Ruth Hill - Radio New Zealand
Ex-ACT staffer Grant McLachlan says party created fake grassroots groups
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Former ACT Party researcher and electoral agent, Grant McLachlan, said as a small party, ACT struggled to get much attention on the big issues like economic policy. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
Political pundits and media experts are warning that artificial grassroots organisations - nicknamed "astroturfs" - are being used to manipulate and mobilise public opinion for political gain.
The recent public apology by a lobbyist to leading public health experts for defaming them on the Whale Oil blog has once again shone a spotlight into the murky world of lobbying.
Carrick Graham, who was in the pay of the food and beverage industry, has admitted his statements about Doug Sellman of Alcohol Action, health professor Boyd Swinburn, and former director of the Māori Smokefree Coalition, Shane Bradbrook, were "untrue, unfair, offensive, insulting and defamatory".
However, it's not just big business seeking to influence public opinion by surreptitiously controlling the narrative.
Former ACT Party researcher and electoral agent, Grant McLachlan, said as a small party, ACT struggled to get much attention on the big issues like economic policy.
"So they started to look for other issues - or create new issues - where they weren't going head-to-head with the National Party.
"They would create these astroturfs that would break new ground and they [ACT] would appeal to the ground that was broken."
Astroturfs differ from ordinary lobby groups in that they purport to be something they are not.
For instance, they may masquerade as groups of concerned citizens for instance, while actually pushing the interests of large corporates.
McLachlan said ACT "weaponised" astroturfs.
He claimed the New Zealand Taxpayers' Union did a lot of the groundwork for the party in the 2020 election with their Campaign for Affordable Housing to fight the Green Party's proposal for an asset tax.
"So when they were saying 'This is a problem', it was actually a contrived problem that the ACT Party told them to create.
"That's the problem."
The campaign involved letters to thousands of householders, a website and media work.
Investigative journalist Nicky Hager, whose 2014 book Dirty Politics lifted the lid on Whale Oil's web of connections with lobbyists and politicians, said it was a textbook example of astroturfing.
"It seemed like someone cared about affordable housing - but they were only concerned there were going to be more taxes on it...
"We still don't know whose money was behind it, whose interests, who pushed it along, what they were trying to achieve.
"So that's a classic example of something that looks like a reasonable contribution to democratic debate, but is murky and probably making things worse.
"And as a country, we shouldn't be tolerating it."
However, the Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams said the affordable housing campaign was justified in opposing what he called the Green Party's "unfair and economically destructive" proposal for a wealth tax.
"The average home-owner in Auckland, once they've paid their mortgage, would be hit by that proposed tax. So of course that's a die-in-the-ditch issue for a taxpayers' organisation.
"We were more than happy to raise awareness of the truth around the Green Party policy using their own manifesto and thankfully the Labour Party saw sense and ruled it out entirely."
The Taxpayers' Union, co-founded by Williams and National pollster David Farrar, describes itself as "an independent activist group running a grassroots campaign for lower taxes and against government waste".
Many of its members have close ties with ACT.
Williams - who also featured in Dirty Politics - interned with the former ACT leader Don Brash, was involved in MP Stephen Franks' 2008 election campaign and worked in his law firm.
The organisation's founding chairman, John Bishop, was formerly constituency services manager for the ACT under Richard Prebble.
Campaign manager Louis Houlbrooke is the son of former ACT deputy leader Beth Houlbrooke.
Williams said the organisation had staff connected to parties across the political divide, from New Zealand First to Labour and even the Greens.
"We've certainly got a heck of a lot more diversity in terms of political connections on our staff, than say the Radio NZ newsroom."
He says it was "ridiculous" to suggest the Taxpayers Union was a mouthpiece for any political party, when it had 60,000 members and was majority funded by "small dollar donations".
The coffers of the Taxpayers' Union more than doubled in a year from $406,532 in 2018 to $831,848 in 2019.
Williams said Labour and the Greens were "far more guilty of using proxies like the unions and ActionStation" to spread their political messages.
"We've got countless groups on the other side, often taxpayer funded, often a tiny fraction of the size of our organisation that have disproportionate influence because of the editorial decisions of groups like Radio New Zealand."
The head of the Council of Trade Unions, Richard Wagstaff, said unions represented the interests of hundreds of thousands of workers and they deserved a political voice.
But unfortunately money still did a lot of the talking, he said.
"Very often a few voices have a very amplified voice because of the resources they have and the people they have working for them, and that's a real issue."
ActionStation director Kassie Hartendorp said the advocacy organisation was "majority crowded funded by small donations from supporters, while grants and major donors were listed on their website and were publicly accessible at all times.
The ACT Party was itself originally a type of astroturf - the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers - which mutated into a political party.
It was founded to further a neoliberal agenda of privatising state assets in electricity, transport and communications.
In the early 2000s, the party positioned itself as the "tough on crime" party.
According to Grant McLachlan, leading figures in the ACT Party (including Catherine Judd, Stephen Franks and David Garrett) were deeply involved in the early days of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which championed the Three Strikes policy for repeat offenders.
When the party got into government with the National Party under John Key in 2008, Three Strikes became law.
But he said law and order was "a red herring" and ACT quickly turned its attention to more urgent neoliberal priorities: overhauling the Resource Management Act to make it easier for developers to subdivide, and repealing the Electoral Finance Act, which (depending on your political stripes) either stifled free speech - or attempted to stop wealthy "third parties" from influencing elections by covertly funding political campaigns.
McLachlan said ACT's "tough on crime" stance did not extend to their own MPs: Donna Awatere-Huata, defrauded an education trust - and David Garrett, former legal adviser to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, was found to have obtained a passport in the name of a dead child.
He said ACT officials were aware of Awatere-Huata's "loose spending" - although perhaps not the full extent - and the fact her dramatic weight loss was the result of a stomach-stapling operation, not diet and exercise as she has claimed.
"They knew about what she was up to but they only seemed to do something once the media and the police found out.
"I was very uncomfortable with that and I just had to get out of there."
So did he feel complicit in the astroturfing? After all, he worked for ACT from 1999 and 2002 and sporadically since then, most recently in 2011.
"I didn't feel comfortable with it but I actually noticed it wasn't just ACT doing it.
"But the thing is the way ACT was doing it using astroturfs was a little bit more dishonest than the Green Party using Forest and Bird or Greenpeace, or Labour with the unions, or National with Federated Farmers.
"ACT actually particularly created these groups just to push their particular agenda."
McLachlan said astroturfing only worked because people were fooled by it.
The news cycle is short.
"They just seem to think 'Oh well, in a couple of elections time, people will just forget about that'. And unfortunately, that's exactly what happened."
Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar acknowledged its message did appeal to those on the right of politics - but he did not believe the cause was hijacked.
"There's no doubt political parties started to take notice of what we were saying and ask for meetings with us. So there's no doubt they want to get on board or on side with organisations that are becoming a public voice, as we were."
When he started the group, he did not expect it to become so big - but he has no doubt it was always a genuine grassroots organisation.
"We went from running the thing from a computer in the corner of my bedroom on the farm, to having an office in Napier and then having branches throughout the country. That was never planned, and in the early days, that's not something we even considered. It just took off."
McVicar, who later ran as a candidate for the Conservative Party, said he was "a political novice" when he first started, but quickly realised the only way to effect real change was through lobbying Parliament.
ACT leader David Seymour declined to be interviewed.
However, in response to written questions by RNZ about whether ACT used other organisations like the Taxpayers Union to generate support for its positions or created them for that purpose, he said "no".
Astroturfing more difficult to track down with social media - academic