Since Don Brash’s resignation as the leader of the National Party, much has been made of National’s alleged links with the Exclusive Brethren. Few, however, have questioned the infl uence of New Zealand’s business elite during Brash’s time as Leader of the Opposition. Salient feature writer Rob Addison talks to Nicky Hager, author of The Hollow Men, Peter Shirtcliffe, the alleged top-donor to the Brash-led National Party, and Catherine Judd, former President of the ACT Party and Managing-Director of Awaroa Partners, about the influence of the Far-Right on New Zealand politics.
The legacy of New Zealand’s Far Right begins in the mid-1980s. In 1984, New Zealand’s economy was a self-declared heap after nine years of direction by democratic despot Robert Muldoon. The new Labour Government, heralded as being the new-old classic lefty government, had strayed far from its socialist roots. Once in government, Labour relinquished much of its control over the economy, abolishing government subsidies and down-sizing the public sector. This caused consumerism to sky-rocket, increasing the wealth of New Zealand’s middle class. New Zealand boomed between 1984 and 1986 as our economy was transformed from being the most regulated to the most free-market economy in the world.
These economic reforms came at a price. One of the effects of the reforms was that tens of thousands of government sector employees and farmers lost their jobs. While the 1980s reforms liberated businesses from the stodgy controls of gloomy Rob, they also caused incomes to plummet and created mass-scale unemployment.
The next episode in far-right intervention occurred in 1990 when National Government Finance Minister Ruth Richardson introduced further reforms. Her term, however, was met with voter disapproval: National almost lost the 1993 General Election and Richardson was removed as Finance Minister soon after. Mainstream politicians refused to touch free-market reforms and suddenly it seemed the reform agenda had met its end. But does this mean the free-market reformers have been out of work since?
Researcher Nickey Hager says that the beginning of a right lobby revival began in 1993 when reformers started organising anti-MMP campaigns. “They had stumbled, but in 1994 they set up ACT, and from 1996 to 1999 (they)… privatised ACC. They were building in strength right through that period,” says Hager. The last wave of far-right lobbying occurred in the National Party’s 2005 Election campaign. Hager’s The Hollow Men reveals a dramatic upsurge in National Party donations in preparation for 2005. In 2002, National experienced a record slump in funds, a factor which contributed to the party suffering one of it’s worst election defeats in history. In 2003, National’s wealthy donors demanded the appointment of Don Brash to the position of National Party leader, threatening to pull the pin on party donations altogether. Finally, the appointment of free-market Brash to the leadership of the National Party gave the Far-Right the potential to rejuvenate the reform age with a hoped-for 2005 National Party election victory.
Given the Far-right’s impact, who exactly are they? Drawn together by the belief that the economic market works best without government interference, Hager says that the Far-Right is “a peer group of people who constantly reform and support each other. We’re talking about 25 people and basically they’re a gang”. This peer-group forms the nucleus of New Zealand’s Far Right com munity. Composed of some of New Zealand’s wealthiest elite, the group includes business entrepreneurs Alan Gibbs and Peter Shirtcliffe, and high-profi le public policy fi gures Ruth Richardson and Catherine Judd (former ACT party president). Hager claims that this peer group stems from the membership and events-circles of three organisations: right-wing think-tank the Centre of Independent Studies, public relations fi rm Awaroa Partners, and the ACT Party.
Despite their willingness to participate in high-profi le public issues, the Far-Right prefers to shy away from the public limelight. Hager says that this stems from the time of Ruth Richardsons unpopularity. “On the whole they’ve seen themselves as best operating out of view, and their tactics show people who are publicity shy, who prefer to be not all that open about what they’re up to.” When campaigning on MMP and ACC issues, the Far-Right relied on anonymous front groups to push their agenda. “They set up different fronts and no one knew that it was the same people behind (both campaigns). They have no name and they’re never identifi ed as a grouping because inattentive daily journalism takes them in their different incarnations. The actual grouping is very rarely recognised as a phenomenon.”
The Far-Right’s crowning jewel is money. Hager attributes the massive reduction in public support for MMP in 1993 to the Far Right’s huge investment in anti-MMP campaigns. He also says that ACT spent more than any other political party to gain entrance to Parliament in 1996 – a spending milestone that was courtesy of New Zealand’s deep-pocketed Far-Right. On the subject of the National Party’s 2005 election campaign, Hager insists that the surge in donations from the Party’s wealthy supporters between 2002 and 2005 and National’s increased mandate of 21 seats in Parliament during the same period are results that speak for themselves.
The Far-Right’s reluctance to come under public scrutiny raises a number of ethical issues about its agenda. Does the Far-Right’s desire to suppress the public’s knowledge of its involvement in public issues suggest an undemocratic streak? Hager says that “there’s a bit of an ego-trip in it and a personal agenda of wanting to get their stuff going again. It really irks them that the public doesn’t really want this thing they started. They really want to get it going again. It’s partly ego-trip, partly wanting to continue the great work of their lives, and partly a belief that they’re doing a good thing.” Ego and vested interest are natural components of modern politics and could be found anywhere along the political spectrum. So what is so wrong with the Right? “I’m not saying that rich individuals and businesses shouldn’t push their points of view in the political system. I would say that when things are being infl uenced by a major inequality of economic power, that’s a big issue. I would say that when people act secretly and people don’t understand whose motives are at work, that’s really important.”
Business entrepreneur and former chairperson of Telecom Peter Shirtcliffe declined to be interviewed for this article. While Shirtcliffe rarely has any media contact, in a brief conversation with me he did admit that an email from him referenced in The Hollow Men was “word for word” correct. But he believes that the substance of The Hollow Men is “absolute bullshit” and that Hager is a person who can “put words together to make them sound sinister.”
Former ACT Party President and current Awaroa Partners Managing-Director Catherine Judd also refutes Hager’s statements, claiming that Awaroa is an apolitical organisation. On the subject of political funding, Judd argues that “there is little evidence of improper infl uence in New Zealand, nor (is there evidence) that funding greatly infl uences voting.” Despite this, she acknowledges that the Brash-led National Party attracted a large proportion of ACT’s fi nancial base, saying that “there may have been a shift” of donations from ACT to National in the run-up to the 2005 Election where ACT performed woefully. Judd says that “ACT suffered because of the Brash factor and the belief of many voters that voting ACT would be a wasted vote”. Judd would not disclose who ACT’s main donors were during her time as Party President. When asked if she was going to challenge Hager over the publication of false allegations regarding her and Awaroa’s participation in the election of Don Brash to the leadership of the National Party, Judd stated that she was not willing to comment on material based on stolen property.
After relaying my interview with Catherine Judd, Nicky Hager described her as “unusually evasive”. While this is to be expected from the publicity-shy Peter Shirtcliffe, Hager says that the response from both of them refl ects the Far-Right’s general unwillingness to debate the contents of The Hollow Men, and also refl ects their inability to dispute its main fi ndings. But regardless of how their activities of the last 25 years are interpreted, the Far-Right’s repeated avoidance of publicity naturally attracts bad public sentiment and suggests foul-play. Despite this, the Far-Right will undoubtedly refuse to acknowledge the need to defend itself, and in all likelihood will proceed with unqualified denials of suspicious behaviour. “Welcome to politics” says Nicky Hager.