By Alastair Thompson
After a weekend of silence on the subject of Nicky Hager’s “The Hollow Men: A Study In The Politics Of Deception.” outgoing National Party Leader Don Brash has been interviewed several times this morning on his reaction to the book. His response to the key “Smoking Gun” allegation implicit in the 24th of May email addressed to him from the Exclusive Brethren is the same as that of National Leader in waiting John Key – namely, he didn’t open the email.
To recap this is the email detailed in our report on Friday Sludge Report #172: How Hollow The Hollow Men?:
The salient parts of this email/letter.
1. It is from Ron Hickmott – who coordinated the Exclusive Brethren campaign. He signs it off “We need a meeting at your earliest convenience…. [I] am essentially working our/your election campaign full time.”
2. It is addressed to Don Brash and John Key
3. It is dated 24 May 2005 (Don Brash has repeatedly claimed both before and since the election – including in the past few days – that he knew nothing of the pamphlets till August 2005. Earlier this week he even told TV3 reporter Duncan Garner in a standup with the Press Gallery, “I don’t think I have ever had an email from the Exclusive Brethren.”)
4. It leads off with the “smoking gun paragraph”:
“Good afternoon Don and John,
Doug Watt and myself enjoyed your presentation this morning at the Millennium Hotel. However as backers of the recent “Wake Up NZ” campaign ($350,000) and as responsible for a very extensive election campaign ($1,000,000) with the sole goal of “Getting Party Votes for National” a meeting following on from our one last week with Steven Joyce is important
So far this morning many media appear somewhat reluctant to accept Don Brash’s statement that he was not aware of this email.
On the basis of his not having opened this email Dr Brash has been claiming that he did not “knowingly mislead” the New Zealand public during the campaign. Dr Brash is sticking to his story that he was first informed about the pamphlet campaign in August 2005 in a meeting with the Brethren.
Returning to the book we find there is a paragraph that serves to directly contradict Dr Brash’s story on this subject.
Paragraph 2, Page 26 reads:
“Brash was well aware what the Brethren were offering and the legal issues surrounding third-party advertising. On the same day [24 May 2005] that the Brethren letter arrived, Brash happened to be writing about another plan for third party advertising involving his friend Diane Foreman, businesswoman and deputy chair of the Business Roundtable, with whom he was later alleged to have had an affair. He said he had checked out ‘whether people could fund “parallel campaigns” outside the scope of the limit on electoral expenses and I understand that that is feasible, provided that the funding and control are clearly not directed by the National Party (which would mean we would need to be careful to be “arms length”)’. He said: ‘I guess the stuff which the Brethren is doing is one example.'”Notably this is the only email quoted in the book from Dr Brash in which his knowledge of the Exclusive Brethren campaign is explicitly acknowledged.
Dr Brash has asserted since the book was published that the key allegation against him is that he misled the public when he denied all knowledge of who was behind the pamphlets when confronted by Rod Donald in Rotorua.
While it is arguable that this is one of the key allegations, it is far from the only one, and is probably not the single most damning evidence in the book.
The key allegation, if there is one, is contained in the so-called “smoking gun” email which Dr Brash and John Key have side-stepped with the claim they did not read.
With regard to Dr Brash’s knowledge of the Green attack campaign, it is true that the book does not contain any specific emails from or to Dr Brash concerning the content of the pamphlet attack on the Greens. However you will find in the book evidence that Dr Brash’s campaign assistant Bryan Sinclair – who was notably the member of his staff personally singled out for thanks in his election night speech – was aware of the content of these pamphlets.
On Page 27 of the book is some material relating to email correspondence from National Napier electorate campaign manager Simon Lusk to Bryan Sinclair.
Lusk then wrote: ‘Bryan, make sure you find out about what they are going to do with the Greens.’ The Brethren ‘dusted up the Green in Tasmania, did a good job there’, and so were ‘considering… going after the Greens’ in New Zealand as well.
Lusk went on to express concern about anti-Green campaigning because he was counting on Green voters to split the vote in Napier and help his candidate win. ‘They could hurt our chances in Napier if they go after the Greens,’ he wrote, ‘we need as many Greens votes as possible to win the electorate rate.
Two weeks later, another Lusk email reveals that actual copies of the Exclusive Brethren election advertisements were being shown to National Party MPs. ‘Bryan some of the ads we were discussing in Napier were shown to a selection of MPs yesterday. Apparently there were some very nervous people after hearing them.’
Therefore, while we do not have written evidence in the book that Dr Brash was personally aware of the Tasmanian connection and the plans for a Green attack campaign, we do have evidence that his close personal assistant Bryan Sinclair was aware of it.