Right has MMP in its sights

New guard: Peter Shirtcliffe handed out leaflets against MMP in 1993.
New guard: Peter Shirtcliffe handed out leaflets against MMP in 1993.

Those behind a campaign to shoot down MMP have killed before.

The right is getting ready to fire both barrels at MMP. A group of activists with links to National and Act are busy preparing a campaign against the electoral system. They are hardened politicos and some happen to share an interest in hunting, shooting and fishing. But it's not clear if they'll kill off MMP.

The campaign has been long expected, but, up till now, facts about it have been scarce. The Right has always opposed MMP on the grounds that it prevents "decisive government". Big parties have to trade with small parties, and "strong action" goes begging. The hard right wants to go back to the elected dictatorship of First Past the Post, the system which allowed the free-market revolution in the 80s and 90s.

The referendum on MMP is the child of Don Brash, the free-market campaigner who recently deposed Rodney Hide as Act leader. It was Brash, a long-time opponent of MMP, who, as National Party leader in early 2005, pledged to hold a referendum. John Key adopted the policy when he became National leader.

The new campaigners include well-known activists and some much more shadowy figures. One is Jordan Williams, the young Wellington lawyer who squired Don Brash on the day he deposed Rodney Hide as Act leader. Williams, 25, is being considered for the job as frontperson. His great advantage is youth.

The anti-MMP campaign this year – the referendum is being held on election day – has to be new and different. The old MMP brigade is ageing, and in some cases ancient. Businessman Peter Shirtcliffe, who led the charge back in the 1990s, is nearly 80. "At my age," he said last week, "it's best left to younger people." Another important figure is Simon Lusk, a specialist in negative political campaigns, an adviser to a number of National MPs, and a key figure in the Brash/Hide coup. Brash's putsch was about as negative as a political campaign can get, and sources say that some of Lusk's National mates were angry with him about it. He did not respond to emails and phone calls.

Lusk, 38, is based in Hawke's Bay and is a tough political activist and a well-known hunter and fisher. He has helped run campaigns for a number of National MPs, and was involved in National's 2005 discussions with the Brethren church. He hunts with Williams.

Another hunter helping in the campaign is National blogger Cameron Slater, known as Whale Oil. "I'm going shooting with him [Lusk] next week," Slater told the Star-Times. He also said Lusk "may well be [involved in the campaign], but that's up to him if he wants to do that." David Farrar, National's pollster and a well-known National blogger and political columnist, has also been part of the discussions. He declined to speak last week, but sources say he has been providing advice for the campaign.

Brash says he "has heard rumblings" about an anti-MMP campaign, "but I'm not aware of who's involved currently". Brash favours the Supplementary Member (SM) system, which is basically First-Past-the-Post with a small number of list MPs added.

Nobody will say when the launch is due, although crucial decisions will be made in the next two weeks or so. As some of the insiders admit, it is getting late – polling day is only six months away – and the problems facing an MMP campaign are large. Even Brash says he does not detect a groundswell of opposition to it.

And one reason why the Right is less fierce about overturning MMP this time is that National is doing well under it. Key has softened his previous stand. Asked last week whether he still favoured SM, a spokeswoman said: "If the public decides they do want a change, it is the prime minister's belief they will choose a system that has some form of proportionality. Whether that system will be Supplementary Member or another is up to the voters." One of the anti-MMP campaigners said there was no push in the National hierarchy to ditch the present system.

"You can't run a successful MMP government and campaign that MMP is failing... When you are 55% in the polls, MMP's not such a bad system." Another problem is that MMP is popular.

A UMR poll this month found that 50% favoured MMP and 40% wanted to switch to FPP – but only 3% favoured SM. Getting a majority for SM would be difficult because electoral systems are hard to explain, one insider said.

However, "there is a fairly simplistic but fairly powerful marketing message that it's the in-between option, the `Kiwi compromise' between MMP and FPP". This, in fact, is how the right have always tried to sell the system, although in fact it is far more like FPP than MMP.

The campaign has also had problems raising funds. "The second earthquake in Christchurch chopped a lot of potential funding out," Slater said. Traditionally, the anti-MMP cause has been able to count on hefty financial backing from the wealthy hard right.

Shirtcliffe, a former chairman of Telecom, refused to say whether he was contributing money. Sources indicated, however, that he was. Former Telecom boss Rod Deane, on the other hand, told the Star-Times he has "no involvement" in the campaign.

The campaign has tried to involve people not just from the right and far right: it clearly does not want it to be seen as party-political. However, the main actors are clearly in the National-Act camp. One issue is how to use social media to run the campaign. Slater said his advice was that this was "fraught with danger", but that, if done properly, it could succeed. The recent campaign against proportional representation in Britain – a referendum heavily defeated the proposal for change – was "a very, very smart campaign", Slater said.

"The guy who ran the campaign is a personal friend of David Farrar's," Slater said. "So I imagine there would be some cross-pollination." The campaigners point out that while MMP seems broadly accepted at present, this could quickly change. If a small party was seen to be acting badly, voters could take it as a flaw in the system itself.

The anti-MMP campaign in the 1990s in the lead-up to the referendum which rejected the old FPP system relied heavily on scare tactics. Campaigners warned of "Italian-style chaos" and constant changes of government. History has shown MMP is very stable.

But Lusk is a gifted operator. Besides the Brash coup, he helped National's Louise Upston win Taupo in 2008 – she thanked him "from the bottom of her heart" in her maiden speech for leading the campaign. Maungakiekie National MP Sam Lotu-Iiga thanked Lusk in his maiden speech in 2008 for his "shrewd counsel".

In 2005, Lusk was running National's campaign in the Napier electorate, and was involved with discussions with the Exclusive Brethren and their undeclared campaign to back National, as Nicky Hager's book The Hollow Men reveals. Lusk keeps out of the limelight, but it is known that he lives in Waipawa and works for The Venulum Group, a wealth management firm based in the British Virgin Islands.

What he has in mind for the MMP campaign is not known. But the world should be getting a better idea soon. The Right is about to counter-attack.


Sunday Star Times