A rare insight into the machinations of a modern political party, especially the inevitable conflict that exists between principle and the pursuit of power, says Professor Raymond Miller, head of political studies, University of Auckland.
REVIEW OF NICKY HAGER’S THE HOLLOW MEN: A Study in the Politics of Deception, CRAIG POTTON PUBLISHING, 2006.
Nicky Hager last raised the hackles of the political establishment in 2002, when the release of Seeds of Distrust threatened to derail Helen Clark’s re-election campaign. In The Hollow Men, Hager turns his talent as an investigative researcher from Labour to National and its departing leader, Dr Don Brash. Events of the last few days raise two important questions. Had Brash not resigned, would Hager’s book have delivered the fatal blow? And to what extent are the leadership aspirations of John Key likely to be damaged by the release of Hager’s book?
Drawing on literally hundreds of emails and other personal correspondence, The Hollow Men provides a rare insight into the machinations of a modern political party, especially the inevitable conflict that exists between principle and the pursuit of power. Hager’s central claim is that the National Party is unprincipled and anti-democratic. It gives an ironic twist to National’s recent attacks on Labour, particularly the charge that Labour displayed “a degree of corruption and dishonesty never before seen in New Zealand politics”. The case against National is built on a full catalogue of alleged deceptions, half-truths, shady financial deals and secret agendas. Their combined effect is to convey an impression of cynicism towards the voting public bordering on contempt.
But The Hollow Men is less a study of the National Party than an expose of its enigmatic leader, together with his inner circle of advisers. The primary focus of Hager’s indignation is the relationship between Brash and the Exclusive Brethren. During the 2005 campaign, the National leader strenuously disavowed any knowledge of financial and other support for his party from members of the hitherto obscure religious sect. Indeed, when asked if he knew who was responsible for the group’s anti-government advertising campaign, Brash’s emphatic reply was that he did not. He was later forced to admit under pressure that there had been a brief meeting, and that it had taken place a few weeks earlier. This latter claim is contradicted by Hager’s evidence, which shows that the meeting referred to by Brash was one of a number conducted with members of the Brethren church over many months. Indeed, according to Hager, Brash even received advance warning when the religious group’s advertising material was about to be released.
However, Brash was not the only National politician to be implicated in the group’s $1.2 million campaign. Among those who are said to have had meetings with the Brethren was the party’s finance spokesman and aspiring leader, John Key. Hager reports on a meeting between Key and two members of the Brethren church, part of which was allegedly filmed by a TVNZ news team. What is not clear is whether it was a chance meeting, or one that had been prearranged. It is always possible that the meeting was unsolicited and unwelcome on Key’s part. While there are hints in Hager’s account of other meetings, the case against Key is tenuous at best.
As well as the charge of dishonesty, Brash is described as a timid and indecisive politician who is inordinately susceptible to the attention and influence of others. Brash’s political career has been blighted by accusations of denial and concealment, not to mention policy flip-flops and lapses in political judgment. Unlike previous National leaders, Brash entered the leadership race as a political outsider, having neither risen up through the ranks of the party nor made any significant impact on Parliament during his short time as a list MP. As a result, much of his appeal as a potential leader had to do with his fundraising ability and contacts with wealthy individuals and corporations. It was a “No Brash, No Money” message the party’s cash-strapped members could hardly afford to ignore.
Hager characterises the resulting victory 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. They included Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and Brian Nicolle of the ACT Party, and Roger Kerr and Diane Foreman of the Business Roundtable. Brash’s credentials as a party stalwart and leader proved much less important to this group than his strong advocacy of neo-liberal reform.
Perhaps the most fascinating, if unsurprising, part of the book is Hager’s analysis of the struggle between the aforementioned ideological purists and a group of pragmatists, mostly based in the leader’s office, including his PR advisers, strategists and speech-writers. It centred on how Brash should be branded and presented to the voting public. In the minds of his pragmatic advisers, it should be a two-stage process comprising what needed to be said to win an election (with an emphasis on concealing unpopular or extreme policies) and what the party could 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. Of course this plan necessitated that the leader’s more radical and less popular economic ideas be kept largely hidden from view. According to Hager, Brash reacted to this “descent into unprincipled politics” with a mixture of hesitancy and compliance.
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, Hager claims that most of the offers of assistance and support for his bid for the leadership came from sources 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 neoconservative extremists.
Much of Hager’s analysis of trends within National could just as easily have been applied to other modern parties, both here and overseas. The concentration of power in the office of the party leader, and specifically in the hands of paid professionals and advisers, is an all-too-familiar theme. There is also widespread concern 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 outside the particular parties themselves 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. Most of the media headlines generated by its pending release have been concerned with Brash, especially concerns over his alleged lack of moral leadership. Had he not resigned, he would not have survived the fallout from this book’s release. While John Key’s reputation may have been somewhat tarnished by Hager’s accusation of collusion, it is unlikely to prevent him from becoming Brash’s successor.
Professor Raymond Miller
Department of Political Studies
The University of Auckland
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