A web of connections between the ACT Party, Taxpayers’ Union and National Party

Ex ACT party researcher Grant McLachlan has posted what he knows about the ACT Party and it’s many political connections with people with National Party and also with the Taxpayers Union and other activist groups.

Astroturfs: Act Three of ‘Dirty Politics’

Artificial grassroots organisations – nicknamed ‘astroturfs’ – are designed to mask the sponsors of a message or organization so to give the impression that there is support from grassroots participants. Often, they help politicians to find and mobilize a sympathetic public and create the image of public consensus where there is none.

The story of astroturfs is a hot mess of money, cliques of right-wing schemers, and dog whistle politics.

Astroturf origins

The history of astroturfs in New Zealand is closely associated to the history of the Act Party.

The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers was formed in 1993 by former Labour minister Roger Douglas and former National minister Derek Quigley. It started as an astroturf but, in the new MMP environment, decided to form a political party called Act.

McLachlan then goes through history of the Act Party.

Fast forward to 2011 when ACT had five MPs, Rodney Hide resigned and Don Brash took over.

Despite many in Act knowing about David Garrett’s convictions for assault and using the identity of a dead child to obtain a false passport, when it surfaced in the media David Garrett resigned. Don Brash then challenged for the leadership and Garrett’s replacement, Hillary Calvert, gave Brash a narrow victory.

Brash claimed his motivation for the coup was Act and National’s lack of fiscal prudence. Soon after becoming leader, however, Brash and Ansell ran an advert criticising the ‘Maorification of Everything.’

Assisting Brash was former Act MP Stephen Franks and a junior solicitor in his firm, Jordan Williams. It was during the 2011 election that Jordan Williams fronted the ‘Vote For Change’ campaign to get rid of MMP. Jordan’s strategy revolved around uniting supporters of the main parties by stigmatising Winston Peters as the bogeyman of MMP.

The 2011 election was a disaster for Act. Don Brash was a list-only candidate, their support dropped to 1 percent, and John Banks won Epsom to become Act’s only MP. The party touting itself as ‘The Liberal Party’ was now led by one of National’s most conservative former ministers.

It was during this period that Nicky Hager received material which would become the basis for Dirty Politics. Practitioners included Jordan Williams and National Party pollster, David Farrar. In February 2013, they incorporated the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union.

Farrar has well known connections to the National Party – see disclosure statement.

The Taxpayers’ Union promotes itself as a spending watchdog – WE CAMPAIGN FOR BETTER VALUE FOR MONEY FROM GOVERNMENT SPENDING – but they have always looked like a political activist group to me.

They have just had a lame complaint to Broadcasting Standards Authority ‘not upheld’ which targeted Labour Party advertising – NEW ZEALAND TAXPAYERS’ UNION INC AND MEDIAWORKS TV LTD – 2020-116 (22 SEPTEMBER 2020).

Jordan Williams was involved in a political hit job on Colin Craig and the Conservative party, along with Cameron Slater, that has resulted inn expensive defamation proceedings.

The idea of a taxpayer union wasn’t original. Canada had a Canadian Taxpayers Federation since 1990. Act politicos Peter McCaffrey and David Seymour spent years in Canada at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy analysing local and central government accountability.

Dirty Politics was published in August 2014. In September 2014, the founding chairman of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, John Bishop, posted an article titled ‘Taxpayers’ Union has attacked National more often than any other party.’ Since then, the organisation has attacked politicians from every political party except one: Act.

Bishop, a former TVNZ political editor, was the Act Party ‘Constituency Services Manager’, working in Parliament during Richard Prebble’s leadership. His job was to co-ordinate campaigns and tours from within Parliament. At the time, I was a researcher and ‘electorate agent.’

Bishop’s son, Chris Bishop, is currently National MP for Hutt South.

During Bishop’s tenure at Act, Prebble used Parliamentary Service funding to employ a disproportionate number of staff in its leader’s office, using the ‘out of Parliament’ budget meant for electorate agents to instead work in Parliament. A bogus electorate office was set up at Prebble’s private residence on Little Pipitea Street. Despite none of the staff ever working there, we were instructed to say that we did.

I was employed as a researcher in Parliament for 8 hours a week and 32 hours as an ‘out-of-Parliament’ electorate agent.

During the almost three years I worked for Act, I only worked three weeks out of Parliament, which was spent in Newmarket at the party’s head office shortly after that meeting at the bogus office. Following my return from Auckland, I resigned.

Other staff embroiled in this scam included Peter McCardle (who was also juggling elected roles on the District Health Board and Upper Hutt City Council) and Roger Styles (who was also elected to the Hutt City Council and became deputy mayor). Press secretaries included journalists David Young, David Hargreaves, and public relations commentator Trish Sherson.

Trish Sherson is sometimes used as aa political commentator by media – she was a Newshub post-debate panelist on Tuesday night.

Styles and McCardle used Parliamentary resources to research demographic trends of their constituencies. Discovering the ‘gentrification’ of the Hutt South electorate, Styles had ambitions of winning the electorate for National off Trevor Mallard.

John Bishop’s son, Chris, would eventually gain the candidacy in 2014 and win the seat in 2017. Chris’ work colleague at Phillip Morris Tobacco, Todd Barclay, entered Parliament at the same time.

So the claim here is that Act Party research led to National winning Hutt South.

Despite John Bishop’s track record with Act, Bishop went on to campaign for the Taxpayers’ Union, ridiculing politicians for double-dipping and misusing taxpayer and ratepayer money.

John Banks became swamped by scandal as Kim Dotcom testified that Banks didn’t declare a donation to his 2010 mayoralty campaign. When convicted, Banks resigned and Act found a new leader, Jamie Whyte. David Seymour ran for Epsom. Whyte argued that incest between consenting adults shouldn’t be illegal and later back-tracked. While Seymour won Epsom, Act support dropped to 0.69 percent.

Seymour initially failed to gain traction and Act floundered around 1 percent in support. National introduced young liberal candidates, including Rodney Hide’s former staffer, Andrew Falloon, and Hamish Walker replaced Todd Barclay.

After being disgraced in 2017 Barclay didn’t stand for re-election. Walker and Falloon were both exposed for poor behaviour this year and neither will stand again in their electorates.

Houlbrooke. You might remember that surname when a Louis Houlbrooke fronted a ‘lobby group’ called ‘Take Back the Clocks’ in 2019 to abolish daylight savings. Or during the 2017 election campaign when Act’s Deputy Leader Beth Houlbrooke said, “The fact is, parents who cannot afford to have children should not be having them.”

Beth is Louis’ mother. She rose from Act candidate in 2014, to vice president and party manager in the same year, to deputy leader for the 2017 election.

Louis got his start as Act’s social media co-ordinator and media liaison for the 2014 election, whilst president of Act’s youth wing. Following the election, he was David Seymour’s press secretary for the term.

Following the 2017 election, Beth remained Deputy Leader while Louis transferred to the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and rose quickly to become their campaign manager.

Louis Holbrooke is still TU Campaign Mananger.

The Taxpayers’ Union strategy changed overnight. Their coffers swelled to an annual budget of $831,848.22 by the end of 2019 and nine paid staff.

Their ‘Our Team’ includes 15 people with various roles.

The Union was on a roll. They renamed their annual awards for the biggest wasters of public money after Shane Jones.

That looks clearly like political activist targeting.

The more that the Taxpayers’ Union attacked New Zealand First, the better David Seymour looked.

Targeting NZ First’s core voters, Act then surprised many members by giving gun lobbyists high list rankings.

Louis helped Beth and Phelan set up Facebook ‘community pages.’ While Act ran a ‘Freedom to Speak’ campaign against Jacinda Ardern’s proposals to censor hate speech, Beth and Phelan censored and blocked criticism and debate. When brought to the attention of Act, Seymour claimed the community pages were ‘private property.’

As president of Act’s youth wing, Louis campaigned against compulsory membership of student unions. Beth and Phelan, however, have both pushed for ‘Business Improvement Districts’ throughout Rodney…

…But none of these examples got a mention at the annual ‘Jonesie Awards’, held in Parliament’s Legislative Chamber. Instead, awards were given to Wellington Mayor Andy Foster for wasting $30,000 on a leadership course, Racing Minister Winston Peters for providing funding for two upgraded training facilities, and a lifetime achievement award to Transport and former Housing Minister Phil Twyford.

(For an event to be held in Parliament, it has to be sponsored by a Parliamentarian. Every ‘Jonesie Awards’ event has been sponsored by National MP Chris Penk, whose electorate includes the Rodney Ward.)

It looks like a web of interconnections between ACT, National and the Taxpayers Union.

With Act, nothing is as it seems. The protests by gun owners in the South Island were ‘attended’ by ‘Firearms Safety Specialist’ and third-ranked Act list candidate, Nicole McKee. The ‘grassroots’ protest, organized by local pistol and deerstalking clubs, was repeated elsewhere.

What is certain is that Act is about money. Several of Act’s major donors live in the Rodney Ward near the controversial Auckland Shooting Club at Makarau. There are strong Act links to that club. Maybe the media should be asking one member why Beth Houlbrooke was demoted? What was Beth’s position on the controversial club?

Act’s backers have mutated Astroturfs from a pressure group, to an attack weapon, to directly protecting the politicians they were indirectly meant to support, to having an unhealthy influence over a minor party. While they evolve, they still operate as dirty politics in plain sight.

This may be a distinction between ‘dirty politics’ and ‘Dirty Politics’, but there are a number of connections between ACT’s operations, the Taxpayers’ Union operations and National party interests.

McLachlan has followed up with another post.

Why we should have zero tolerance for Act

Sex, drugs, fraud and bullying. What the Act Party doesn’t want you to know this election.

He goes over a number of claims related to sexual harassment and drug abuse associated with the Act Party. Then:

Act now wants David Seymour to be perceived as a ‘fresh face’ and a clean slate. No he isn’t. He’s been around Act since I can remember.

I remember him as being good mates with disgraced former National MP Andrew Falloon when Falloon was Rodney Hide’s creepy staffer.

Seymour was then John Banks’ Ministerial Advisor while John Banks was being prosecuted.

Many who condoned the serious misconduct I’ve described are still active in the organisation. Seymour’s distancing from sexual harassment problems within Act’s youth wing is symptomatic of a party which places more importance on public perception rather than addressing the reality of its toxic culture.

But Act expects voters to have short memories. Seymour talks tough on ‘gangs’ when he and his party acted like one throughout its history. There are no signs that he will be any different as he tries to lure a new generation of voters.

Quite successfully it seems. Act are currently polling at 6-8%. National are still polling poorly so are unlikely to get to form a Government with Act, but if a sizeable ACT caucus gets established and doesn’t fly to bits they may be in a strong position to pull National and the country rightwards from 2023.