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The Hollow Men: Initial Impressions

by Danyl Mclauchlan

There have been two criticisms made of Nicky Hager's book 'The Hollow Men'. The first is that the book is a conspiracy theory of falsehoods and lies, the second is that if a book of Helen Clark's emails were released it would prove similarly salacious.

The two theories seem to contradict each other -- so it's telling that they are being made by the same people at the same time who have not, as is often the way of these things, actually read the book.

Is it all a deranged conspiracy theory as the National Party claim? If so, it is a remarkably well-documented one. At least half of the text consists of quotations from primary sources: the famous leaked/stolen emails, personal diaries, strategy documents, minutes from meetings, campaign notes, internal polling results, and sundry other highly- confidential sources -- as well as news articles and opinion pieces mostly related to the 2005 General Election.

Mr Hager claims that the book was based on information provided by six 'principled conservatives' within the National Party, and most of this information seems to have taken the form of written or electronic documentation. Hardly any of the books allegations come from interviews with anonymous sources. The words "Confidential Source" appear less than a dozen times in the extensive footnotes.

So would a book of emails between Helen Clark, Heather Simpson and Mike Munroe be just as damning? I doubt it, but not because I imagine Clark and her apparatchiks are any more virtuous than Dr Brash and his advisors, but because the Prime Minister and her team have been running campaigns for a very long time -- since well before the advent of email -- and Clark's friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances would not feel the need to deluge her with well-meaning advice.

Dr Brash was an novice politician who had never won an election and did not know how to run a national political campaign. In 2005 he received a comprehensive education on how to do so, much of it in the form of emails from advisors. It is this material -- the nuts and bolts of modern electioneering as explained by some of the world's acknowledged experts -- that elevates 'The Hollow Men' above the level of simple attack-journalism and transforms it into a truly fascinating account of modern politics.

If the education of Dr Brash is one theme of the book, his corruption must surely the other. Brash has a reputation as an 'honest gentleman' of New Zealand politics, or at least he did until last week. Mr Hager's book reveals him to be one of the most dishonest politicians in our political history. It's clear that he lied about his involvement with the Exclusive Brethren, lied about his links with the far right in America, and lied about National's use of controversial Australian political strategists Crosby/Textor.

It is the Exclusive Brethren revelations detailed in the first chapter of the book that doubtlessly provoked Dr Brash s resignation a few days after the book's publication became known. The 'smoking gun' e-mail proving extensive and ongoing collaboration between the Brethren and National has made it impossible for Brash to continue as leader, and his anointed successor John Key has been forced to hide behind the Clintonesque excuse that he "received the email but did not read it". Dr Brash, who forwarded the email to chief of staff Richard Long, did not have that luxury.

Mr Hager also alleges that Dr Brash's entire campaign was based on a falsehood, and that Brash had a secret right-wing agenda once he took office. Hager's allegation is supported by the close friendships, advice, support and funding he received from other members of New Zealand's far-right fraternity, including Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson, Roger Kerr and Diane Foreman. Controversial American neo-conservative Dick Allen gave Dr Brash the following advice on defending his radical ideology:

Never mind if you are called extremist or anything else... that is so easily countered with the simple statement [that] these views represent the mainstream of New Zealand values and thinking.

It was these extremist views that suddenly saw National's campaign coffers bulge once Dr Brash became leader. The ACT party had previously been the darling of New Zealand's super-rich far right, but despite running the most expensive campaigns out of all of our parties, it had never been able to make its policies appeal to more than a tiny minority of New Zealanders.

Neither, it quickly transpired, could National. While the far right were paying the bills, polling companies and market research quickly determined that a party that ran on a platform of free-market economic reform could never hope to succeed in the election.

Playing the race card may help us win -- then come Monday how do we run the country?
- Jim Bolger, 1990.

The decision was made to find issues that would appeal to broad sections of New Zealand without costing National its wealthy patrons. This was the motivation behind the famous Orewa speech and 'Iwi/Kiwi' billboards. Much of National's campaign seems to have been based on issues that the leaders and advisors within the party were not particularly interested in (tax cuts being an obvious exception) or were actually opposed to. Brash expresses his disgust at the tactics of racial division employed by Winston Peters. A few months later he is using exactly the same language. His senior advisor Peter Keenan confided in an email to Bryan Sinclair that he "hated the race based privilege line" and thought it "ludicrous when Maori are largely at the bottom of the heap". They had no illusions about the fundamentally racist character of their policies, and candidly referred to the voters they won from New Zealand First as "red necks" (Keenan also refers to the rank and file of National Party supporters as "barking mad".)

'The Hollow Men' contains much more that is of interest to politics junkies -- National's doomed attempt to woo women voters (it's hard not to laugh when Brash muses to his advisors that his wife Je Lan was "surprisingly uneasy" about their plan to lower the age of criminal responsibility to twelve, less amusing to consider how close these people came to running the country), the assorted scandals regarding the legality of their election funding, the political infighting within the party.

There's an e-mail from Bill English bagging Murray McCully, Judith Collins, and Katherine Rich, which then goes on to explain to Brash -- in the nicest possible way -- that his leadership style is a disaster. Much of what English has to say has the ring of truth to it, and if the advice came from anyone else Brash may have taken it. It's hard to say what could have motivated English to send such a message (sheer frustration is my guess).

It's been claimed -- although Hager denies it -- that Bill English was a source of the leaked documents. And if not Mr English, then perhaps a chummy former MP like Roger Sowry or Lynda Scott, bitter about the way they were treated by Dr Brash?

I think this is unlikely. I also doubt that the "six principled conservatives" -- who Mr Hager claims collaborated with him -- have or had any seniority in the party. If senior Nats wanted to leak documents, they would do so to one of the gallery journalists with whom they work with every day and develop close relationships. Mr Hager is an enemy of National and its ideology. His book is a disaster for the party.

It's also been claimed that Mr Hager collaborated with the Labour Party to produce his book, and that they had advance knowledge of its contents. I think this is unlikely. Labour would not have been inclined to do Nicky Hager any favours after his 'Corngate' ambush of Helen Clark at the height of the 2002 election, nor would they have had any access to the documents that 'The Hollow Men' draws upon.

Mr Hager's own political convictions and his feelings towards Brash and his far right agenda are clearly spelt out in the central chapter which shares the book's title. Hager feels that the Brash-led National Party abandoned its "principled conservative values" and exchanged them for the soulless market-driven dogmas of the far right. There is doubtless some truth to this, but I doubt the impeccably left-wing Nicky Hager ever had much sympathy for the social conservatism of the National party of old -- a National Party that was also totally unelectable under leader Bill English.

Otherwise, Hager is very clear about his own distaste for National's tactics and lack of ethics, and this clarity extends to the rest of the book. It is written in a very accessible style and touches on a diverse range of subjects -- US and Australian politics, marketing, economics, domestic political history -- without ever getting bogged down in detail. Each chapter deals with a different subject: race, welfare, marketing, funding, etc., and addresses its topic in chronological narrative, mostly quoting from Hager's vast hoard of confidential documents.

As I said previously I'm uncertain that a book based on Clark's e-mails would be as sensational as 'The Hollow Men' -- at least not in the same way, but I'd still love to read it. 'The Hollow Men' is about what people will say and do to obtain power. The Clark book would be a study of what people do once they have that power. I doubt the secret thoughts and deeds of the Labour government are much more edifying than that of the National Party, but they could scarcely be worse. It's unlikely that a book about Clark's emails will ever be written, and in its absence the 'The Hollow Men' is as good as it gets.

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