning than electoral laws allowed, a problematic loophole in the law. Entities such as the Waitemata Trust would be the depositories for big-ticket donors. More money means more advertisments, and more consultants who, like it or not, are effective at winning elections. Elections should be won on policy, hence in sensible countries there are limits on campaign spending.
Secondly, the public were being kept in the dark. All of these groups held viewpoints that are contrary and harmful to most New Zealanders. If the connections are not publicly known, then voters are unwittingly voting for something that they did not agree to. This is not persuasion, but manipulation.
The National Party’s links to the Brethren cult were revealed before the election and Brash’s credibility was destroyed as he tied himself in knots trying to avoid admitting to knowing anything about the collusion. National finished 2 seats behind Labour and had no path to forming a government because they lacked enough coalition partners.
Establishing Public Positions
Brash’s strongest attributes are that he is thoughtful and forthright with his beliefs. Unfortunately for him, his thoughts are terrible and not widely shared by the public (look at how he nearly killed the ACT party when he led it to its then worst ever result in the 2011 election). The challenge that National Party strategists had was to present Brash as an honest “non-politician” with popular ideas all while still remaining committed to unpopular far-right policies that their donors wanted.
When pressed on economic issues, Brash would issue non-committal statements about supporting the status-quo (known as “inoculation” by National Party strategists). Meanwhile, Brash took aggressive lines on race relations and law & order. His 2004 Orewa speech was a cynical exercise in stirring racial resentment and pushing economics out of the public consciousness in a way that paid off handsomely for the National Party.
Strangely, Brash and his strategists didn’t even believe in the objections that they raised in the Orewa speech. When curious journalists asked for more examples of race-based privilege, National Party strategists stonewalled any inquiries because they didn’t have any evidence!
Evidence or no evidence, if they could just keep up this pretense for the election, they could enter government on the votes of a misled populace, and then give their donors the “return on investment” they were promised. I am reminded of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “you need both a private and a public position” quote which sums up the duplicity of the National Party’s communications. My response is “no, your private position should be your public position”. Politicians may not claim that they have a mandate to enact their privately held positions when they were elected on the premise of their public positions.
As evidenced by the very existence of Hager’s book, the strategy doesn’t work if we found out about it. Voters were first alerted to the plan when the National Party’s collusion with American neo-cons was revealed over the issue of ending the ban on nuclear-powered ships. The “gone by lunchtime” statement precipitated a decline in National Party polling that would last until mid 2005.
By this stage, National Party strategists were increasingly desperate and turned to more foreign assistance.
We’re Off to See the Lizard of Oz!
The Australian public relations firm Crosby Textor Group is a mainstay of right-wing Anglosphere politics. Crosby Textor have been involved in victorious campaigns for Boris Johnson, the Australian Liberal Party, and the Queensland LNP. With such a track record, it was only natural that the National Party would seek their services.
Crosby Textor are experts at “dog whistle” politicking. This is where a message is crafted to sound innocent when interpreted superficially (plausible deniability), but has a specific meaning known to groups of a certain ideological persuasion.
Dogwhistles played by National at the recommendation of Crosby Textor focused on portraying the Labour government as lucky on the economy and distracted on “minority interests” such as civil unions, immigration, prostitution and Māori relations while paying no attention to “ordinary” New Zealanders. Such rhetoric is effective as there’s no better way for a party to lose support than if voters believe the party doesn’t care about them. With the messaging sorted, it was time to release it into the public consciousness…
Brash by Name, Brash by Nature
Crosby Textor’s messaging would form the backbone of the National Party’s effective 2005 election advertising campaign. The Iwi/Kiwi billboards and the Taxathon television advertisements have become the stuff of political legend.
PratPart-time marketing guru and full-time lunatic John Ansell volunteered his crazed mind to the National Party, creating bipolar billboards to portray the Labour Party as wasteful and obsessed with minority interests, while the National party was portrayed as efficient, focused and common-sensical.
A whole raft of these dichotomous billboards were created on a whole raft of issues such as fuel taxes, education, and beaches. I remember being at school during an event for gifted children, I met a fellow gifted child who adored Brash and was collating a whole bunch of images of these billboards. Others were also enthralled by the advertisements and National’s polling started to rise to match that of the Labour Party.
The tune to the Taxathon ad remains stuck in my head to this day. It was amusing to read the lyrics interspersed through what otherwise reads as a serious scholarly work. Cartoon Don Brash swept in at the end to offer salvation to the “drive-by voters” who get their entire political information from the National Party’s obnoxious marketing push.
The trouble with this flamboyant strategy is that the claims made had no basis in reality. Fact-checking wasn’t a thing back then, the media let the ads go unchallenged, even going so far as to praise them for their wittiness. Even better, National didn’t need to make any serious policy announcements, thus avoiding their main weakness.
Labouring Under a Delusion
Why does the National Party find itself in the situation where it hypes up and manipulates voters over trivial issues while promoting no discernible vision for important economic matters? Hager hypothesises that this approach is to paper over a ideological fissure within the National Party. Like many “centre-right” parties the world over, National has two key ideological groupings:
(1) The old-school conservatives, who hold traditionalist views over many social issues, yet support many aspects of the Keynesian Welfare state model that dominated NZ politics from the mid 30s til the mid 80s.
(2) The radical free-marketeers, who support socially liberal policies, and enthusiastically endorse the deregulated, privatised corporatist economic model that has dominated Western politics for the last three decades.
Let’s look at the Political Compass to visualise this gulf in values:
Figure 1. Politcal Compass political spectrum with the positions of ideological categories highlighted.
A political party cannot develop many policies that appeal to both factions, hence the National Party has no option but to campaign on emotive, but ultimately insignificant issues. This deprioritisation of issues is more worrying because it means that governing to improve society is supplanted by merely being in government. This is why the Key/English National government was deliberately inactive (Pike River, housing crisis), lacked innovation (buying fake carbon credits and poorly targeted R&D grants), with bursts of insanity to appease their donors (asset sales and charter schools).
Such a situation suites the free-marketeers just fine from both an ideological and a careerist perspective. Yet as voters, we expect better, yet better is something that a seat-warming government will not facilitate or deliver.
Indeed, this divide is the very reason that we ever found out about the National Party’s misconduct. Hager did not obtain this information unlawfully, instead decent principled members of the National Party (of the old-school conservative faction, I presume) blew the whistle and delivered it to him in an attempt to bring this madness to an end.
The National Party strategy failed in 2005 because Brash, for all his faults has a default position of honesty. He was not a convincing liar, he could not convince enough voters that he was a soft centrist who wouldn’t pick up where Roger Douglas left off. Luckily for National, they had a charming psychopath waiting in the wings in the form of John Key. Key was able to pull off the duplicity required to win over the “drive-by voters” and led National to government in 2008. It should come as no surprise that with the benefit of incumbency they were able to deliver the right-wing agenda that their donors had paid for.
Hager believes that the law for electoral donations is not fit for purpose. It’s far too easy for wealthy influential donors to anonymise their bribes. The threshold for anonymous donations should be lowered well below the current $10,000 limit. The concept of replacing private donations with state funding was also considered. I do not believe that the wealthy are entitled to gain more influence by giving more money, thus I would support banning all private donations to political parties and covering reasonable operational expenses with state funding. Nonetheless, if private donations are here to stay, then they must all be publicly known so that voters know whose side parties are really on.
The public derides politicians for being economical with the truth and proclaims an interest in focusing on the issues. Yet the very same public is easily led astray by shallow tactics such as incendiary rhetoric, dogwhistles, and superficial advertising. The National Party uses their strategy because it works.
Voters need to become wise to all forms of misinformation if we are to get political parties to behave at a higher standard. The media has a responsibility to inform and educate the public, not insult them with irrelevant trivia, or openly display partisan bias in favour of the right-wing. My primary schooling involved coursework on the electoral system and lawmaking, holding a mock election (the party I belonged to did poorly, of course), a visit to parliament, and meetings with local MPs. Every child should receive a high quality civics education like I did.
The conditions that corrupted the National Party in 2003 still exist today, what mysteries lie within the current embittered iteration of the party that has been returned to opposition? Because Hager’s advice has not been taken, New Zealand’s government is still at risk of being hijacked by right-wing fanatics. As voters, we must stay informed, think critically, and demand changes to electoral law to inhibit the undue influence of corporations and the wealthy.
The public is greatly indebted to Nicky Hager and the decent National Party informants for pulling back the curtain on the machinations of the Don Brash era National Party. The approach put forward by Brash’s supervisors is one that is bad for New Zealand. By recognising it and by refusing to reward it, we can bring such deception to an end.