Monday, October 15, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Dirty politics across the ditch ...

The Hollow Men: A study in the politics of deception
Nicky Hager
Craig Potton Publishing, 352pp


Believe it or not, politics can get pretty interesting across the Tasman. Our Kiwistani cousins in Wellington have certainly mastered all those finer Machiavellian arts Canberrans are used to reading about in this newspaper.

And the issues fought over in Wellington ’s “beehive” (the affectionate name given by Kiwis to their parliament house – even the official government website address is are much the same. Last year, Peter Costello delivered some modest tax cuts. Within 2 months, New Zealand ’s ruling Labour-led coalition government delivered a budget with even smaller tax cuts.

It was a high point for opposition National Party leader Dr Don Brash, who used his budget reply speech to talk about Labour’s “Bondi budget”. To thundering applause and laughter from the Opposition benches, Brash declared:
Helen Clark and [NZ Treasurer] Michael Cullen clearly believe there is a place for tax cuts - it's called Australia.
That was June 2006. By November the National Party leader wasn’t sounding so … er … brash. The book that played a key role in his demise is the subject of this review.

The Hollow Men is the work of Nicky Hager, said to be one of New Zealand ’s most celebrated investigative journalists. This is Hager’s third book.

The controversy surrounding the book is perhaps more exciting than the book itself. Set for release on Tuesday 21 November 2006, crucial contents of the book were the subject of an injunction made on the previous Friday in the Wellington High Court banning its publication. The legal proceedings brought by none other than Dr Brash himself. The injunction barred publication of certain e-mail correspondence between Dr Brash and other parties (presumably advisers, constituents and Party colleagues). These leaked e-mails were crucial source material used by Hager in his book.

Two days after the scheduled publication date, Brash withdraw the injunction application and announced his resignation from the National Party leadership. The book hit New Zealand bookshelves the following day. Brash left the beehive for good in February 2007.

The book is largely about the rise of Don Brash to the leadership of the National Party, and what almost became the coming to power of a Brash government in the September 2005 elections. Many of the themes Brash used – indigenous and racial wedge politics, policy making in the financial interests of donors, adoption of far-Right policy positions – will be familiar to close observers of the 11 years of Howard rule. Brash no doubt tried to model himself on John Howard.

This book has promise, but the author tends to ramble on and becomes lost in superfluous detail arising from the e-mail exchanges he uses. Sadly, much of the alleged “exposure” of National Party policy processes borders on polemical rant. It’s one thing to accuse the Kiwi-Nats of telling lies over their dealings with Crosby Textor and the Exclusive Brethren. It’s another to pass off one’s criticisms of certain National policies as fact.

Peter Costello recently described Howard as a lacklustre treasurer and economic reformer. I doubt Costello would say the same about Dr Brash, who worked for the World Bank before serving for 14 years as Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. His tenure coincided with the free market reforms of former Labour Finance Minister Sir Roger Douglas. Later Douglas went onto establish the free market fundamentalist ACT Party.

However, this book isn’t just a political biography of the former National Party leader. The book exposes the secretive political campaign tactics used by the fringe fundamentalist Christian sect known as the Exclusive Brethren. Although officially the Brethren bars its members from voting and regards worldly politics as evil, key members of the Brethren have been involved in a number of campaigns supporting conservative candidates in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The Brethren campaign was especially active in the September 2005 elections. Large advertisements were published in major newspapers calling on Kiwi voters to “change the government”. National MP’s denied any knowledge of the Brethren campaign. Yet sources inside the National Party provided Hager with e-mail correspondence which showed that Brash and other National MP’s held meetings with Brethren officials and were aware of Brethren political advertising.

The book also contains a very interesting chapter on the role Australian pollsters Crosby Textor (C/T) played in the Brash campaign. Like much of the book, the contents of the book’s C/T chapter (titled “The Manipulators”) border on the conspiratorial. The chapter starts to get interesting when it talks about C/T focus groups in late 2004.

Hager’s primary source document is dated 10 December 2004 and entitled “Strategic Memorandum on National party Qualitative Benchmark”. Two other reports dated April 2005 are also cited. Here is Hager’s reading of the reports and events:
You might imagine that focus groups are designed to find out what groups of people think and want … the Crosby/Textor groups had a completely different purpose and revealed a deeper level off political manipulation.

… The intention is to ‘uncover’ perceptions and feelings of which the people concerned may be consciously aware – or even just potential perceptions and feelings – and find ways to use these ‘persuasive creative leads’ to influence target groups of voters.
Hager then goes onto show how C/T used ‘prompted concerns’ to help the Nats develop and frame policy. He continues …
In this way they strategise the possibility of moving voters from, for instance, thinking that tax cuts ‘miss the point’ to the ‘prompted perception’ that tax cuts are necessary in response to uncertainty about the growth of the economy. The [C/T] word for this is
leveraging … Such perceptions may have little to do with how people feel and the leveraging messages may not even be true, but they may still provide ‘strategic
opportunities’ …
Much C/T work with the Kiwi-Nats focussed on developing dog-whistle messages about immigrants and indigenous people. Simplistic messages containing thinly-veiled racism were almost enough to get Brash over the line.

The balance of the book is somewhat tedious, especially for readers with little interest in provincial New Zealand politics. Hager seems to get carried away with the novelty of having a year’s e-mail exchanges between National MP’s, their staff and their supporters in business, conservative think tanks, pollsters and fringe fundamentalist churches. A more interesting version of the book probably would have been half its current length.

First published in The Canberra Times on 13 October 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Irfan, will you stop publishing anonymous comments from that former Young Liberal failure Cenati...? I'm amused he writes about your weight issues when his are beyond help. He thinks of himself as a future Stan Zemanek, but the problem is he couldn't fit in any studio.

The fact that his only contribution is personal abuse shows just what a boofhead he really is.