Return of the Hollow Men

National leader John Key’s campaign is being overseen by the same highly controversial manipulators who directed Don Brash’s ill-fated tilt at power, says Nicky Hager. JOHN KEY’S public image has been all about the self-made man. His success as National Party leader has been credited to his “quick political instincts”, his “intuition”, his “natural” and “spontaneous” character and his skill in “creating strong visual images that push all the right buttons”.

Some journalists have asked: “Who is giving John Key all this good advice?” But they have merely been pointed to the crew in his parliamentary office. Asked last year if he was getting media training, Key replied: “No. Should I be? I guess there’s part of me that says I’ve got my own natural personality and it’s served me well over the last 45 years. I’m not convinced I should try and make myself into something that I’m not.”

But Key has not been disclosing an important secret about his leadership: that each step of his campaign to become prime minister has been overseen and directed by the same professional manipulators used (and also kept secret) by his predecessor, Don Brash. They are the Australian political tacticians, Crosby/Textor. Their role advising Key is known to National Party staff, including some who are uneasy about Crosby/Textor’s involvement, but has been kept secret from the public.

The Australians have been employed to manage Key’s public image and political strategy since he became leader. Their role came to light during research for the film The Hollow Men, which opens at film festivals next month.

Straight after becoming National Party leader on November 28, 2006, as he was publicly distancing himself from the Brash years, Key contacted the firm and asked to meet them in person. A week later, on December 7, he had a trip scheduled to Australia paid by the Australian Government to meet government ministers. He asked his staff to change the schedule to include a meeting with Crosby and Textor in Canberra and quietly signed up the Australians to work for him. National under Brash had hired Crosby/Textor for only 10 months before the 2005 election; Key hired them for the full two years leading up to the 2008 election. Their focus: his personal profile.

The name Crosby/Textor is synonymous with controversy. As campaign manager and chief pollster to John Howard in five Australian elections, Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor gained a reputation for employing ruthless attack politics against their opponents and using subtle appeals to fear and prejudice to win over “soft” voters. They managed the 2001 election campaign where Howard claimed, incorrectly, that refugees on the ship Tampa had thrown their babies overboard to blackmail their way into Australia, followed by full-page ads saying “We will decide who comes into this country”.

Their reputation for dirty tactics includes Textor being caught conducting ‘push polling’ against Labor candidate Sue Robinson in a 1995 Canberra by-election. Australia’s Radio National obtained a tape of a telephone pollster asking a householder if they’d be more or less likely to vote for Robinson if they knew she had publicly supported abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy. Following a lawsuit, Textor had to apologise to Robinson in writing and pay her $A80,000 (she’d said nothing of the kind). But she had lost the election.

Working for the Conservative Party in the 2005 British elections, Crosby/ Textor used attacks on gypsies and immigrants under the sly campaign slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” They tightly controlled the public image of Conservative candidate Boris Johnson to help him win the London mayoralty last month. The previous mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, complained that Crosby/ Textor had orchestrated a stream of negative rumour and innuendo against him in tabloid newspapers. “You clearly don’t employ Lynton Crosby if you want a clean and uplifting campaign,” he said.

The New Zealand Labour and other parties also use sophisticated political techniques, but Key’s secret has been choosing these particular strategy advisers, who have been notorious wherever they have worked.

As with Brash two years earlier, the company assigned co-founder Mark Textor to handle the New Zealand contract. Soon after the Canberra meeting with Key, Textor began monthly focus groups to delve into public feeling about Key and Helen Clark and to test which political messages were most advantageous to Key. Specialised Crosby/ Textor researchers visit New Zealand to conduct the research (costing about $10,000 per visit) and Textor flies to New Zealand, as required, to provide “high-level strategic advice” to Key and his staff on what Key should be saying and doing in public (also about $10,000 per visit). He also advises by phone and email. Key’s parliamentary staff saw Textor visiting his office around April 27, 2007, for instance, and it has all continued up to the present, including a visit in recent weeks.

The detail of Textor’s advice to Key remains secret, but Crosby/Textor will be using essentially the same methods as for their clients in other countries. Their recent work in Britain particularly rings bells about what we’ve seen from Key and National.

In the 2008 London mayoralty race, Crosby was campaign manager while Textor managed the research. The Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson, was energetic, prone to eccentric outbursts and relatively inexperienced. Crosby/Textor decided that the 2005 Conservative campaign’s appeals to racism wouldn’t work for Johnson. Instead there were three strands to their campaign. Think of New Zealand as you read them.

First, Crosby and Textor realised there was a high risk of Johnson tripping up and making mistakes compared with his experienced opponent. Their answer was to tightly control and script all Johnson’s public appearances. Two experienced public relations specialists oversaw him continually, declining interviews that didn’t suit their strategies and strictly keeping Johnson “on message”. Crosby/Textor call this “message discipline”, meaning a politician sticking to prepared lines no matter what the question or occasion – lines that are mostly written by others.

As a result, journalists saw only “the constrained, on-message Johnson”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. An insider concluded that by scripting all his lines, controlling all his appearances and avoiding challenging interviews, Crosby/Textor “stopped Boris being Boris . . . and it worked.”

The second strand of the London mayoralty strategy was relentlessly attacking Livingstone’s reputation. He had introduced some innovative and popular policies, so they concentrated on personal attacks. News stories appeared (never directly from Johnson) claiming Livingstone had three “secret children” and that he’d hired a Muslim extremist in his office. The major newspapers did not run such stories but giveaway tabloids did.

The third strand was “issue management”. They found Livingstone had support on environment, social services and other issues. So instead they ran a narrowly focussed campaign on the rising cost of living and public safety – even where these were the result of forces beyond Livingstone’s control.

Sound familiar? Crosby/Textor were working at exactly the same time in New Zealand, as Key’s chosen advisers. Their influence can be seen in much of what Key has said and done since December 2006 and also in the way his public blunders or perceived ‘slipperiness’ have usually been in unplanned situations when he was unprepared and unscripted. Meanwhile his party has no final policy on industrial relations, ACC, education, KiwiSaver, Working for Families, Maori issues and health, only debating the issues of its choosing.

Labour also uses focus groups, soft interview forums such as breakfast TV and concerted attacks on its opponents, as do most political parties worldwide. The important question is how deceptive, secretive and manipulative each party’s tactics are, and in this Crosby/ Textor are the acknowledged market leaders.

We’ve seen Crosby/Textor techniques in New Zealand before, after their reports for Brash were leaked and became a chapter of my book The Hollow Men. They showed the same strict message discipline (remember “hard working New Zealanders deserve tax cuts”?), and the same concern with “framing” the election agenda (“this election is about tax cuts”). A December 2004 Crosby/Textor report explained that the focus group research was not to find what the public believed or wanted, but to dig deeper and “uncover ideas and persuasive leads”.

Much of the effort went into attacking Clark. An April 2005 Crosby/Textor report described how the focus group questions probed for latent negative “hesitations or concerns” about her. “Regardless of your overall view of Helen Clark,” the moderator asked, “what would you acknowledge are her weaknesses at the moment, even if they are slight or begrudging weaknesses?” The report’s “strategic opportunities” section concluded that the research revealed “an emerging perception that Helen Clark is too busy with ‘minorities’ and ‘other people’ to worry about the concerns and the pressures on ‘working families’.” They developed a “mantra” about an arrogant and out-of-touch prime minister. “It must be stressed that this sentiment is embryonic and must be consistently demonstrated and leveraged if it is to be effective,” Textor wrote. “These perceptions will not exist and mature on their own.”

The techniques dig out feelings of prejudice, fear, selfishness and hostility and spread these ideas throughout society. The idea is that both the positive image building and attack lines will be repeated and repeated until they’re echoed by talkback hosts and political columnists and start to sound like truth. The branding of Clark as “out of touch”, for example, has gone from “embryonic” to widely repeated today.

But the techniques work much better when the public is unaware that professional manipulators are at work. This helps explain why John Key has kept his Aussie minders secret. His chief press secretary, Kevin Taylor, even told The Press that “National has a policy of not naming its consultants or advisers.” Approached for this article, Key’s staff declined to respond to a written question asking whether National was using Crosby/Textor.

National was secretive about hiring Crosby/Textor in 2005 as well. Asked if they were advising National, Brash initially said ‘no’. When I publicised National Party board minutes discussing Crosby/Textor’s work for National, they changed to saying the firm just did “a bit of polling work for us”. In fact they were overseeing all the major election strategies and messages.

Like Brash before him, Key’s choice of advisers is at odds with his natural, straight-talking public image. With all politicians, what’s not being said, and not being seen, may be much more important than all the prepared speeches, photo opportunities and carefully scripted media answers.

The Crosby/ Textor files

  • The Crosby/Textor public relations and polling consultancy in Canberra was formed by Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor in 2002.
  • Crosby, who started his political career as a Liberal Party official in Queensland, played a key role in John Howard’s election victories in 1996, 1998 and 2001. Crosby/Textor were consultants for Howard at his fourth win, in 2004.
  • Mark Textor was one of Australia’s 10 most powerful people according to the 2002 Australian Financial Review .
  • According to British and Australian media reports, Textor and others were forced to pay $A80,000 to a Labor candidate in the Canberra by- election after telephone canvassers wrongly suggested she supported abortion up to nine months of pregnancy.
  • In 2005, Crosby was recruited as campaign director for the Conservatives in the UK but the Tories and its candidate, Michael Howard, lost.
  • The same year, Crosby/Textor was also recruited by the National Party to assist Don Brash in the leadup to the election. The Nats lost.
  • Newly-elected National leader John Key sought his first meeting with Crosby/Textor in 2006.
  • Last month, Crosby/Textor controlled the public image of Conservative candidate Boris Johnson to help him win the London mayoralty.
  • The company’s other high powered clients have included Telstra, British American Tobacco and Qantas.