Michele Hewitson interview: Matthew Hooton

By Michele Hewitson

The right-wing lobbyist with a reputation for being aggressively successful has no trouble being good mates with a lot of lefties.

Matthew Hooton, who's said to deride the National Party as a bunch of communists, fears he's growing into more of a conservative, with a small c. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Matthew Hooton, who's said to deride the National Party as a bunch of communists, fears he's growing into more of a conservative, with a small c. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Since I saw Matthew Hooton earlier this week, the right-wing political commentator and lobbyist, or spin doctor - according to who's telling the story, and as I am, I'm sticking with spin doctor - has been having a lively old time. He usually does.

He was supposed to have been crowing from the rooftops over what Brian Rudman yesterday called "Mayor Len Brown's rapid caving-in to Putin-like bullying by the Auckland Helicopter Trust ...". The trust is his client, so that is undoubtedly a win for Hooton's company, Exceltium.

He claims he has broken every one of his own PR rules, and so can't be brilliant at PR, in talking to me. Oh, ha, ha. I see I have just given him a free ad. But how else to explain the crowing? People have many things to say about him, often very rude things, but nobody could say he isn't clever.

He denies the crowing. He says he advises his clients not to crow and, by way of explanation for his lack of crowing, told me a story about a big "win" for one of his clients (I'm buggered if I'm giving him another ad, so I'm going to fudge the details) which involved a Government backdown.

He told the clients they mustn't be seen to be celebrating. And that they - meaning he - would be putting out a "carefully worded" press statement congratulating and praising the Government, then the Labour lot, and the relevant minister and he told the minister's office they would be doing so. So no crowing from the rooftops.

He was in Mongolia at the time (he is often in odd places doing God knows what) and went online the next day to read the New Zealand papers to find his client saying: "We've broken open the Bolli! It's fantastic! They've backed down!"

He said: "So we don't normally boast." This was by way of assuring me he was certainly not crowing from any rooftops. Publicly. Which is not the same thing as saying he wasn't breaking open the Bolli in private.

And now he's Putin. I wish I'd known. Putin, in person, is quite possibly an affable and personable chap, too. I am quite sure, though, he wouldn't say that, actually, he is rather a wimp who has to steel himself for combat and quavers at the thought. Of course, once in the thick of it, he relishes a stoush. "It's fun."

I was having a hard time picturing him quavering. He's always in stoushes and he appears to have nerves of steel. I was also having a hard time working out whether it was good PR or really rotten PR for a PR guy to be telling me this.

He is, if you believe the fairly devastating picture painted of him through his own emails in Nicky Hager's book, The Hollow Men, cynical, if not devious and manipulative. He has worked in the Beehive, so why that should have come as any great surprise is the surprise. I asked how he thought he'd come out of that book and he said "Badly". I don't know why he'd care, and he says he doesn't now (it may even be handy) but then: "I did spend a weekend in the fetal position, feeling sorry for myself. And then you realise that these things pass quickly."

I know it was a long time ago - and I'm sure his advice to a client would have been to say just that, and no more - but still. I had assumed he'd been born with the hide of a rhino so it was amazing to think of him being so wounded by a book written by a natural enemy. He felt sorry for himself because "I use email in a conversational way rather than an email way and the author of the book, for his own political purposes, chose to interpret semi-humorous emails as formal declarations. So I think if anyone's email is published they'd feel like a bit of a dick."

"The most manipulative and devious person in that exercise was the author of the book. He is the most extraordinary PR practitioner in New Zealand. You look at what he did to Helen Clark over that completely manufactured GE issue. That was an intervention into an election year, designed to try and influence that result."


But perhaps not a devious and manipulative dick. "No. The most manipulative and devious person in that exercise was the author of the book. He is the most extraordinary PR practitioner in New Zealand." Really? I thought he was. So he's only second best? "I don't have the ratings. Except there's one who's ahead of anyone else and that's Nicky Hager. You look at what he did to Helen Clark over that completely manufactured GE issue. That was an intervention into an election year, designed to try and influence that result."

All of which was making my head spin, which is what spin doctors do. I did laugh my still spinning head off when I read his latest offering yesterday in which he suggested Shane Jones might jump ship to New Zealand First, which Shane Jones immediately denounced as mischief-making. That is not so much spinning as stirring. In an election year.

There is some confusion about what he does because he does two things: "Gets outcomes" for clients, which includes lobbying governments, and what I call spin-doctoring, and commentates on politics wearing his right-wing hat which he wears at a very right-wing tilt indeed.

His mate Matt McCarten once said that he "sneeringly derides the National Party as communists", which is very funny, if not the whole truth. It's tongue-in-cheek, he said, but it is also a bit true. He would like to think he's more Act than Nat, but fears he's becoming "conservative with a small c" as he gets older. "It means I'm more aware that the way things are now probably has a good reason, or reason, for it, even if I don't understand the reason." He says he has an excellent relationship with Labour. "That's one of the ironies". He means in terms of his business; he'll happily slag them off as a commentator.

He said, about his two roles: "Some people think that they reinforce each other and I suppose they do, because you're talking about the same content and thinking about the same content. And some people think - and possibly both views are true - that they hurt each other, particularly that the political commentary probably hurts the business. Because, well, number one, you say things that piss off politicians from time to time."

It is his own business (which he says doesn't make enough money because it's too successful at getting those outcomes and so is a bad business model and another clever plug), so there is nobody to tell him to pull his head in. His wife does from time to time: "Of course". There is little evidence he takes any notice. He called David Cunliffe a liar, over his CV, and had to apologise but he didn't mean it. He still claims he was right, "factually true, but inappropriate for National Radio". It may or may not have occurred to him that it is also inappropriate here, or it may well be that he doesn't care. I'm sure he didn't care for having to apologise.

He is a political junkie and has been since he was 12 and made his parents take him to a rally for Bob Jones' New Zealand Party. They hid down the back, away from the TV cameras but the fact they gave in to a 12-year-old proves that his powers of persuading people were developed early.

His wife, Cathy Wood, is the daughter of former National party president Sue Wood. One of his best friends is National MP Paul Goldsmith, and he supports him by going to fundraising dos and buying raffle tickets and not voting for him. He claims to feel bad about this.

He was supposed to be running for the presidency of Act, after John Banks resigned. Supposed to be? He wrote a column, for NBR, which he left open to such an interpretation but now claims to have just "bashed it out", without much thought, and "that got into people's heads slightly more than probably I intended". Hmmm. I doubt he does anything without a lot of thought. Anyway, having had another stir, he then decided it was "a bit of fun to say 'I'm not available for comment'. Then of course people said 'you should do that'." Which is what he intended. "I know what I intended was more random than that. But I did get home that night and I had been on One News and announced my candidacy, or something and [my wife] said 'I see we're running for Act'. There was no support for that on the home front." And if there had been? "The path not taken ..."

Was he really going to stand? He ummed and aahed and said: "The opportunity sort of came up." It's a yes or no answer. "Yes and no is the accurate answer." He could have been a politician.

It was pure mischief, and fun. I suspect he gets bored easily and that, without the fun (the commentary) the work (the business) wouldn't be enough to keep him entertained.

He's an odd mix of business guy who, at 42, has his own company which deals in serious matters and who mixes with people in power, in government and in the private sector, and mischief-making guy who hasn't quite settled down to the business of being serious all of the time.

What he really likes doing is travelling, with his family - he has two daughters, aged 9 and 6 - mostly in India. I don't know why he loves India so much. It's certainly not for any spiritual questing reasons. When he and his wife went on a backpacking jaunt they were the only backpackers in business class.

Before he got married and before he traded up to a suit, he travelled with a very small bag, and a toothbrush and a spare pair of shorts to go with his singlet and jandals. But what did he do on his travels? "Hanging around the beach." Doing what? "Nothing." Drinking beer and smoking dope? "That sort of thing. Well, when in Rome, you know."

He had intended to leave New Zealand permanently (and become the Prime Minister of India, or pretend he was contemplating it, quite possibly) but "ran into" Lockwood Smith in a pub in Beijing, "on the way to the airport, ha, ha". (He's not beyond a swipe at his own tribe.) Anyway, Smith said, "Come back to the Beehive", and he thought, "I don't go backwards", and he wanted to go backpacking through Pakistan. But when he went to the embassy to get a visa, there were long queues and he thought "F*** this", and also that he could go on travelling on ten dollars a day or go back to Wellington and work for Smith and fly around the world first class. That's about as reflective about his motives as he gets.

He manages to be laid back, in that blokey way, while being more aggressive, at least in terms of his business, than almost anyone else. He says his competitors are less aggressive because they're more concerned with maintaining their relationships with government. "Whereas we don't think that the happiness of the Government is our concern."

He likes being an outsider, albeit one with inside knowledge. He likes doing the unexpected, which includes liking unlikely people such as Sue Bradford and Laila Harre and Matt McCarten. He's pretty good friends with McCarten. He said, of McCarten's new job as Cunliffe's chief of staff, "Good luck to him there". Of course, even his friendships are combative. What would be the fun in having friends you agreed with?

- NZ Herald

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