The Hollow Men: A Study in the Politics of Deception
Craig Potton Publishing, $34.99,
According to the rhetoric, the author of The Hollow Men is one of two things. Either he is an outstanding investigative journalist and activist who has lifted the lid on the corrupt core of the National Party and in the rotten body politic. Or he is a stirrer and a conspiracy theorist who has used stolen goods to draw mischievous and wrong-headed conclusions about a subject he knows shockingly little about. In fact, Nicky Hager may well be a bit of both and for that reason alone it’s hard not to be conflicted about his latest book.
Unless readers are spectacularly protected from the popular news cycle, they will know that the book is based in great part on very personal emails between key National Party insiders, most notably emails to and from the then leader of the party Don Brash. Hager is clearly sensitive about how this might be perceived. In the book’s preface and acknowledgements, he refers to “six people in particular” who provided this information, saying the leaking and subsequent publication of personal mail is justified by the “scale of dishonesty and unprincipled behaviour it reveals”. And then with lips obviously pursed Hager climbs onto high moral ground, explaining he has deliberately excluded leaked documents containing “incidental personal information” that “would perhaps have been picked out first by some news organisations”. (He is referring to emails between Brash and Diane Foreman, the alleged “other woman”; also, presumably, the emails Brash attempted to have protected by court injunction).
Maybe because I was an insider for so long, I am not overwhelmed by “the scale of dishonesty” the book details. But nor do I have any qualms about the publication of the leaked mail. Almost any leaked document given to any journalist has been stolen in one sense or another. That these were leaked emails makes no difference. Public interest dictates where publication is justified, and the public interest threshold is most certainly met in this case, not because of any super scandal, as Hager claims, but because the emails do inform the voting public about common political practices.
“Punters out in punterland” (as Brash refers to voters in one email) rightly give scant regard to the minutiae of political processes and so have little appreciation of how well rehearsed and committee-driven most political statements are. This is politics as usual, and it’s better that voters are told.
Political parties seeking office routinely use polling and focus groups to test policy and develop priorities. The language used around any policy announcement is carefully chosen to press emotional buttons. Key demographic groups are targeted to maximise votes. Policy that stands to damage a party’s chances at the polls is deliberately softened or left off the menu, (“inoculated” is how the Nats refer to this). Leaders are groomed and given pre-prepared ready-to-use answers to questions that may come up. Minders monitor every tick and shudder from voters and policy, key messages, and pre-arranged events are tweaked and choreographed to respond. This is simply how it works.
Hager argues this is unprincipled and distorting. He seems genuinely shocked, for instance, that Don Brash’s key speeches were shaped by advisors deliberately trying to get a rise in the polls, that Brash and his advisors sought counsel from like-minded politicos in the US or Australia, and by the way Brash’s new-right pedigree was purposely downplayed so he could be marketed as a “mainstream” leader.
And yet none of this is the least bit shocking. Hager pre-empts such criticism, claiming that anyone who isn’t offended is simply encouraging politicians to be even less principled. This is simply naive. As long ago as the administration of Franklin D Roosevelt – the crippled US President who never showed American voters he couldn’t walk – political leaders have been massaging their own image and the messages of their parties to play to the prejudices of voters. This isn’t new.
As I write, committees inside Labour and National will doubtless be worrying about precisely these kind of things as they plot to leverage a good start for the new political year. It’s not unprincipled unless, like Roger Douglas in 1984 or Don Brash in 2005, the messages being massaged are deliberately spun to disguise a secret agenda. Or the messages are lies.
Here Hager is on much firmer ground because there are things to be shocked about in The Hollow Men. And had Don Brash not resigned, the book would have forced him to go. It is convincing on the claim that Brash and his advisors did mislead the public over their relationship with the Exclusive Brethren. They clearly knew about the Brethren’s intentions to campaign against Labour; they were all too pleased to get the assistance of such a “third-party” contribution and, once word of it got out, they repeatedly shaded the truth with half-denials and obfuscation.
Brash and his advisors, particularly his paid confidant the Australian Bryan Sinclair, were also inappropriately involved in money-raising for the campaign. There have long been established protocols in the major parties that determine leaders should not know where the money comes from. If a leader doesn’t know, he or she cannot be accused of any policy-for-cash trade-off at a future date. Brash had no appreciation of established practice. He knew who was giving the money and whom he needed to thank. Had he won the election, this attachment to his backers would have come back to haunt him.
In many ways The Hollow Men’s most telling point is this: it is the story of an unusual political coup inside a party that, after a withering electoral defeat, had lost its confidence and its way. Don Brash came to Parliament with no political experience and little appreciation for the party he wanted to lead. As the emails disclose, his closest friends were ACT voters, most notably former national finance minister Ruth Richardson. His instincts, like theirs, were for the hard Right policies New Zealand voters have repeatedly shown they don’t support.
But Brash’s friends (and donors) have never grasped the unpalatability of their political prescription. They threw money at National (no party has ever had more money for a campaign) in the belief that, with Don as PM, Roger Douglas’ unfinished business could finally be completed. The ease with which a high-profile New Zealander with powerful and wealthy friends could take control of a major political party, even when he never belonged there, is truly disturbing.
In the end, this book is a timely and compellingly told cautionary tale. It’s a warning to parties: National allowed itself to be hijacked because it wanted power and had no other ideas of how to win it. It’s a warning to voters: we have all taken too little interest in how parties are funded and who funds them, and this has allowed a wealthy few to pull too many strings. At the very least, The Hollow Men reinforces the current calls for major reform of the spending rules.
One question remains: who leaked this stuff? Whoever it is wanted Don Brash out. Badly. I find it odd that the media has shown a remarkable lack of curiosity in this aspect of the story.
Linda Clark was TVNZ’s political editor from 1993-2000, and as a journalist in print, tv and radio covered seven elections.
The Hollow Men is best known for its role in the resignation from politics of National Party leader Don Brash. His legal action to prevent the book’s release not only proved unsuccessful, but had the unintended effect of fuelling public scrutiny and speculation. Had Brash not resigned as party leader on the day the injunction against the book’s publication was lifted, he is unlikely to have survived the fallout from its release.
Having gained access to literally hundreds of emails and other personal correspondence, Hager gives a fascinating account of the extent to which Brash’s performance as party leader was marred by impropriety and poor political judgement.
But as well as being a commentary on political leadership, albeit the leadership of a single actor, the book is a study of the machinations of modern party politics, especially the inevitable conflict between the claims of principle and the pursuit of political power. Hager’s main thesis is that the National Party is unprincipled and anti-democratic. Ironically, this claim came hard on the heels of a charge laid by National against Labour that Labour was the most dishonest and corrupt party in the nation’s history.
Hager identifies three areas of “unprincipled and anti-democratic” activity: namely, party ideology; intra-party democracy – specifically the process by which Brash was chosen as leader; and party funding – notably its lack of transparency and accountability. All three are as potentially significant for the party’s credibility and performance under new leader John Key, as they were when the book was published late last year.
Hager analyses an ideological struggle between party purists, who favoured a revival of the radical free-market agenda once spearheaded by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, and a group of “Machiavellian” pragmatists, mostly based in the leader’s office, including PR advisers, strategists and speech-writers. It centred on how the leader should be branded and presented to the voting public. In the opinion of Brash’s most pragmatic advisers, it had to be a two-stage process comprising what needed to be said to win an election (emphasising concealment of unpopular or extreme free-market policies) and what the party would be able to do once the election had been won (frequently referred to as the “Grand Plan”).
The repackaging plan included a series of highly populist, anti-PC speeches on race, welfare, and law and order that were aimed to bolster the party’s sagging poll ratings. According to Hager, the “proposed strategy was not to drop those [radical free-market] unpopular policies … but instead to play them down and hide them until after an election win, then proceed with them when or as political circumstances allowed.”
While there are faint echoes of a two-stage process in the policy review John Key is currently undertaking, the immediate goal is much more clearly defined around the need to transform National into a centre party capable of defeating Labour at the 2008 election.
A second area of “anti-democratic” activity concerns the process by which Brash was chosen as party leader. Hager characterises his elevation to the leadership as a “political coup”, in which a small group of supporters, all right-wing ideologues with little or no direct links with National, effectively captured control of the party leadership. Among those either advising, coaching or helping fund the Brash campaign were Douglas, Richardson, and Brian Nicolle of the ACT Party, historian Michael Bassett, and Peter Shirtcliffe, Roger Kerr and Diane Foreman of the Business Roundtable.
According to Hager, Brash’s credentials as a party stalwart were much less important to this group than his reliability as an advocate of neo-liberal reform. Leading members of the business community were asked to lobby National’s 26 MPs (unlike parties in most other western democracies, there is no formal role for party activists and members, or indeed the voting public, in the selection of National’s leader). For a cash-strapped party still recovering from debts incurred in the 2002 election campaign, the “No Brash, no money” threat may well have been the vital factor that secured Brash’s one-vote caucus majority.
The “Invisible Hands” behind National’s fundraising activities provide Hager with a third example of unprincipled and anti-democratic activity. Long before Brash assumed party leadership in 2003, the party was able to conceal the sources of its campaign donations by such methods as filtering donations through blind trusts. Among the “high-value” donors allegedly wooed by Brash were some of New Zealand’s leading corporations, the most controversial of which included Sky City Casino, pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and British American Tobacco. While there is no conclusive evidence of a direct link between the donations made by these companies and the buying of political influence, Hager reasons that “there is little doubt about what types of policies [they] would want from a National government”.
Brash and Key are said to have worked as a team on a number of fundraising activities:
They may not have literally collected the cheques, but they were personally involved in appeals for money, they knew exactly who the donors were and … the donors knew that the politicians, who might soon be running the government, knew who was helping them get into power.
Hager’s particular take on events has some obvious shortcomings. The author’s dependence on a selection of emails passed on by discontented party insiders creates a number of problems, not least a concern that important elements of the story may be distorted or incomplete.
There are also grounds for concern over the extent to which it is possible to infer intentions or motives from the sentiments conveyed in personal emails. For example, when Hager claims that most offers of assistance and support for Brash’s leadership bid came from outside the party, specifically a small group of right-wing ideologues, it is pertinent to ask whether the body of emails and other correspondence that fell into his hands also included messages of support from party members or activists. And did the offers of assistance from right-wing supporters represent considered offers, or were they simply the sort of common courtesies that are included in any personal message of encouragement or best wishes?
While much of the documented evidence corroborates Hager’s story, the argument is less persuasive in establishing a significant link between National and some outside, especially foreign, individuals and groups, notably America’s neo-conservative extremists.
Hager’s allegations of unprincipled and anti-democratic behaviour present as strong a warning to the party of John Key as they did to that of Don Brash. There is also much that resonates with the practices of other modern parties, both here and overseas. The concentration of power in the office of party leader, and specifically in the hands of paid professionals and advisers, is an all-too-familiar theme.
There is also widespread concern both here and abroad over the extent to which powerful lobby groups, particularly business groups and think-tanks, have usurped the power and influence once enjoyed by party activists and officials, and even elected politicians. Moreover, few would dispute the need for reform in the area of party and campaign funding, especially with a view to making funding sources more accountable and transparent. The Hollow Men is an important and timely book that deserves to be read by all those who care about the state of our democracy.
Raymond Miller heads the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland.