Sludge Report #172: How Hollow Are The Hollow Men?
By C.D. Sludge
Since the injunction was finally lifted shortly before midday today C.D. Sludge aand the Scoop Team have been furiously speed-reading Nicky Hager's expose of the life and times of National Party Leader Don Brash a.k.a. Hollow Men: A Study In The Politics Of Deception.
The following is something of a first impression of the book as opposed to a detailed and complete review. Additional items will be added to this review as the Scoop parallel speed-reading effort continues.
COVER & IMPRINT SUMMARY
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A Study in the politics of deception
Foreword by Marilyn Waring
By Nicky Hager
Published By Craig Potton Publishing
Paperback - 350 Pages (including footnotes & index)
Availability, 3000 copies in first print run appear likely to sell out in days.. so get in quick.
Marilyn Waring's Foreword – which was released to the media on Tuesday - while at first glance rather hyperbolic is most probably a very fair assessment of the likely impact of this book.
And while Don Brash may claim that he has not resigned because of the book, it is hard not to conclude that he most surely would have resigned once he had read it.
One of the most remarkable things about the events of the past week is how, when examined in the light of this book, you can see that the same tactics exposed in the book have continued to be employed by Dr Brash.
The line-reading, message management and general deceptivity that seemingly characterises Dr Don Brash's conduct as National Party Leader has continued – as it were – till the final hurdle.
The often provided advice that when in a hole stop digging would have very usefully been followed by Dr Brash it seems.
Why Dr Brash did not simply refuse to discuss issues raised in the book until he had had the opportunity to read it?
In summary this is by far the most interesting, engaging, and startling of Nicky Hager's books about New Zealand to date.
The subject matter is the dark and sometimes ugly-side of politics. The Hollow Men exposes the undergarments of political strategy setting, implementation and election campaigning.
Many of its insights apply not only to the National Party but probably to modern politics in general.
Press Gallery journalists tend to regard themselves as a fairly cynical and skeptical bunch, but I doubt that many considered for a more than a micro-second that the apparent gaff – a few short days before the election - when Dr Brash told BFm's Noelle McCarthy that he had indeed met with the Brethren and been told about their pamphlets was not a slip of the tongue but a carefully rehearsed line written for the National Party leader by his chief media minder Richard Long!
The legacy of this book is going to live long in the practice of political journalism in New Zealand.
For example, henceforth when John Key (or Helen Clark for that matter) seems annoyed at a particular line of questioning reporters will ask themselves: is it because as a reporter I have overstepped the line of decency, or is it because my interview subject has been told to "get irritated" if I get too close to this question line?
This book is much, much more than a hatchet job on Dr Don Brash and an view inside the political process.
On reading this book the reader is taken inside a whole new vista of understanding of the National Party, its key players and how the practice of politics is presently conducted.
The book provides insights not only into the character of Don Brash, but into that of his staff, associates and senior colleagues. For anyone seriously interested in New Zealand politics it is treasure trove of knowledge and insight that should not be missed.
THE SMOKING GUN
The Hollow Men arranges subject matter in a thematic rather than a strictly chronological basis and begins – like a good news story – with the information that has the most impact – the National Party's relationship with the Exclusive Brethren.
Nicky Hager outlines in detail how the Exclusive Brethren became involved with the National Party; the extent of their relationship; how the Brethren have conducted similar covert election campaigns in other parts of the world (Canada, America and Australia); how they hoped to get away with doing so secretly in New Zealand as well; and how it all came horribly unstuck.
The details of this chapter will doubtless fill the pages of tomorrow's newspaper and so for now I will confine myself to the smoking gun element.
At the back of the book there are a series of images mostly of the Exclusive Brethren's pamphlets, and, on page 332 an image of one email/letter to Dr Brash.
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The Smoking Gun Email
This is the only image of an email contained in the book and it is if you like - the "smoking gun" in the book – a gun is pointed squarely at both Dr Brash, National's campaign Manager Steven Joyce, and Don Brash's erstwhile successor John Key. And in the context of their overall election spending this is the email that will doubtless be referred to the Electoral Commission and possibly the Police for further consideration.
The salient parts of this email/letter.
1. It is from Ron Hickmott – who coordinated the Exclusive Brethren campaign. He signs it off "We need a meeting at your earliest convenience…. [I] am essentially working our/your election campaign full time."
2. It is addressed to Don Brash and John Key
3. It is dated 24 May 2005 (Don Brash has repeatedly claimed both before and since the election – including in the past few days – that he knew nothing of the pamphlets till August 2005. Earlier this week he even told TV3 reporter Duncan Garner in a standup with the Press Gallery, "I don't think I have ever had an email from the Exclusive Brethren.")
4. It leads off with the "smoking gun paragraph":
"Good afternoon Don and John,
Doug Watt and myself enjoyed your presentation this morning at the Millennium Hotel. However as backers of the recent "Wake Up NZ" campaign ($350,000) and as responsible for a very extensive election campaign ($1,000,000) with the sole goal of "Getting Party Votes for National" a meeting following on from our one last week with Steven Joyce is important."
Students of election spending law, ethics and politics will quickly identify the problems inherent in this email.
1. It’s an email to Don Brash.
2. It shows very clearly that Steven Joyce, Don Brash & John Key knew about the pamphlet campaigns long before August 2005.
3. Any campaign which has a goal of getting votes for one particular party is by law required to be authorised by the campaign manager for the party concerned – in this case Steven Joyce – and is also required to be incorporated into the election return. This campaign wasn't.
The full chapter contains significantly more detail about the relationship than this.
Effectively its thesis is:
- Elements in the National Party, and certainly the team close to Don Brash – including Bryan Sinclair, Richard Long, Peter Keenan, Murray McCully and Gerry Brownlee - were fully aware of and to some extent working with the Exclusive Brethren for months prior to the election. Some MPs in the party were allegedly even shown copies of the pamphlets.
- This self same campaign leadership team planned intended that the Exclusive Brethren involvement in the campaign ought to remain secret until after the election – by which time it would no longer cause them any harm.
- For the National Party campaign leadership it was vital that the extent of the National Party's involvement with the Exclusive Brethren remained secret. And on the face of it several members of the team lied publicly to protect this information in the final days of the campaign and since.
JOHN KEY RESPONSE TO SMOKING GUN
The likely next leader of the National Party – John Key
While most of The Hollow Men deals with Don Brash and his senior advisers for the election - with Dr Brash's resignation yesterday - lot of interest will turn today to the parts that concern National's leadership frontrunner - Finance spokesperson John Key. And in particular the fact that the smoking gun email is also addressed to him.
Yesterday Mr Key told the media that even though he hadn't read the book it should be filed in the fiction section of a library.
"All I can tell you is that I am totally confident that [allegations] Mr Hager has made about me are totally incorrect. I stand by any public statement I have made in the past," stated Mr Key.
However as discussed in the previous section Mr Hager's book contains an email that was forwarded from Exclusive Brethren member Ron Hickmott.
And while Mr Hickmott is not identified in the email as belonging to the Exclusive Brethren his name was one of those attached to submissions made by the Exclusive Brethren in 2004 relating to the Civil Union Bill.
Mr Key when asked yesterday if he had been contacted last year with offers of campaign support by the Exclusive Brethren told the assembled media that he had not had any campaign support from the Brethren.
Mr Key cut short the impromptu press conference press conference when asked for the second time whether he had received any offers of actual financial support from the Exclusive Brethren
Radio New Zealand is now reporting that Mr Key says that he may have received the email but not opened it.