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February 26, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Through a Glass, Rightly – Bangs and Whimpers in Rightearoa

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.

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  1. Christine says:

    The Gang of 25 – who is their Mao equivalent? – is getting its wish. Slowly, people are becoming more and more disillusioned with MMP, as we see minority party leaders pop their heads up with promises every three years, take a significant chunk of the vote from the major parties, and then vanish into space and do nothing, and take no responsibilty for anything for the whole of the political term. Winston Peters is a good example of this. It seems to me that the Far Right were way ahead of most New Zealanders when they saw that this would be the eventual outcome. Why denigrate them in this way? Because they have money? Money gives power and influence. Get over it.

  2. A Loyal Comrade says:

    Finally, someone is striving to end the despotic right wing from terrorizing the workers of our country, the very back bone of our country. Finally someone who obviously recognises the need for Revolution to end the said terror the ruling class subjects daily on its citizens, citizens on whose backs this country was built, and with whose blood the capitalists wash down their caviar.

  3. Chris says:

    Most of this article is just utter shit. To pick on some things:
    – what’s a “democratic despot”?
    – the 1984 Labour government was never hailed as being a “classic new-old lefty” government. If it was, where’s your source?
    – incomes did not plummet after 1984, they in fact increased (which is consistent with your previous statement that the wealth of the middle class increased).
    – unemployment on a mass scale existed well before 1984, so Labour did not “create” mass scale unemployment.
    – 98% of workers who left work after the public sector reforms chose voluntary redundancy, and weren’t fired.

    This is not even an article. It is just yet another forum for Nicky Hager to express his own conspiracy theories about the influence of the so-called “far right” in NZ politics.

    Hager is incorrect on numerous points. ACC was not privatised; it was opened up to competition between 1998 and 1999 (not 1996-1999). Moreover this is hardly evidence of a “rise of the right”, this was basically the only right wing thing the National government did during this period (after NZ First had exited the fold).

    It is also just a lie that right wing people use “anonymous” front groups to advance their polticial agenda. The Business Roundtable and the CIS have websites and everyone can find out who is in charge of them, who speaks for them, and what they stand for. Likewise with the Campaign for Better Government back in 1993 – it was Peter Shirtcliffe’s vehicle, the other main players were well exposed in the media, and everyone knew where they were coming from.

    Money does not buy votes. The example that Hager cites in 1996 is a perfect example of this. Despite spending more than 1 million dollars in the 1996 election, ACT barely got 7% of the vote. National and Labour only spent a bit more than this and got more than four times the votes that ACT did (each of them). People can see through bullshit and they don’t vote for bad ideas. Why doesn’t anyone on the left ever trust ordinary people? For a group of political activists who claim to speak in their name you sure distrust them.

    Basically, this is a just an uncritical think-piece that is just a regurgitation of Hager’s conspiracy theories about people who are trying to make a legitimate contribution to the public policy debate in NZ society. It’s left-wing bias is sadly obvious. However from my reading of the first two issues of Salient this year that seems to be it’s general direction (see Steve’s editorial about Chomsky blowing his brains, and general tenor of “rebellion” and “progressive causes” and other articles etc).

    I hope things change for the better. Otherwise it’s going to be a boring year continually writing in taking on the lies and myths that make up so much of left wing rhetoric and argument these days.

  4. peteremcc says:

    As Chris has already pointed out, this is full of factual inaccuracies and completely biased.
    Salient should be able to do better.
    Either write some fair, balanced articles, or include some equally inaccurate articles biased to the right.

    Besides, if you substituted National=Labour, ACT=Greens, Various Anonymous Groups=Unions the article would still make complete sense.

    P.S. Has anyone every bothered to stop and wonder why all the rich businessmen are right wing? Could it be that right wingers become rich businessmen?
    Easiest way to solve the ‘underclass’ problem in New Zealand… all become right-wingers. :D

  5. I didn’t even read this, but the comments seem unanimous.

    And who the fuck is loyal comrade? Nick Kelly, is that you? Dude, unemployment must be pretty hard on the soul.

    Who washes down caviar with the blood of the innocent? The blood is far tastier drunken with a good cheese. Communists do not know fine dining!

    It usually takes about six issues before I start ignoring Salient.

  6. Nick says:

    Let’s forget about the pointless partisan rant that forms the main body of the article, I want to know what the point of the title it. Obviously its a play on the bible quote, I got that far: “We see now but through a glass, darkly”.

    But what the hell is the writer trying to say by replacing darkly, with rightly? My guess is that he’s working off a secondary source, which replaces darkly with brightly (which would have a purpose and a ref back to the original quote) and therefore he thinks he’s riffing on the original. That’s just a theory though.

    Could you explain mate?

  7. Rob Addison says:

    First of all, I want to get back to Chris:

    1. ‘Democratic despot’ is an example of an oxymoron.

    2. For the new-old classic lefty Labour Govt position I sourced from Barry Gustafson, the ‘90s documentary ‘Revolution’, and the many New Zealanders who entered into the rhetoric of David Lange before the 1984 Election.

    3. Remember, I was kept to a word-limit so had to skim over the 1980s reforms. Arguably, incomes did increase immediately after Labour came to govt, but by 1987 this was not the case as the gap between the wealthy and the poor increased. Many argue that this was the result of the 1987 Stockmarket Crash.

    4. Regarding voluntary redundancies, nothing in the article disputes that – if voluntary redundancies were the case then they were proposed due to the policies of the govt, which makes the govt responsible (as stated early in the article).

    To Nick:

    The title isn’t my brainchild and I was away while it was selected. I couldn’t tell you where it came from so I suggest you see the editor.

    To Chris, peteremcc, Nathaniel Hornblower, and Nick:

    The article was based around the positions of three people – Peter Shirtcliffe, Catherine Judd, and Nicky Hager. As it turned out, Hager was willing to discuss his position on his research. Debate his position all you like, I have simply recited my interview with him. But truthfully I have no position on his views or on his research.

    The same stands for Shirtcliffe and Judd. I thoroughly implored them to give me the best response they could: I said to each of them that their unwillingness to respond to the allegations posed in Hager’s book simply allowed Hager to further lead the agenda while at the same time forced me to rehash current negative public perceptions on the ‘Far Right’ via my article. Shircliffe agreed with me on this, but still refused to be interviewed, and Judd, who to that point had declined a phone interview after she originally agreed, accepted to answer some questions via email. I had a lot to gain from receiving coherent and reasonable responses from Judd and Shirtcliffe, but that wasn’t the case. So Chris’s description of this as being an uncritical think-piece holds some truth – but I didn’t want it to be that way. But Chris also talks of those who are ‘trying to make a legitimate contribution to the public policy debate in NZ society’. Tell me how refraining from making reasonable comment on serious allegations put against one is contributing to that?

    I explained my position in the article. It was that the general silence of those accused of misconduct as posed in The Hollow Men suggests foul-play – but I have never said that the ‘Far Right’ are guilty of foul-play and I never will because that’s not my position.

    Thanks for your comments – in my opinion you guys have done a better job at contributing to the argument against Nicky Hager than those accused by the allegations posed in his book have done at any time since the book’s release. Send me any more comments/questions you may have.

  8. Nick says:

    Rob this might sound nasty or aggressive, but honestly it’s not meant to.
    In the future you need:
    1. Thicker skin; replying to every criticism will leave you exhausted by year’s end.
    2. More time with ambitious stories. Not everyone will talk for you, give yourself time to panic and regroup.
    3. Greater editorial control. Don’t let editors put pointless headlines on your stories. It makes you, not them, look bad.

    Sorry to butt my nose in this early in the piece.

  9. Steve Nicoll says:

    To see “through a glass” -a mirror-“darkly” is to have an obscure or imperfect vision of reality. The expression comes from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13). In that passage Paul explains that we do not now see clearly, but at the end of time, we will do so.

    Replacing “darkly” with rightly (the political meaning of right) implies a world view that is imperfect and prejudged with rightwing ideology. It’s a critical comparison.

    ‘Bangs and Whimpers’ refer to the last line in TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.
    “This is the way the world end not with a bang but a whimper”
    Eliot wrote that poem just after WWI when he was disillusioned with politicians and society.
    It also references Nicky Hager’s “The Hollow Men”
    Again it’s a negative comparison.

    Steve Nicoll

  10. Jono Newton says:

    I always love it when the left bleat on and on and on about the Businesses etc suporting the right and its bitch bitch bitch. Come on lets see an article on how the Unions are using Compulsory fees to prop up this Labour led government. Come on. Oh thats right wouldn’t want to rock the boat and damage your future. Salient, In particular you Steve Nicoll are a bunch of Fucks.

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