Astroturfs: Act Three of 'Dirty Politics'
The NZ Taxpayers' Union 'Debt Monster' trolling New Zealand First's campaign bus.
In 2006, Nicky Hager published The Hollow Men about how an informal network of Act and National party members and businessmen funded Don Brash’s rise to power through blind trusts. In August 2014, Hager published Dirty Politics about the sordid tactics of right-wing elements with links to the National Party. Six years later, dirty politics is now hidden in plain sight.
Artificial grassroots organisations – nicknamed ‘astroturfs’ – are designed to mask the sponsors of a message or organization so to give the impression that there is support from grassroots participants. Often, they help politicians to find and mobilize a sympathetic public and create the image of public consensus where there is none.
When many of the voting public think about lobbyists, they think of unions or business groups. It is clear what their motivations are. We often associate the union movement with the Labour Party or Federated Farmers with National. Under MMP, however, we’ve seen the emergence of single-issue campaigning groups where their motives aren’t necessarily transparent.
During the 2005 election campaign, an Exclusive Brethren-funded campaign pushed a family issues-based agenda. Don Brash realised that such a campaign could benefit National’s election hopes. The perceived collusion backfired on Brash, losing his lead in the polls and on election night.
In response, the Labour-led government passed the Electoral Finance Act in 2007, which required ‘third party promoters’ to register and limit spending to $120,000 within 90 days of the election. New Zealand Business Roundtable associate, Act Party campaign manager, and wealthy political donor John Boscawen organised protests against the laws. Boscawen became an ACT MP in 2008, the law was repealed in 2009, and ‘promoters’ are now allowed to now spend $330,000.
Why, of all the political parties, has Act been the most vocal on this issue?
The story of astroturfs is a hot mess of money, cliques of right-wing schemers, and dog whistle politics.
The history of astroturfs in New Zealand is closely associated to the history of the Act Party.
The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers was formed in 1993 by former Labour minister Roger Douglas and former National minister Derek Quigley. It started as an astroturf but, in the new MMP environment, decided to form a political party called Act.
Winston Peters recently described himself as a ‘handbrake’ to Labour’s ill-conceived ideas. He has maintained that centrist role in various governments since the first MMP election in 1996. Act, however, has tried to be the accelerator on National’s right.
While the focus of most MMP elections have been on the centre, the most resources have been embattled on the right. During the neoliberal heydays of the 1990s, Act spent $1,653,169.18 in its first election in 1996 - more than any other party. To put it perspective, they outspent the National Party by $200,000, more than Labour and The Alliance combined, and almost double New Zealand First. Act even paid salaries to candidates.
In 1996, Act gained 6 percent of the vote, 8 MPs, but was in the cross benches to the National-NZ First coalition. When that coalition disintegrated in 1998, Act provided confidence and supply. In the 1999 election, they achieved 7 percent but gained only an additional Member of Parliament.
The goal of Act has been to soften enough National party supporters to the idea of voting for them, creating enough pressure to progress a neoliberal agenda. Focus groups, however, were damning of Rodney Hide’s perk-busting attacks on National and the party’s uncaring perception. Act Party President and public relations consultant Catherine Judd (nee Isaac) looked for ways to improve Act’s voter appeal.
While National licked its wounds following the election defeat, Act set about being the voice of opposition to the government. The party ran several mini-campaigns from its Parliamentary office - its MPs touring the country against Labour-Alliance legislation.
Carrick Tremain cartoon, 30 July 2000. (Courtesy, National Library)
To their surprise, the ‘Brain Drain’ gained the most media attention in 2000. I was an Act researcher at the time and collated the migration statistics to show an increase in young professionals leaving the country. I sat with neighbour, TVNZ political reporter Duncan Garner, and showed him my research. The next day, he led the 6 o’clock bulletins with the story. Each month, as the migration stats were released, the issue led the news.
The wheels fell off the issue when a marketer who was the son of a National Party stalwart fronted a full-page advert in national papers listing ‘Young New Zealanders’ concerned about the brain drain. Helen Clark accused the marketer of joining a Business Round Table anti-Government campaign. The Broadcasting Standards Authority ruled that Paul Holmes’ coverage lacked balance and impartiality.
Young New Zealanders was an astroturf that back-fired because it tried to hijack an issue rather than create or lead one. They also failed to shake off the obvious political connection to a disorganised National Party.
In 2001, Catherine Isaac’s team helped set up the Sensible Sentencing Trust. The Trust could break new ground on issues so Act could sow the seeds and grow its base.
Act changed tack and started to focus on criminal law reform. As the Trust publicised stories of victims of crime, repeat offenders, and questionable sentences handed down by judges, Act had ‘Zero Tolerance on Crime’ and branded itself as the ‘Toughest on Crime.’ The Trust could do the attacking and Act could be the constructive face of the issue.
The co-ordination between Act and the Trust was straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has campaigned for harsher sentences and non-parole periods, leading to mass incarceration, private prisons, and out-sourced prison labour schemes. Act's 'Three Strikes' law, 'Truth in Sentencing', and minimum sentences policies were cut-and-paste from ALEC.
Hoping to gain 15 percent of the vote at the 2002 election, Act only increased their vote by a fraction of a percent, retaining 9 MPs. While National’s share of the vote collapsed to its lowest ever recorded (20.9%), United Future and NZ First increased their share by 5 and 6 percent accordingly.
Act and National were in disarray. And then the Donna Awatere Huata scandal broke. The caucus and staff knew about Huata’s surgery in 2001 but allowed her to promote her slimmer figure, which she claimed was due to an exercise and diet regime. Act also knew about her loose spending of Pipi Foundation funds, but didn’t know the extent.
Act's electoral success was so dependent on being portrayed as tough on crime that it condoned and covered up any offending within its ranks. Act’s reaction was to expel Huata from caucus and then pursue court action to expel her from Parliament. In other words, she was expelled not for what she did, but because she was caught.
From the carnage of Huata’s expulsion, Prebble retired and Rodney Hide emerged as leader. Act was embroiled in scandal until Huata’s conviction and jailing a fortnight after the 2005 election.
Meanwhile, Don Brash brought together a team of 'Hollow Men' right-wing campaigners, including John Ansell, toppled Bill English, and tried to hijack Act’s ‘One Law for All’ banner, starting with the Orewa Speech and building momentum with the ‘Iwi/Kiwi’ billboards. Despite the turmoil, Brash came close to toppling the Helen Clark-led government. While Rodney Hide managed to win the Epsom electorate, many redundant Act staffers then fled to work for the revitalised National Party team.
Act found itself in a precarious situation. With support below MMP’s 5 percent threshold, neoliberal Act was beholden to traditional National voters. Add to that mix Rodney Hide’s track record of attacking National, Act needed a new strategy to survive without dependence on National.
Act looked for new targets that didn’t affect its relationship with National, such as local government, a ‘Three Strikes’ sentencing law, and electoral finance reform. Following the 2008 election, Hide became Local Government Minister, Sensible Sentencing Trust’s David Garrett joined the Act caucus to draft the “Three Strikes” legislation, and John Boscawen pushed through the repeal of the Electoral Finance Act.
Hide gave a neoliberal slant to the recommendations of the Royal Commission for an Auckland Super City and gerrymandered what he thought was enough of Rodney and Franklin districts to give a ‘blue candidate’ a fighting chance. John Banks, however, fell almost 66,000 votes short of Len Brown for the 2010 mayoralty. No candidate has come close to the Labour candidate since.
Rodney Hide was then ‘perk-busted’ for taking his girlfriend on a tax-payer funded private holiday to Hawaii and on a tax-payer funded trip to London, Canada and the United States. Shortly after, Hide narrowly survived a no-confidence vote from his caucus.
Despite many in Act knowing about David Garrett’s convictions for assault and using the identity of a dead child to obtain a false passport, when it surfaced in the media David Garrett resigned. Don Brash then challenged for the leadership and Garrett’s replacement, Hillary Calvert, gave Brash a narrow victory.
Brash claimed his motivation for the coup was Act and National’s lack of fiscal prudence. Soon after becoming leader, however, Brash and Ansell ran an advert criticising the ‘Maorification of Everything.’
The advert, which I formatted.
Assisting Brash was former Act MP Stephen Franks and a junior solicitor in his firm, Jordan Williams. It was during the 2011 election that Jordan Williams fronted the ‘Vote For Change’ campaign to get rid of MMP. Jordan’s strategy revolved around uniting supporters of the main parties by stigmatising Winston Peters as the bogeyman of MMP. MMP, however, achieved almost 58 percent support. Like the 1993 anti-MMP campaign, that campaign was perceived as being backed by big business.
The billboard, which I designed for Jordan.
The 2011 election was a disaster for Act. Don Brash was a list-only candidate, their support dropped to 1 percent, and John Banks won Epsom to become Act’s only MP. The party touting itself as ‘The Liberal Party’ was now led by one of National’s most conservative former ministers.
It was during this period that Nicky Hager received material which would become the basis for Dirty Politics. Practitioners included Jordan Williams and National Party pollster, David Farrar. In February 2013, they incorporated the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union.
The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union
If Act had an original idea, it would be lonely. Much of its 'ideas' were adaptations of policies implemented abroad. Act's founder, Roger Douglas, based his 'Rogernomics' on the neoliberal 'Reaganomics' and 'Thatcherism' policies of the US and UK.
The idea of a taxpayer union wasn't original. Canada had a Canadian Taxpayers Federation since 1990. Act politicos Peter McCaffrey and David Seymour spent years in Canada at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy analysing local and central government accountability. The World Taxpayers Associations had a well-organized network of taxpayer groups. Australia's Taxpayers' Alliance formed in 2012.
Dirty Politics was published in August 2014. In September 2014, the founding chairman of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, John Bishop, posted an article titled ‘Taxpayers’ Union has attacked National more often than any other party.’ Since then, the organisation has attacked politicians from every political party except one: Act.
John Bishop (Courtesy Stuff)
Bishop, a former TVNZ political editor, was the Act Party ‘Constituency Services Manager’, working in Parliament during Richard Prebble’s leadership. His job was to co-ordinate campaigns and tours from within Parliament. At the time, I was a researcher and 'electorate agent.'
During Bishop’s tenure at Act, Prebble used Parliamentary Service funding to employ a disproportionate number of staff in its leader’s office, using the ‘out of Parliament’ budget meant for electorate agents to instead work in Parliament. A bogus electorate office was set up at Prebble’s private residence on Little Pipitea Street. Despite none of the staff ever working there, we were instructed to say that we did.
I was employed as a researcher in Parliament for 8 hours a week and 32 hours as an ‘out-of-Parliament’ electorate agent. I first visited the bogus 'office' more than two years into my employment. John Bishop and other staff attended that one and only meeting at the office. It was only then that I realised that my employment contract was a scam. I had just been admitted to the Bar (as a barrister and solicitor) and was very uncomfortable with the arrangement.
During the almost three years I worked for Act, I only worked three weeks out of Parliament, which was spent in Newmarket at the party’s head office shortly after that meeting at the bogus office. Following my return from Auckland, I resigned.
Other staff embroiled in this scam included Peter McCardle (who was also juggling elected roles on the District Health Board and Upper Hutt City Council) and Roger Styles (who was also elected to the Hutt City Council and became deputy mayor). Press secretaries included journalists David Young, David Hargreaves, and public relations commentator Trish Sherson.
Styles and McCardle used Parliamentary resources to research demographic trends of their constituencies. Discovering the ‘gentrification’ of the Hutt South electorate, Styles had ambitions of winning the electorate for National off Trevor Mallard. John Bishop’s son, Chris, would eventually gain the candidacy in 2014 and win the seat in 2017. Chris’ work colleague at Phillip Morris Tobacco, Todd Barclay, entered Parliament at the same time.
Despite John Bishop’s track record with Act, Bishop went on to campaign for the Taxpayers’ Union, ridiculing politicians for double-dipping and misusing taxpayer and ratepayer money.
John Banks became swamped by scandal as Kim Dotcom testified that Banks didn’t declare a donation to his 2010 mayoralty campaign. When convicted, Banks resigned and Act found a new leader, Jamie Whyte. David Seymour ran for Epsom. Whyte argued that incest between consenting adults shouldn’t be illegal and later back-tracked. While Seymour won Epsom, Act support dropped to 0.69 percent.
Seymour initially failed to gain traction and Act floundered around 1 percent in support. National introduced young liberal candidates, including Rodney Hide’s former staffer, Andrew Falloon, and Hamish Walker replaced Todd Barclay.
Still stewing, Brash and Ansell set up their own astroturf in September 2016 and named it ‘Hobson's Pledge.’ They repackaged their ‘One Law for All’ racial divisiveness and dog whistle politics of previous campaigns.
The astroturfs were a sideshow. The $254,114.77 Hobson’s Pledge spent on their 2017 election campaign gained little attention. The Taxpayers’ Union grew in budget to over $200,000 in 2015 but had dropped to $150,000 in election year. Something needed to change, and it did.
Houlbrooke. You might remember that surname when a Louis Houlbrooke fronted a ‘lobby group’ called ‘Take Back the Clocks’ in 2019 to abolish daylight savings. Or during the 2017 election campaign when Act’s Deputy Leader Beth Houlbrooke said, “The fact is, parents who cannot afford to have children should not be having them.”
Beth is Louis' mother. She rose from Act candidate in 2014, to vice president and party manager in the same year, to deputy leader for the 2017 election.
Louis got his start as Act’s social media co-ordinator and media liaison for the 2014 election, whilst president of Act’s youth wing. Following the election, he was David Seymour’s press secretary for the term.
Following the 2017 election, Beth remained Deputy Leader while Louis transferred to the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and rose quickly to become their campaign manager.
The Taxpayers’ Union strategy changed overnight. Their coffers swelled to an annual budget of $831,848.22 by the end of 2019 and nine paid staff. Jordan Williams’ personal hatred for Winston Peters could be channelled into a relentless barrage of official information exposés and media stunts.
The Union was on a roll. They renamed their annual awards for the biggest wasters of public money after Shane Jones. They set up the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance. Their staff, wearing Porky Pig and ‘Debt Monster’ costumes, trolled politicians.
The more that the Taxpayers’ Union attacked New Zealand First, the better David Seymour looked. Seymour could focus on more empathetic issues, like voluntary euthanasia, and publicity stunts, like Dancing With the Stars.
David Seymour 'twerking', Dancing With The Stars, 2018.
In 1996 and 2002, Act spent $1.6m and achieved 6-7 percent of the vote. In 2008, Act spent $1.1m to get 3.65 percent. In 2011 and 2017, Act spent $600,000 and got 0.5-1 percent. Since the Taxpayers’ Union increased their budget, Act’s polling has increased to 2008 levels.
Table comparing Act's election spending with NZ Taxpayers' Union annual budgets,
and Act's election and political polling.
Targeting NZ First’s core voters, Act then surprised many members by giving gun lobbyists high list rankings. The most surprised was Deputy Leader Beth Houlbrooke, who told colleagues she had already packed her bags for Wellington. A shocked Beth said that she was “A victim of her own success”, when she discovered that she had lost the deputy leadership and was demoted to 13 on the party list. David Seymour said, “She has done such a good job for the Rodney Local Board and I think really she’s going to focus on that.”
Beth has been on Auckland Council’s Rodney Local Board since 2013. Together with Act stalwarts Cameron Brewer and Phelan Pirrie, they set up a local ticket called Rodney First, which has held a majority of the nine-member board since 2016. Beth double-dipped for several years, running the admin side of Act. Phelan triple-dips as chair of the local board ($87,000/year), manager of the ratepayer-funded Northwest local business association he created ($85,000/year), and as a local fire chief.
The Taxpayers’ Union (and their ratepayers’ group) and Act turned a blind eye to countless complaints of Beth’s hypocrisy.
Louis helped Beth and Phelan set up Facebook ‘community pages.’ While Act ran a ‘Freedom to Speak’ campaign against Jacinda Ardern’s proposals to censor hate speech, Beth and Phelan censored and blocked criticism and debate. When brought to the attention of Act, Seymour claimed the community pages were ‘private property.’
An email from David Seymour, 20 July 2020.
As president of Act’s youth wing, Louis campaigned against compulsory membership of student unions. Beth and Phelan, however, have both pushed for ‘Business Improvement Districts’ throughout Rodney, where all businesses are charged a targeted rate to become members of their local business association, despite only a third of businesses' support. One Warkworth business association will swell from 23 voluntary sponsors to almost 600 compulsory 'sponsors'.
The Rodney Ward has over 78 percent of Auckland’s unsealed roads. Beth asked residents whether they wanted a targeted rate to improve roading. Only 36 percent of responses supported the rate, 21 percent partially supported it, and 43 percent opposed it. Beth and Phelan interpreted this as a majority, introduced the rate, and wasted the $5.4m a year collected on superfluous bus services and a temporary carpark.
But none of these examples got a mention at the annual ‘Jonesie Awards’, held in Parliament’s Legislative Chamber. Instead, awards were given to Wellington Mayor Andy Foster for wasting $30,000 on a leadership course, Racing Minister Winston Peters for providing funding for two upgraded training facilities, and a lifetime achievement award to Transport and former Housing Minister Phil Twyford.
'Porky', Louis Houlbrooke, and Islay Aitchison at the Jonesie Awards, 2020. (Watch it here.)
(For an event to be held in Parliament, it has to be sponsored by a Parliamentarian. Every 'Jonesie Awards' event has been sponsored by National MP Chris Penk, whose electorate includes the Rodney Ward.)
It is evident that the Taxpayers' Union applies one set of standards for others and another for themselves. The Taxpayers’ Union made light of their nine staff receiving $60,436.80 from the wage subsidy scheme.
Act, which has maintained its low tax, less red tape, elitist party of the ‘1 Percent’ core has branched out with several attempts to incorporate several issues to increase its vote. The gun lobby seems to be the latest incarnation to expand the party’s base. Act's gun policy is strangely similar to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation's campaign against the Canadian Firearms Registry.
With Act, nothing is as it seems. The protests by gun owners in the South Island were ‘attended’ by ‘Firearms Safety Specialist’ and third-ranked Act list candidate, Nicole McKee. The 'grassroots' protest, organized by local pistol and deerstalking clubs, was repeated elsewhere.
What is certain is that Act is about money. Several of Act’s major donors live in the Rodney Ward near the controversial Auckland Shooting Club at Makarau. There are strong Act links to that club. Maybe the media should be asking one member why Beth Houlbrooke was demoted? What was Beth's position on the controversial club?
Act's backers have mutated Astroturfs from a pressure group, to an attack weapon, to directly protecting the politicians they were indirectly meant to support, to having an unhealthy influence over a minor party. While they evolve, they still operate as dirty politics in plain sight.
If you have a spare twenty minutes, here's John Oliver's take on Astroturfing:
John Oliver's take on Astroturfing.
How ALEC works:
Netflix documentary '13th', starting at the excerpt about ALEC.