New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on October 2, 2013 in Canberra, Australia. Key is in Australia for one day to hold meetings with newly-elected Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

The history of National party collusion with Australian politicians and strategists

The current trans-Tasman tensions have nothing on the decades of covert and overt collaboration between the Liberals, National and the Crosby Textor strategists.

After less than three months into the new government, Trans-Tasman relations seemed to have plunged to their lowest point in years.

First, during the campaign, Labour MP Chris Hipkins, at the behest of a friend who worked for the Australian Labor Party, asked Peter Dunne, then the minister of internal affairs, about the citizenship status of children born in Australia to Kiwi parents. Australia’s deputy PM subsequently became the first of a series of Australian MPs to resign when it turned out they were New Zealand citizens. Australia’s ruling right-leaning Liberal Party accused Labour of being part of a “conspiracy” to “bring down the government”.

Hipkins claimed he wasn’t aware of the potential consequences of the question, and Dunne himself confirmed that it had been Australian media inquiries that had prompted the revelation, not Hipkins’ question. Still, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop told the media she would find it “very hard to build trust with those involved.” Gerry Brownlee said that it was “extraordinary that a New Zealand member of parliament has allowed himself to be used by a party in a different country with an intent to bring another party in that country down.”

Things got even worse once Labour won, with Jacinda Ardern’s repeated offers to take 150 of the Manus Island refugees abandoned by the Australian government prompting further claims of foreign meddling from Australian officials, a series of leaks designed to embarrass the Labour government, and criticisms from National MPs that echoed the Liberal government’s own talking points.

If it all sounds strangely familiar, that’s because it should. Trans-Tasman accusations of foreign interference in domestic affairs have a storied history, particularly over the past 20 years – except it’s usually been the Liberals, often in concert with the National party, who have meddled in our politics.

National party leader Jim Bolger on election night 1996

1996: Employment contracts and uranium

Let’s start with the 1996 Australian election, during which then-National Party president Geoff Thompson worried that the Employment Contracts Act – a signature piece of ‘90s-era National legislation that weakened unions’ power and bargaining rights – would be used by Australia’s Labor government as a “battering ram” against its opposition. Thompson not only told the Evening Post that National would “offer what help it could do the Liberal Party” in the election, as the newspaper relayed, but criticised the campaign of Australian Labor prime minister Paul Keating.

“To start with negative campaigning indicates to me that Mr Keating has run out of positive things to say,” he said. “I have never seen that anywhere in the world. You normally start off trying to say something positive about yourself. In campaign terms, he is bankrupt.”

At that time, it fell to Labour MP Steve Maharey to tell Thompson off for interfering in Australian domestic politics, accusing him of putting the Trans-Tasman relationship in jeopardy by taking sides in an election.

Jim Bolger, then prime minister, was more diplomatic, politely asking that New Zealand politics not feature in the campaign. He also gave the Aussies a lighthearted ribbing over their anti-nuclear ambitions, pointing out that they were still exporting uranium.

National also sent an official to observe the Liberals’ election strategy, which involved identifying a key segment of uncommitted voters: women aged 25-40 with kids, jobs and little time for other activities, a bloc which National then attempted to target back home.

Helen Clark meeting another powerhouse politician

2002: Refugees and wedge politics

This sounds eerily familiar today. Again you had a new Labour government in power here; again you had a Liberal government across the Tasman; again the issue of refugees stood as a wedge between the two; and again, National sided with the Liberals over their own government.

That January, Australian immigration minister Phillip Ruddock told a newspaper that the Clark government’s decision to grant refugee visas to the majority of the 131 asylum seekers from the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship, was encouraging human traffickers. New Zealand could be relaxed about the issue, he said, because of its geographical isolation.

Bill English, then leader of the opposition, jumped on Ruddock’s remarks.

“New Zealand is clearly now seen as a soft touch and it is not hard to understand why,” he said, using language that may sound particularly familiar to readers in 2017. ACT leader Richard Prebble, for his part, complained that it was inappropriate to place “desert people” in “one of the wettest countries on earth,” and suggested that the government instead take refugees who would “fit in,” such as white Zimbabwean farmers.

Labour and Clark responded diplomatically. Immigration minister Lianne Dalziel said Ruddock’s comments had simply been taken “out of context” and denied that New Zealand was now a bigger target for traffickers. Clark told the media that Australian prime minister John Howard had “been very forthcoming” about his appreciation for New Zealand’s help, and stressed that “no Australian minister would knowingly or wittingly make a statement that implied New Zealand was foolish to help them.” She refused multiple press entreaties to comment on Australia’s harsh treatment of the asylum seekers (“We don’t comment on their internal politics and issues”) and later reiterated that Ruddock was not “trying to say anything uncomplimentary about New Zealand.”

Not long after, Australian defence minister Robert Hill told a newspaper that the Howard government preferred New Zealand spent more on defence, and expressed concern about the Clark’s government withdrawal of combat ships and aircraft. The comments were another election year gift for English, who said New Zealand had “gone soft” and that it pointed to a “lack of respect for us” that was “not the right basis for a good relationship.”

“It’ll always be relatively friendly [though],” he assured the press, while appearing to take a potshot at Labor. Howard was “a  pretty affable, pro-New Zealand politician, more than most of his colleagues,” he said.

Clark was again diplomatic, saying Hill, a new minister, was “not well briefed,” and calling his comments “a slip” rather than part of a pattern of criticism. “They will want to be as careful to keep out of our election year as we were to keep out of theirs,” she said.

Jim Anderton, deputy prime minister at the time, was less so, telling Australian ministers to stop their “gratuitous insults,” and informing the press he had asked Australian High Commission staff in New Zealand to pass along his displeasure to Canberra. The Australian Associated Press reported that a “diplomatic row” was escalating over the remarks. Even so, Clark, when told about Anderton’s comments, replied: “I wouldn’t want to go down that track. We’ve tried very hard to keep out of their internal politics and commenting on what they do.” She publicly dismissed the ministers’ criticisms as unimportant and simply “stray comments.”

For English, Clark’s mild remarks were a step too far. He called them “a total overreaction” and “incredibly rude and arrogant,” and suggested that Clark should have called Howard directly to talk about the issue, something Clark dismissed as far too extreme a measure. Meanwhile, National defence spokesman Max Bradford called her comments a “shameful display,” “reprehensible and anti-democratic,” and encouraged Hill to “continue saying it like it is.”

“For the prime minister to expect, indeed demand, that another country not comment when its vital interests are affected by the decisions of her government is extraordinary, if not unprecedented,” he said.

Clark said that English was “most unwise to line up with the Aussies on this one,” and expressed frustration that while she “exercised enormous self-restraint” in commenting on Australian politics, the same could not be said the other way. Nonetheless, the row was ultimately averted, and her and Howard later had a “chuckle” over it, at least according to Clark.

Don Brash (photo: Getty Images)

2005: Crosby Textor and collusion

If 2002 saw Liberal ministers’ unwittingly hand National MPs a series of attack lines, then the 2005 election was where the Liberal and National parties crossed over into something approaching overt collusion.

In July 2004, at the request of new National leader Don Brash, Howard appeared in a video message played at National’s annual conference, sending Brash his good wishes, talking about the “many similarities” between the two parties, praising the previous two National prime ministers, and offering National campaign advice. The appearance was much-remarked upon by the media at the time, even as Clark tried to wave it off.

It was the first time a sitting Australian prime minister had done such a thing.

More importantly, 2005 saw the public revelation of National’s work with Australian political consulting firm Crosby Textor. Crosby Textor’s involvement was hugely controversial due to their reputation as the masters of “dog-whistle” politics. They had brought their style of not-quite-overt race-baiting to British politics for the Conservative Party (which they continue to do to this day) and succeeded in getting John Howard elected off a campaign that saw him refuse to let a boat of refugees enter Australian waters and lie to the public about asylum seekers threatening to throw their children overboard.

But besides this, Crosby Textor are known as a virtual arm of Howard’s Liberal party. Not only were Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, the firm’s founders, behind Howard’s four electoral victories and those of other right-wing Australian campaigns, but Crosby had risen through the ranks of the Liberal Party through the 90s, becoming its federal director in 1997. Although 2005 was the year this relationship went public, the strategists had been used by National since at least as far back as 1996.

As Nicky Hager detailed in The Hollow Men, Crosby Textor worked with the National Party on carrying out focus groups and developing a campaign strategy and tactics, importing the techniques that had worked for Howard in Australia. Brash and Steven Joyce, the party’s campaign manager at the time, understandably lied to the press about the extent of the strategists’ involvement in their campaign at the time. Still, rumours persisted, partly because of National’s particularly racially tinged campaign that year, and would not be confirmed until the release of Hager’s book a year later.

That’s not to mention the involvement of the Christian fundamentalist sect the Exclusive Brethren, whose leader was a Sydney-based businessman. Despite his denials at the time, Brash later admitted the Brethren had organised $110,000 worth of election material for his campaign, including anti-Greens pamphlets that were almost identical – not just the same headlines and sentences, but the same font – to ones used against the Greens in Tasmania the year previous, which were billed to accounts held by the Liberal Party.

New Zealand prime minister John Key on October 2, 2013 in Canberra, with newly-elected Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott. (Photo: Getty Images)

2006 onwards: The Key era

These links remained even after Brash resigned. After the election loss, Joyce was invited to speak to the Liberal Party in Canberra about election tactics. Upon ascending to leader of the party, John Key visited Howard in Australia, where he described their bond as a “father-and-son relationship” and declared he was “very happy to soak up advice” from him. In 2007, it came out that National had put nearly $90,000 of taxpayer money toward a Liberal Party-controlled company, Parakeelia Pty, for the use of software that tracked voters’ views for electoral campaigns. The company’s director? Lynton Crosby.

Though National officials continued to play coy with the media about it, Key retained the services of Crosby Textor after he became leader, paying Mark Textor $10,000 a visit for monthly focus groups. The firm was suspected as the architects of National’s successful strategy of putting Key front and centre in the campaign, as well as a disciplined wall of media silence from the party.

In 2014, a Key spokesperson told The Press that the firm has a “long-standing relationship” with the National Party, and the party confirmed to Newshub they were using its services again in 2017. The news was little surprise to media commentators who noted that Joyce’s now infamous $11.7 billion hole claim was a vintage Crosby Textor tactic. Others may also have noticed an echo of National’s portrayal of a Labour-Greens-NZ First coalition as “unstable” and chaotic in Theresa May’s “coalition of chaos” campaign catchphrase (another Crosby-Textor product) and the messaging in various other Crosby Textor campaigns. Incidentally, for a time, current Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull once hired as his senior media advisor Tony Barry, who had worked for Crosby-Textor.

Links to Labour and the Greens

To be sure, other parties also have their foreign links. Tony Blair’s longtime chief press secretary Alastair Campbell gave Helen Clark campaign advice over dinner in 2005 and, the former British Labour deputy prime minister spoke at Labour’s party conferences in 1997 and 2001, as have various state Labor party officials. Meanwhile, the Greens invited former Australian Green Party senator Kerry Nettle to address their annual gathering in 2005, where she warned the party they should expect to be the subject of smear campaigns and distortions.

Still, this doesn’t compare to the many years of much closer ties between National and Australia’s Liberal Party, and particularly the way this relationship has flared up in election years here. National and the Liberals may be outraged now that Labour is allegedly interfering in Australian politics, but as the last two decades have shown, they’ve never had a problem with it before – as long as that meddling is limited to here, and for National’s benefit.

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