Nicky Hager is back. Love him or loathe him, the author, researcher, political activist and now film producer has returned to make the National Party's life a misery during the election campaign.
Yesterday's revelations in the Sunday Star-Times that National is once again using Australian polling and image consultancy Crosby Textor are important not so much because of the disclosure itself, which is hardly surprising, but because it indicates Hager is still receiving sensitive information on National's communications.
Details in yesterday's article were relatively scarce but there is enough there - times and dates of meetings with the pollsters - to indicate that Hager has specific information rather than just hearsay reports. It is also Hager's style to drip-feed information and wait for official denials before trumping his target with hard facts.
That's what Hager did to former National leader Don Brash in 2005. Brash was silly enough to deny he had met the Exclusive Brethren after Hager had slipped emails to the Sunday Star-Times, and he ended up looking like a liar.
So far National's leader John Key has not denied he is using Crosby Textor, and indeed his staff are confirming it, off the record. National is playing down Hager's story, and indeed there is a "so what?'' component to it. More than 70% of respondents to a Stuff poll this morning agree with them.
Let's be honest - all political parties use polling companies and image consultants if they can afford to. Labour uses UMR. The companies road-test ideas, probe communities for hot-button issues, test the weak spots of opponents, and help political parties form an attack plan for election campaigns.
They also advise on how to handle sensitive issues and how to defuse difficult questions, and how to present in public. Helen Clark has long used Brian Edwards' consultancy for her image work. And the Prime Minister has had several image makeovers during her time at the helm.
The difference, Labour argues, is that it is up-front about its use of these consultants while National is not. This is a moot point. Labour didn't exactly advertise the fact; but it didn't deny it either.
National's use of Crosby Textor isn't "secret'' as Hager alleges, for to the best of my knowledge Key has never been asked who National was using. I'm not aware that he lied about it, or that he sought to stop people finding out.
However I think his decision to continue using Crosby Textor was a mistake, for a number of reasons. If he was trying to rid the party of the remnants of the Brash years, why use the same image makers? Why use a company that has a controversial reputation in Australia and Britain? A company that has been involved in scandals such as push-polling over a candidate's mythical support for abortion to the ninth month of pregnancy? Who wants to be involved with a company tied up with stories about baby killers and the children overboard fiasco in Australia?
On top of all this, for all its fearsome reputation, Crosby Textor's results are mixed at best. It has advised National in its last four campaigns. National has lost three in a row. It advised John Howard last year. Howard lost. It advised Michael Howard in Britain. Howard lost. Its sole recent success was Boris Johnson in the London mayorlty, and Red Ken was history after introducing the congestion charge.
Also, why use an Australian pollster at all? What's wrong with New Zealand-based operators? Key could be accused of disloyalty in plumping for an overseas option. It's also arguable whether the company is as aware of the Kiwi political environment as a local company would be.
However putting all this to one side, it is National's choice who it uses and it's hardly a big surprise that Key would look for advice beyond his own third-floor corridor.
Yet National should still be afraid - very afraid. There are some uncanny parallels emerging with 2005, and 2002, involving Hager. Say what you like about the conclusions he draws, his facts are almost always correct. Hager is meticulous about checking his sources. So if he still has access to National's emails, this is a massive problem.
Even assuming National has tightened up on its security and what it sends through the Parliamentary email server since 2005, there is always going to be enough email traffic to embarrass any political party if it falls into the wrong hands. Short of going back to carrier pigeon or stone tablets, there is little the party can do - email is an essential modern tool for political organisations.
There is no question Hager had a huge influence on both the 2002 campaign, when his book Seeds of Distrust threw a hand grenade into Labour's carefully orchestrated bid for an outright majority, and the 2005 election. National and Labour were neck-and-neck in the polls until the final days, when the Brethren revelations dealt a huge blow to the Opposition's campaign.
The question National will be privately asking now is, what's next? This assumes, of course, that Hager has more. I'm betting he does. Next month a new film called The Hollow Men is coming out. Coincidence? Of course not. It's election year. Hager has been involved in the last two election campaigns. He will be a player again.
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