Reply to Michael Bassett and Richard Long

Michael Bassett and Richard Long used their recent columns to criticise me and my book The Hollow Men but they barely mentioned, much less debated, the contents of the book. Nor did they acknowledge that they both feature prominently. Ad hominem attacks are what you might expect people to do when they want to distract attention away from issues they find awkward.

It is easy to see why they feel annoyed. Michael Bassett presents himself publicly as an independent commentator but is revealed to have deliberately used his column to assist Don Brash’s 2003 leadership bid and as being a co-author of Don Brash’s controversial race and welfare Orewa speeches. Here is a passage on his contribution to the welfare speech.

Michael Bassett sent Brash a rewritten version of the speech on New Year’s Eve. ‘Don, I’m sorry it has taken so long, but I re-typed that draft and made it a little more political.’ This was an understatement. Bassett had added inflammatory phrases about beneficiaries ‘ripping off the system’, using ‘stand-over tactics’ to get benefits and welfare policy being ‘the most destructive aspect of the political correctness that Labour would engulf us in’ – phrases that made their way into the final speech. 

Some of Bassett’s other ‘more political’ language did not make it to the final version. His accusing descriptions of a ‘dependency army’, ‘bludging off the rest of us’ with its DPB and beneficiary ‘rip-offs’ were later removed by the woman-voter-sensitive Keenan and the increasingly uncomfortable welfare spokesperson Katherine Rich. Bassett’s vitriolic characterisation of ‘politicians and others in the welfare industry whose careers depend on farming the problems of the disadvantaged’ made it through many drafts before being dropped a week before the speech was delivered.

Bassett’s email to Brash said that he and his wife Judith thought ‘this a good, even a powerful speech… [with] considerable bite’. He said, ‘if it were mine, I’d make it a bit more political…. The useless [Social Welfare Minister Steve] Maharey deserves to be punished!’…. Bassett [told Brash] he would be ‘grateful if you shifted the text across to a page of your own and “owned” it from this point on. I’d rather not be linked with any form of authorship’. He said he did not mind being quoted, ‘not that it will help you with your audience’. Brash thanked him warmly for his assistance.

Richard Long was head of media management for the National leader, planning the daily ‘lines’ used to evade issues and spin the news. The book quotes him arranging Brash’s denials about his links to the Exclusive Brethren before the last election. For instance:

Q. Did anyone in the National Party have any knowledge of these pamphlets?

A. Well, I can’t speak for the tens of thousands of party members all around the country but I can assure you that the party’s governing body had absolutely no knowledge of the material you describe, and neither did the leader or any other member of the caucus.

Long even planned for Brash to feign irritation if journalists kept pressing him about the Brethren – “time to get mildly irritated”, his media notes said, then “If it continues, [get] even more irritable”. Brash carefully followed the prepared lines and then feigned irritation, using the proposed words, to avoid further questioning. 

Long seemed unconcerned about whether his scripted lines were actually true. In another example, ‘When any journalists asked Richard Long about National’s internal polling, which was being conducted weekly at that time, his prepared lines were that “Unlike Labour we do very little polling. Too expensive. Labour is poll driven, we are principled.”’ And so it went on. At the back of the book there are precise references for the hundreds of inside documents quoted.

In his recent column Richard Long raised some factual issues that I should answer. Yes, after deciding on the book’s title I found that Michael Cullen had called Brash a hollow man in a 2004 speech. That nearly put me off using the title but it seemed perfect so I stuck with it. However, no party, including Labour, had had any contact with me or input into my book. To the best of my knowledge, no one in Labour or other parties even knew I was working on the book. I am of course relieved that Long cannot imagine who my National Party sources are.

As for Michael Bassett’s column, I wanted to write a book that helps ordinary people understand why they feel put off by politics and what needs to be different for that to change. What makes the book unique is that readers can see – in the participants’ own words – the cynical strategy discussions behind events like the Orewa speeches, the even more cynical techniques used to try to win the votes of the ‘punters out in punterland’, the unseen role of the big donors and, generally, how the leading National Party politicians and staff acted when they were confident that no one would ever hold them to account. The information speaks for itself.

Michael Bassett and Richard Long would naturally prefer that the public did not read about their part in this.