Bagman or bogeyman? Simon Lusk is a shadowy figure in the National Party, credited with getting several MPs elected - yet publicly discredited as irrelevant by John Key. Andrea Vance reports.
Simon Lusk is one of the most intriguing figures in politics. The arch political fixer shuns the limelight, rarely venturing from his home in Havelock North to Wellington. He maintains a strict silence about his clients - mostly wannabe National MPs.
He is said to charge $10,000 to manage an electorate election campaign, and his successes are believed to include National's senior whip Louise Upston, and MPs Chris Tremain, Nicky Wagner and Sam Lotu-Iiga.
Certainly, Labour are fixated on this Right-wing bogeyman. Last year, the party's chief whip Chris Hipkins lodged 259 written questions of ministers, asking about their communication with Mr Lusk. According to political lore, he was behind Don Brash's unseating of ACT leader Rodney Hide.
Some blogs claim Mr Lusk was behind leaking the identity of ACC whistleblower Bronwyn Pullar last year (His response: "I can't comment on specific cases").
Some believe he is a Whaleoil alter- ego - regularly penning posts for Cameron Slater's Right-wing blog. Others say he is close to Cabinet minister Judith Collins, and the pillar of a triumvirate of Nasty Nats, including Slater and pollster and Kiwiblog founder David Farrar.
Leaked National Party minutes last year revealed concerns about breakaway training camps for local body candidates, run by Mr Lusk and Slater. According to the notes, then-chief whip Michael Woodhouse reported "a disturbing discussion that he has had with Simon Lusk that highlighted his motivations and a very negative agenda for the party".
And more recently, Mr Lusk has been suggested to be the bagman National brought in to persuade rogue MP Aaron Gilmore to quit. Certainly, Mr Gilmore appears to believe Mr Lusk was the architect of his downfall - he was a recipient of one of the infamous "utu" text messages.
In the flesh, Mr Lusk, 40, is disappointingly un-evil. There's no maniacal laugh or sophisticated spinning, just a man who drives a ute and dotes on his three dogs, Bruce, Lucy and Mabo. He is punctilious and very serious, absorbed with politics and fixated on going fishing and hunting.
Mr Lusk doesn't make his money through politics - but is reluctant to say what he actually does.
"I contract part-time to a number of long-term clients . . . my background is strategy and marketing."
One such firm is based in the British Virgin Islands. Friends say he works odd hours, so that he can devote large amounts of his spare time to his two passions: politics and hunting.
He spends "two to three hours" a day reading political literature from the US "looking for knowledge that can be applied here".
He is tantalisingly tight-lipped on who his clients are - or if he was indeed involved in the Gilmore debacle. "I am unable to comment on specific campaigns," he says.
What he will say is that he has turned down "many" people. "And I wish I had turned down several others."
So does he do National's dirty work? Like any true political animal, he is the master of (very politely) avoiding questions he doesn't like.
"I am detached from the day-to-day and can look beyond the next 36 hours and see likely outcomes and how to prevent them. Change in politics is predictable and I like to be on the right side of change."
He admits that some "object" to his methods.
"Political parties always need people who are willing to upset the status quo . . . As to nastiness, I am temperamentally unable to be as nasty as some of the Labour Party."
Mr Lusk refers to himself as a "general strategist". He is a National Party member, and "sometime volunteer".
"Currently, I am not doing anything for National, but pragmatism dictates if they were to ask I would likely accept contracts where I could be useful."
He says he prefers to work for individuals - and only those on the Centre-Right.
"Many on the Left lack grace and I find it hard to deal with people who lack grace."
However, he saves his most scathing criticism for National: "They are only interested in preserving power for their existing MPs, and do not care about the future beyond this administration."
He accuses the party of substituting "tenure for talent".
"The National Party is a bit like a high school, where . . . only the seventh form can become prefects."
It is also "like the Anglican Church, where many attend but few do anything".
Mr Lusk predicts the retirement of long-standing National MPs who hold safe blue seats - including John Key, Murray McCully, Gerry Brownlee and Bill English - and confirms he is acting for potential successors.
Mr Lusk also believes his one-time client, Chris Tremain, will lose to Labour's Stuart Nash - "an exceptionally gifted politician" - in the Napier electorate in 2014.
"He is on the wrong side of important local issues, he is a minister so has little time to campaign . . . I've looked at how to hold the seat for Chris but I am unsure if I would be able to."
Mr Lusk expects Labour to start snatching provincial seats from National. "If Labour can get good candidates in Hamilton West, East Coast, Napier, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Otaki, Wairarapa and Invercargill, they will have a chance of winning in 2014 . . . In 2017 I would expect Hamilton East, Rotorua and Tukituki to be in play."
He occasionally offers a glimpse of the ruthlessness that concerns his critics.
"I would be replacing [Labour list MPs] Sue Moroney and Moana Mackey as they are terrible candidates. If they refused to vacate Hamilton West and East Coast I would tell them they would be given unwinnable list positions, and ask them to review their decision."
There is nothing he could do to sharpen up Labour leader David Shearer: "[He] is a good man, but a terrible leader . . . I would sit him down and point out he is never going to make it, and is holding the progressive cause back by remaining leader - as a good man I would expect David to go."
And if he refused? "I would take a series of steps to replace him. There is a simple playbook for replacing a leader . . . I don't think it would take very long to take him."
It will come as no surprise to political observers that Mr Lusk is on Team Collins. "My impression is that Judith has a better rapport with the donor base and a bigger team than Steven [Joyce], with more people who are able to take on crucial roles in campaigning and fundraising and within the party."
Both Justice Minister Collins and Employment Minister Joyce are not ready to rebuild the National Party from opposition, he believes.
And he has a cryptic warning for Mr Joyce. "Unfortunately for Steven, he has not chosen his staff wisely. Some of them lack grace when dealing with backbenchers. Treating those who vote for the leader like something unpleasant on the sole of your shoe is unlikely to see backbench votes fall in behind Steven."
Indeed, it is this bitter relationship with Mr Joyce that some cite as the reason why the party distances itself from Mr Lusk. One source described him this week as "politically bubonic".
Earlier this month, Prime Minister John Key said: "I think I once described [Lusk] on a scale of 1 to 10, as minus-1."
A source says that after Mr Lusk's success with candidates in the 2008 election there was a push by some MPs to have him involved in the national election campaign.
"It was seen in the hierarchy as him pushing for a very specific role, undermining the role of the campaign chair, Steven Joyce," a source said. "That's lethal and there was a backlash."
There was also substantiated concern that he was using a "carrot and stick" approach to attracting clients. The carrot was his skills, the stick was unfavourable coverage on the Whaleoil blog. These were whispers, which no-one ever came forward to confirm. Mr Lusk is "blunt, but I wouldn't say nasty", the source says.
Mr Lusk is loyal to Slater but won't admit to being a contributor to his blog.
"When the National Party came whispering to me that being associated with Cam was bad for my career I told them that Cam's tenure meant he was too important to drop as a career," Mr Lusk says.
By the 2011 election, he was apparently "persona non grata", especially as he became more notorious, even appearing in the Hollow Men book about National's election strategies. The British toxicologist John Glaister once said: "One can be a famous poisoner or a successful poisoner, but not both!"
The rule also applies for campaign managers. "Simon knows this, he understands that . . . but if you want to be involved you do so as a volunteer, prove your worth, do stuff for free," the source says.
He is "good, better than 85 per cent [of consultants] out there. But not quite as good as he thinks he is," the source adds.
"He provides a very good, professional service. There was a hole in the market and he will put together a first-class campaign and a comms [communications] plan. There's not many people can do that."
However, there may be "too many bridges burned" with the current party hierarchy.
Mr Lusk is dismissive of the current leadership. "I act for individuals, not the party, which gives me the latitude to do what is best for them and the values we share, not what is best for the current party hierarchy . . . I am far more interested in advancing pragmatic, moderate, Centre-Right policy over the next three decades than I am helping any government cling to power."
CAMPAIGN MANAGER'S HANDBOOK
He won't divulge details but Simon Lusk is said to have won four electorate campaign races in 2008, and three in 2011. Some of his tips include:
"Start with a good candidate. Politics is hard enough without a good candidate . . . Preparation is crucial and the best candidate [is] willing to do the most work."
"I am thorough in documenting every campaign and the lessons learned . . . Predicting trends is a crucial part of my business."
"The simple rule is that it is possible to overturn a majority of about 6500 in a single election, although this is entirely dependent on having a good candidate."
"Local government is a fine training ground for candidates, and is used very effectively by National's opponents."
"Culturally National fails to understand that there is no value in anyone running in a red [Labour] seat for National . . . you will spend a lot of time and money campaigning and get nothing back . . . I see no point in allowing good people to burn themselves out in red seats."
- The Dominion Post
The $850m Transmission Gully will be ...Related story: Ball gets rolling on Transmission Gully