Hager's return should make National very afraid

Last updated 12:40 30/06/2008

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.

110 comments
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Huevos Y Tocino   #1   12:55 pm Jun 30 2008

I have to ask the obligatory "Is Nicky Hager registered as a third party under the EFA?" question.

clubconnecter   #2   12:59 pm Jun 30 2008

Colin

If I were JK, I'd be wondering who the hell is the mole??

CC

Huevos Y Tocino   #3   01:00 pm Jun 30 2008

IMHO there are two differences between Hager & the brethren when it comes to election campaigning

1 - Hager is honest about naming himself as author (although unconvincing about the honesty of his sources) 2 - He's more successful in swaying public opinion (how hard could that be?)

burt   #4   01:19 pm Jun 30 2008

Hager is completely credible, I loved "Seeds of distrust", the most accurate piece of investigative work I have ever had the pleasure to read. I can hardly wait for the complete works of Hager to be made into a mini series. Oh... hang on... I see a problem here...

Kate   #5   01:26 pm Jun 30 2008

I had no idea the children overboard Tampa claim was a story manufactured for a political end. How could any respectable organisation go near a firm with that kind of tactical advice. There's an old saying about the company you keep - and if the National Party are happy with that kind of company... well, that's just plain sad.

Luke C   #6   01:26 pm Jun 30 2008

Crosby Textor are not just 'pollsters'. They are well known for masterminding a whole number of nasty campaigns. They were behind John Howards win in 2001 using lies about refugees throwing children overboard. It really shows National are really the same old 2005 party that Hager outilined in the Hollow Men.

Matthew Whitehead   #7   01:42 pm Jun 30 2008

Hager is getting information because the National Party makes unilateral decisions from on-high that sometimes rub party insiders the wrong way- simplest explanation that fits the facts.

I seriously doubt he would bother hacking into Parliament or stealing physical copies of emails when he can just use a convenient leak.

Also, referring to CT as pollsters glorifies them to the extreme. Spindoctors would be a better term.

Ed   #8   01:53 pm Jun 30 2008

Nicky Hager is a conspiracy theorist and needs to provide more facts to prove that his innuendo is genuine. Who are the National Party people that are concerned? Are they MPs? Or are they HQ staff? Or just branch members? I know the campaign has yet to start but so far in the "phoney campaign" I am yet to see any evidence of nastiness on the part of John Key or his colleagues. If anyone knows how to throw dirt, I would suggest that it is the Labour Government.

Tom   #9   01:53 pm Jun 30 2008

1999 - Secret and Lies 2002 - Seeds of Distrust 2006 - The Hollow Men 2008 - Mock Scandal: a Deperate Green Activist's Attempt to Influence an Election?

Fiona   #10   02:08 pm Jun 30 2008

It's interesting that Hager pops up every three years with stuff he's obtained from sources he won't disclose in order to undermine individuals in a very base and underhand way...tell me, who is his paymaster? I agree with Michael Bassett. What's egalitarian about stealing other people's private information, publishing it and getting royalties from it? In my opinion it's still theft and breach of privacy.


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