David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

National turns on hard right advisor

Simon Lusk pushed to get rid of the "wet wing" and make sure MPs obeyed donors. Now a leaker has revealed his agenda in an attempt to discredit him

Political campaign guru Simon Lusk enjoys fishing. Photo / Supplied
Political campaign guru Simon Lusk enjoys fishing. Photo / Supplied

Leaked documents written by a political strategist who has trained National MPs set out a vision for taking the party to the right of the political spectrum, tripling donations to $6 million a year and using donations and government jobs as inducements to control MPs.

Written by political strategist Simon Lusk, the papers were leaked by a "senior National Party source" to the Weekend Herald, TV3's The Nation and Fairfax.

The leaker was clear in his purpose - the National Party needed to clean house. It might be the broadest church in politics - as its 49 per cent poll rating suggests - but the insider says there is no more room for Mr Lusk and associates, who include blogger Cameron Slater.

The leaker was clear in his objective when contacting the Herald. "As far as I am concerned, dealing to them is not about airing dirty National Party laundry, but disposing of a political nuisance."

The disclosure reveals details of a plan which so disturbed the party that, at a board meeting in March 2012, it was warned of Mr Lusk having "a very negative agenda for the party".

The warning came after then-senior whip Michael Woodhouse was briefed on a paper written by Mr Lusk dated February 2012 and titled "Building A Conservative Fiscal Majority." It begins: "This National government has been a disappointment to fiscal conservatives. The wet wing of the National Party control the senior ranks of the party and cannot be easily replaced without losing an election. After National loses an election there will be a clean out."

The purpose now, he said, was to plan ahead to "move the political centre to the right". "New Zealand's political market is exceptionally retarded. The first organised group to professionalise and fund politics properly will obtain prime mover advantage and control the market for sometime. This is a one-off opportunity to exploit the gap in the market and I am looking to exploit this gap."

Mr Lusk's plan began with selecting like-minded candidates young and seeding them in "safe blue" electorates which would vote National. He said local body politics should be targeted to get "fiscal conservative" councillors and mayors. And training was the key for the politicians, he said, so "when they are elected they can make real change based on solid planning rather than intent".

The message was also important - "dominate the media by controlling the message through credible right wing blogs". Mr Lusk also said there needed to be a focus on "taking over the public sector" to create a pool of fiscal conservatives who would work with politicians.

He also recommended making fundraising more professional and dominating company boards to help build a "war chest". "I can provide resumes for several people who are fiscal conservatives and understand the role they will play in the future."

He said National raised $2 million a year, which needed to triple in size. "Union money will not be able to match business money."

Overall, the work needed to be guided by a long-term strategy which would see a smaller government which was focused on "changing education, increasing mining's contribution to GDP and making property development easier".

He urged those reading it to "stop donating to the current government". "They have not listened and will not listen." He urged supporters to "blackball" current MPs to stop them "trading on their time as MPs to build a lucrative business career". It would show MPs "the consequences of ignoring donors". "If donors buy into this and the next National government does not offer former ministers jobs then there will be a very clear incentive for the next crop of ministers to listen carefully to donors rather than ignoring them."

The verbal briefing to Mr Woodhouse was only one way Mr Lusk attempted to extend his reach across the party. A member of the Prime Minister's office was also briefed and given documents. Mr Key has kept Mr Lusk at arm's length and is known to have little regard for him.

Mr Lusk's briefing came at a time when he was organising training sessions for potential National Party candidates. Disgraced MP Aaron Gilmore was among those keen to attend but was rejected after he failed to meet the fees charged.

It was these training sessions which one former MP believed gave Mr Lusk access to the party's inner workings. At the time, the party's "candidates college" was known to be weak while Mr Lusk, along with Mr Slater, were offering training they said prepared potential candidates for political life.

The party recoiled when it discovered he was running the sessions - particularly when its board was told how potential MPs and current MPs were attending. Board minutes from 2012 recorded an upcoming session for local body candidates. "Some Caucus members feel that they should be involved in this training programme," the minutes say.

Longtime National Party member David Farrar, who runs Kiwiblog, was listed as a speaker at a February 2012 session at the Kauri Glen Lodge in Puhoi, north of Auckland, where the session was held. He pulled out.

"I was asked not to," he said, saying "party hierarchy" made the request. "It would look as if it were officially sanctioned," he said. He stayed for the social aspect - Mr Slater posted on his Whaleoil blog a photograph of Mr Farrar's rental car reversed over a wall - before leaving.

Political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards said the leak and the people it targeted revealed a glimpse into the "Cold War" for succession to the leadership of the National Party. "This is a simple left and right split in the National Party - and the struggle over the future ideological direction and leadership." On the pragmatic centre-ist side was "Minister for Everything" Steven Joyce while to his right (politically) was Justice Minister Judith Collins. Dr Edwards said Mr Slater was known to be close to Ms Collins.

The minister showed her own faith in Mr Slater, quoting his blog on Twitter and telling readers: "You might not like it but Whaleoil is better informed and better read than any other news outlet or social media."

Dr Edwards said the struggle was suppressed but constant. "It is a cold war, not a civil war."

A spokesman for both ministers rejected any involvement in a power struggle or connection to the leak. "It's all just a joke and we don't have anything to do with it."

Party president Peter Goodfellow said an internal power struggle was "a very far-fetched theory". "Whether such factions exist is highly dubious. There's no apparent division."

Having had sections of Mr Lusk's paper read to him, he said the views sounded "extreme". "Some of Mr Lusk's economic views would not be shared by the majority.

"We are a broad church. We can encompass most views."

Mr Goodfellow said the party had worked hard to improve training for candidates in recent years and "the need for his services has probably diminished". "We went out of our way to make sure it was more relevant to what people wanted." He said he did not make the call to Mr Farrar but "would have encouraged him not to participate either". "We would encourage our senior party people to be involved in our own internal process."

Mr Lusk is based in Hawkes Bay and spends his days hunting and fishing. He is involved in a fine wine trading company based in the British Virgin Island, where he is also connected to a lobster farming project. His political involvement saw National MP Sam Lotu-Iiga pay tribute to "the shrewd counsel of Simon Lusk" in his 2008 maiden speech. Other MPs said to have leaned on him for advice include Chris Tremain and Louise Upston. He did not return calls.

Shades of Blue

The National Party is a broad church, with many factions. They include:

Blue Greens

They're National but they're conservationists. Nick Smith is the greenest blue in the party.

Blue Liberals

National with a heart - Katherine Rich showed her liberal streak when she rejected Don Brash's social welfare plans.

Fiscal Conservatives

Small government, big business. Former party leader Don Brash later ran Act.

Internats

The overseas wing of the party. Prime Minister John Key is the ultimate homecoming story.

Young Nats

The path to the party from an early age. Nikki Kaye is currently the youngest minister in the House.

SuperBlues

The superannuitant wing. Dr Paul Hutchison has just picked up his Gold Card.

- NZ Herald

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