The Rough Drafts Of History

The Hollow Men: A Study in the Politics of Deception: Nicky Hager (Craig Potton 2006) 351pp, $35.00. 

 

An earlier version of this review was submitted to a history journal and rejected because ‘the points you’re making about history writing are so well known to our readers that they don’t need to be said in quite the same way in a specialist journal as in a more generalist venue’. There has been minor revisions since. 

 

Keywords: Political Economy & History; 

 

A Doonesbury cartoon, published as his presidency was coming to a close, has Bill Clinton addressing a group on his place in history. Their reaction leads the president to say ‘Hey wait a minute! You’re not historians! You’re just journalists. What are you doing here?’. They reply ‘We write the rough drafts of history’. 

 

Suppose a scholar were to find some emails from the Byzantine court. (allow – for a paragraph – the anachronism). There would only be emails from some of the participants, and other communications – face-to-face, phone, fax and letter – would appear only to the extent they were mentioned in emails, and then perhaps not always reliably. Even so, the material would be seized on by historians, grateful for the addition to the little they already knew. 

 

This is the challenge that Nicky Hager faced when six National party supporters leaked Dr Don Brash’s emails in the period from October 2003, when he became leader of the National Party, the New Zealand parliamentary opposition. through to the 2005 election, which National nearly won. Given its limitations, how to turn this material into a contemporary history? Note that in the Byzantine case there would be no oral interviews, although they are not always reliable unless tested against the documentary evidence. (Easton 2001) Because of the element of surprise, Hager could not use them much either. 

 

The story the emails tell is a conventional one. Brash gets elected to leadership of the parliamentary party (by one vote), and goes about trying to win the 2005 election. The economic policies which he and his close supporters hold are an anathema to the populace. The response to this contradiction is threefold: to make the leader appear credible and trustworthy, while obscuring the divergences between his beliefs and the public’s; to emphasise non-economic policies more palatable to the public, although it soon becomes evident that the leader is not well equipped to do handle this (see Wong (2004) for Brash tangling himself up on race relations); and to make concessions to the public on economic policies, described by one of Brash’s advisers, Peter Keenan, as ‘eating dead rats’. 

 

Because National never won the 2005 election, we do not know the extent to which Brash and his team were genuinely seeking to construct a policy acceptable to New Zealanders. and the extent to which if elected they would have abandoned such policies and adopted their preferred policies instead, the strategy adopted by some of Brash’s closest allies in 1984, 1987 and 1990. As the book’s subtitle the politics of deceit indicates, Hager is in no doubt. 

 

His opening chapter focuses on the deception of National’s relations with the Exclusive Brethren. Brash’s initial denials might have been excused by a faulty memory (a dangerous flaw in a candidate for prime ministership), but he had his email files, so when first challenged it would have been no great effort to have checked them that, and make a public correction immediately after. Brash did not. 

 

There is also the question of how racist Brash’s first (2004) Orewa speech was. Hager, citing overseas parallels, argues it was a ‘dog whistle’ which ‘superficially appearing reasonable, contain[s] language, claims and racial stereotype designed to excite the prejudices of certain target audience, in the same way that dogs will react to a high-pitched whistle that humans cannot hear’ (p.88). Brash insisted, even in his valedictory speech to parliament, that there was no such intention, and that he was merely arguing ‘one law for all’. 

 

What the slogan ignores is that there are levels of law. Higher laws, in New Zealand anyway, treat all people as having the same rights, but at lower administrative levels they may discriminate. No one, for instance, objects to men not being entitled to cervical smear tests. Nor do we get particularly incensed that the law gives those with greater wealth more opportunities than others, or it gives more to those with property. (Treaty settlements are often about compensating some families – whanau, hapu, iwi – for unjustified seizures of their ancestral property.) In between those two levels there are, inevitably, ambiguities but Brash seemed so taken by the slogan as to not understand the nuances. The description of the construction of the speech, based on the emails, leaves one with the sense that at least some of Brash’s advisers – not a single one of them could be thought to have much expertise on race relations – were very aware of dog whistle politics. 

 

Perhaps the biggest potential deceit was on economic policy. Did the Brash National Party promise one platform with the intention to implement an entirely different one in office – probably one involving public expenditure cuts, privatisation and private supply of public services in education health and elsewhere? I have argued the case that the implementation of the promised, but unsustainable, tax cuts could have been the excuse for the alternative policy, but we just dont know for certain. (Easton 2007) 

 

Hager’s book hardly mentions overall economic policy, because they were not in the email files so, frustratingly, there is little on the promised tax cuts which probably did much to add to National’s voter share. The extent to which Brash was involved in the exercise is unclear. Perhaps those decisions were made by National’s finance spokesperson John Key, or perhaps in meetings not recorded in the emails. (Another possibility, hinted by Brash, is that he had a number of computers with different email folders on their hard drives. Perhaps the missing ‘files’ were on another computer. Oh, the frustration to the historian: but what Hager reports is all we have.) 

 

Key, Brash’s successor, hardly appears in the book. . Brash surrounded himself with a very small group of advisers which included only two MPs – Murray McCully and Gerry Brownlee. (The involvement of deputy leader Brownlee is probably more significant than the book relates. According to Jane Clifton, he was not an obsessive emailer in the way that Brash and the others were: a useful reminder of the limitations of the archive. (2006)) 

 

The irrelevance of the caucus in the deliberations may at first seem surprising. The only substantive contribution is a firm but thoughtful letter by ex-leader Bill English setting out his and some of the caucus misgivings. (p.146-148) His remarks on a new – but suitably right wing – MP, being appointed above her peter level, suggest that political alignment rather than competence were the criteria for promotion, and that policy development was not a focus. This may not surprise the contemporary observer, but it is useful to have it documented. 

 

Brash came from the business culture, where the Chief Executive appoints the underlings. In politics it is the other way around: they appoint their leader. Perhaps future memoirs may clarify the tension, but apparently this clash of cultures caused the leaks to Hager, although I cannot recall any comment on this by a political journalist over the period. 

 

The tension was compounded by the close advisers, loyal to Brash, thinking of the exercise as electing a president. Even the books that they were reading were American political treatises. Presidential politics may be in the logic of winning an MMP election, given the announced strategies of minority parties that the party with the most votes gets the first opportunity to form a government. (Regrettably the leaked emails stop at about the time of the election, so that there is nothing on the politicking by National after the election to create a governing coalition.) This is the politics of office. 

 

However, under MMP post-election politics – the politics of governance – is less presidential. Suppose Brash had formed a government. It would not have had a very large majority. Even in the (unlikely) event of there being no coalition partners, the caucus would have included a number of independently minded – some would say ‘bolshie’ – National MPs. Back in 1990 the National majority was so large that such ‘mavericks’ had little effect, even though they were deeply disturbed by the blitzkrieg policies of their Minister of Finance, Ruth Richardson, and would have crossed the floor on particular issues (as Richardson had done a decade earlier, under Muldoon) had they thought it would have made a difference. 

 

Initially there would have been a victory euphoria which would have forced caucus to swallow some dead rats, but as the diet became increasingly indigestible there would have been a caucus revolt (coupled, no doubt, by a rejection by some of the coalition partners). 

 

Perhaps the US Presidential model is more relevant than Brash’s advisers thought. The President does not command Congress. Even when her or his party has a majority in both houses, he or she has to work with them in order to pass legislation. Getting elected to office and exercising power are not the same thing. 

 

A more sinister parallel is between the Brash vision of the National Party and the Bush vision of the Republican party. In each case an extremist (‘neo-conservative’) rump captured the party leadership, although in the New Zealand case it was unable to convert the capture of the party into office. 

 

While it is evident that the rump – more aligned with the philosophy of the Act Party than the traditional National Party: some were even Act members – assisted Brash into party leadership, it is less clear they had influence over him in policy development. 

 

Roderick Deane wrote to John Key in March 2005 (copy to Brash) expressing ‘increasing consternation [at] the range of policy pronouncements with respect to economic policy issues which seem to me to part company with the principles I have associated with the National Party and potentially the National Government’ (p.228) It is not entirely clear to this non-member of the National Party that the policies to which (also non-member) Deane objected are that inconsistent with the party of Keith Holyoake or Rob Muldoon, or even Jim Bolger and English, But the point to be illustrated here is that the letter indicates that Deane had less effect on National’s policy development than the rump had hoped when they contributed to Brash’s election. That appears true for others: Roger Kerr, Chief Executive of the Business Roundtable, did not have much policy influence either. 

 

Far more important to the Brash team was the desire to collect sufficient voter support. The lesson is surely that those who want to impose a particular policy framework on New Zealand without deceiving the New Zealand voter, first have to win them over. The record of the last two decades is that the group around Brash – right wing advocates of an extreme form of economic regulation – have yet to recruit the public at large to their vision. That story belongs to another book, to which the material from The Hollow Men will make an invaluable contribution. 

 

Where the extremist (and rich) rump did have influence, once Brash was leader, was in funding the campaign, either directly, or by paying for services which the party was using (perfectly legally without reportage in the period up to six months before the campaign), or indirectly – and again legally – via funding private trusts which, as detailed in the book, were used to promote support for the party one way or another. (Hager has suggested some of the funding may have been illegal. That is a matter for the police. However such indiscretions, if they were, were marginal in comparison with the main funding.) 

 

All parties pursue these funding options to some extent, although National’s total election funding far exceeded any other party’s. They probably had effective use of $4m for its campaign, or more than double what Labour had available. The details described in Chapter 15 are fragmentary, but they give the lie to the claim that Brash was unaware of where the funding was coming from, the promise being that the political leadership is insulated from any financial pressures of the funders. 

 

Hager emphasises that many of the things he reports are equally true for other parties. The book’s insights will also apply to other times. Thus it is more than instant journalism. 

 

While the general populace may have been agog at the portent doom for Brash (who resigned as soon as he realised the extent of the emails available to Hager), historians will tease the material out. Unfortunately for scholarship, Hager’s files have been returned to their sources and may disappear. If Brash destroys the files, as is his right, scholars could be in a position similar to classical historians who have references to, commentaries on, and quotes from, say, Aristotle, but not the original texts. (More generally, future historians will be overwhelmed with emails and yet find frustrating gaps.) 

 

So while the book tells a story of the court of presidential hopeful Brash, it also sheds light on a longer period, and on more than the office of the National leader. For instance, from 1984 many of the actors were involved in imposing policies unacceptable to the populace at large. It has been long rumoured that from the 1980s, if not earlier, the far right do not just practice argument ad hominem (easily verifiable), but extend to character assassination. Keenan’s description of – well, let’s say the designated person deserves not to be named – as ‘an idiot … totally full of himself, and not half as good as his self image’ (p.86) documents the rumour. 

 

A lack of self awareness seems pervasive. Murray McCully wrote that ‘we regard them [possibly the whole of Television New Zealand: certainly some of those in some news and feature programs] as a bunch of lying, cheating, duplicitous bastards.’ Did McCully, described by a colleague as ‘the dark prince’, think that the adjectives could equally, or more so, apply to those in Brash’s Court, as Hager seems to think? (p.264) However, while the book may confirm many’s suspicions that politicians are a bunch of … bastards, in this reviewer’s view it more demonstrates them struggling with horrendous problems beyond their competence. (McCully might well reflect that television has parallel problems.) 

 

The extraordinary insight, to this policy wonk reviewer anyway, is how little policy development appears to have occurred. Certainly ‘dead rat’ policies were swallowed, but apparently on the basis of expediency, rather than after any reflective policy papers. (There was probably more on the proposed tax cuts as they looked at various options attempting to target key voter groups. But the work may have been done in Key’s office. Caucus minutes may also show more policy deliberation than seems to have gone in the leader’s office.) There does not even seem to have been a paper providing a running total of spending promises. (Oh, to get hold of the Helen Clarke’s papers/emails before the 1999 election, to test whether this is characteristic of all oppositions.) 

 

Instead, Brash’s office seems to be dominated by image and media management (and funding) rather than policy and caucus management. Was caucus so irrelevant? A Winner-Takes-All parliament creates what Lord Hailsham described as an ‘elected dictatorship’. The same seems to be true for the National caucus, that once in power the caucus seemed irrelevant. Ironically that happened in the 1970s under Muldoon. Perhaps having it documented will sustain the memory a little more effectively. 

 

Will the National caucus learn something from this book? Had I been a member, I would have been far more concerned about setting up better relations with the leader than electing the next one (Key as it happened). Or is it that the vast majority of the caucus is concerned only with the baubles of office it matters little in the presidential office as long as they succeed electorally? 

 

The media management portrayed in the book is worthy of careful scrutiny, especially as usually we only see the outcome and not the process. I am not saying that in Byzantine times this was as dominant, although had we their ‘emails’ perhaps we would learn much about image management within the wider court. The book’s lesson is eternal that historians need to be careful about any contemporary commentators they use. 

 

Even the response to the book is instructive. Presciently, Hager himself described it in 2003, before the events the book relates occurred.: 

 

‘the rather contemptuous way that the establishment sees protestors and political dissent … the things that I find hard, and which do get to me sometimes, are the put-downs. I can think I’ve done a really important piece of work and it can just get the reaction: ‘Conspiracy theorist, what crap, well of course he would say that”.’ (Simmons 2007) 

 

Rather than superficial journalism, Hager’s Secret Power is respected in the world intelligence community: an article based on it won an international prize. His Secrets and Lies on West Coast logging, led to a major policy change. His Seeds of Distrust on genetic engineering was published hastily, to coincide with an early election, and was the weaker for it. Hager was also involved in allegations of the NZSIS illegally investigating Maori agencies. Apparently he concluded that the claims were bogus, but the editor published anyway. (Now there’s a bit of rough history for you.) 

 

In total he has a record which makes him New Zealand’s premier investigative journalist and difficult to dismiss as easily as some commentators did. Following the release of book, the National spin machine tried to portray him otherwise. Sadly some journalists uncritically passed their message on. 

 

There was a more defensible argument. The book portrays politics as it is. Much of Hager’s indignation reflects a moral naivety about the reality of power. Even so, The Hollow Men, is a successful ‘rough draft of history’. Long after the events associated with its launch are forgotten, historians will use it as a useful source for an understanding of the politics of the time. 

 

I am not sure they will be so grateful for the contributions of many other journalist – with some notable exceptions – whose implicit portrayal in the book is often they were easily manipulated by the media management of the politicians and so provide misleading accounts of what was really going on. 

 

The fact is much of their commentary of the events the book covers give little warning of the revelations of the book. For instance, the implication of the leaking is there was much grumbling among National party members about Brash’s leadership. It was barely mentioned at the time. Either the journalists contacts were limited or they chose not to report any dissent they were aware of. (Perhaps if they had, the leaks would have been unnecessary.) But this failure is only one of many. 

 

The book also provides an amusing account of the writing and publication of the hagiography Brash, A Biography as a part of the promotion of the leadership image. A very different Brash appears in The Hollow Men. Senior journalist, Colin James, said the book was ‘very good’. Journalists Steve Braunias and John Campbell were more sceptical. (p.192-197) Paul Holmes was giving media training to Brash in election week, while acting as an independent journalist to his audiences. (p.263) A task for a future historian is to reconcile – or judge – the two images. 

 

This reader was reading the bit on the management of the media when Brash began his leadership, just as Key replaced Brash. Exactly the same media management occurred, and the journalists responded in exactly the same way, apparently unaware – yet again – they were being manipulated. When Key announced that National was strong on protecting the environment, no journalist mentioned that a couple of years earlier the strategy was proposed, apparently cynically, as a means of softening National’s image under Brash. (p.138-139) 

 

One is left with the impression of the majority of New Zealand political journalists as unreflective and even gullible. They may write the rough drafts of history, but there remains the need for the weighty, thoughtful, reflective, and insightful role of the historian. 

 

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Other References: 

Clifton, J. (2006) ‘Scandal? What Scandal?’ New Zealand Listener, 9 December, 2006. 

Easton, B. (2001) ‘Review of Remaking New Zealand and Australian Policy: Ideas, Institutions, and Policy Communities’ by Shaun Goldsmith, New Zealand Books, August 2001, p.8-9. 

Easton, B. (2007) ‘Swallowing Dead Rats’, New Zealand Listener, 27 January, 2007. 

Goldsmith P. (2005) Brash : a Biography (Penguin) 

Hager, N. (1996) Secret Power (Craig Potton) 

Hager, N. (1999) Secrets and Lies (Craig Potton) 

Hager, N. (2005) Seeds of Distrust (Craig Potton) 

Simmons, L. (2007) Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) 

Wong G. (2004) ‘I have a Nightmare’ Metro, April 2004. 

 

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