What does influence look like? Defeated Ilam candidate Raf Manji, The Opportunities Party leader, believes one way was the electorate poll in Ilam.

The Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll put the former Christchurch city councillor well behind National’s Hamish Campbell, which Manji said was an issue for his campaign.

“I don’t think we ever got out from underneath that poll.”

Part one: Chiding in plain sight
Tāmaki: When two tribes go to war
Loudest voices compete with the Chardonnay

In the poll, Campbell ahead on 33 percent, encumbent Sarah Pallett, of Labour, on 15 percent, and Manji on 14 percent.

The poll, released on August 29, the evening of The Working Group Ilam debate, hosted by the Taxpayers’ Union, was a blow for TOP, which was relying on its leader winning the electorate to propel the party into Parliament.

Manji notes 23 percent of the people polled were unsure or refused to say who they’d vote for, and at least 10 percent said they’d vote for a party that wasn’t even standing a candidate.

With 410 respondents, it had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

It was a snapshot in time, more than seven weeks from election day, but Manji believes it made a difference. Media mentions of Ilam and Manji constantly repeated the result.

“The number of people who said to me, ‘Well, I’d vote for you, but I need to know if you’ve got a chance in Ilam’. And then people in Ilam go, ‘Oh, you haven’t got a chance – we heard there was that poll, which had you miles behind’.”

By the time his campaign team thought it would be prudent to allocate some money towards a poll, it was too late and was going to be too expensive, Manji says.

“This stuff gets embedded into people’s minds and then they do vote based on what they see the polls to be – and so, yes, I think the polling does impact outcomes.”

On preliminary results, Campbell got 15,107 votes, or 45.1 percent, streets ahead of Manji, who got 8526, or 25.5 percent.

Given the nature of vote-splitting MMP, it’s impossible to know how much polling was a factor.

Maybe Manji didn’t reach or resonate with voters, or Campbell’s mammoth door-knocking was effective. It might simply have been the return of what was a safe blue seat.

Whatever happened, Manji learned a campaign lesson – “polling is important”.

(He might have learned other lessons, too, like the folly of releasing mysterious internal “polling”, and claiming the National and Labour candidates were “pulling back”.)

The Taxpayers’ Union’s Ilam electorate debate was held on August 29, featuring Raf Manji, Sarah Pallett, Mike Davidson, and Hamish Campbell. The hosts were Damien Grant, left, and Martyn Bradbury, of The Working Group. Screenshot: NZ Taxpayers’ Union/YouTube

The lively Ilam electorate debate was also noticeable for how left-wing candidates were heckled, while National’s Campbell was left to speak unmolested.

Manji describes the debate as slightly unsatisfactory, but says it didn’t bother him or have an influence.

Labour’s Pallett says the crowd’s behaviour – directly mainly at her – is what she expected, and she found it fun. “I knew what I was walking into.”

Asked about the poll and debate, National’s Campbell says debates definitely play a role in electorate campaigns but his main focus was meeting as many people across Ilam as he could – having knocked on the doors of more than 15,000 voters.

Some Taxpayers’ Union-The Working Group debates were described as raucous and rambunctious, including a “party policy” debate in Auckland.

Newsroom asked attendees National’s Paul Goldsmith, Labour’s Willie Jackson, Te Pāti Māori’s John Tamihere, and David Seymour, of Act, about the debate, the Taxpayers’ Union, and whether their party discuss policies with the Taxpayers’ Union before they’re announced publicly.

Jackson and Tamihere didn’t respond.

Goldsmith says though the crowd tends more to the right, heckling is a normal, and generally entertaining, part of debates.

“We welcome the involvement of groups such as the Taxpayers’ Union in the political debate, so we have a wide variety of voices.”

Seymour says it was a good-natured debate, which the crowd seemed to enjoy, and there were supporters from all sides of the political spectrum.

Asked again, about his take take on the Taxpayers’ Union and its role/influence in politics/the election, and whether it discusses party policy announcements with the Taxpayers’ Union before they’re publicly released, Seymour’s reply was: “Nothing to say on the first question, the answer to the second question is no.”

We realised our phrasing was clumsy, so asked Act whether it discusses policies with the Taxpayers’ Union before they’re announced. There was no response.

“What we say to them, or lobby them on, is no different to what we say publicly.” – Jordan Williams

The Taxpayers’ Union publicly released all electorate and monthly poll headline data no matter the result, executive director Jordan Williams says.

“The result is the result, and the reason we contract David [Farrar, the Curia owner who helped create the Taxpayers’ Union] is that he is subject to a code of practice and has a reputation for being among, if not the best pollster in New Zealand.”

Though it polls on specific policy positions, providing accurate, scientific polling is a public service, he says. And they’re not self-fulfilling prophecies – Williams point to three Māori seats, which went to Te Pāti Māori, but which Curia had them behind in polls.

“In a case like Ilam, where the result could have had national implications, voters benefit from having an accurate reading of how well each party was performing. Such polling is not, however, a prediction of the final result but rather a snapshot of voters’ views at that particular point in time.”

Curia owner David Farrar says the Ilam poll was a good indication of the actual result, as Campbell got around twice as many votes as the Labour and TOP candidates. “It is no surprise that candidates who do badly in a poll are unhappy with that.”

It’s not unusual for poll respondents to cite a different preference to known candidates, he says, especially as nominations hadn’t closed.

“The level of undecided is an important factor in interpreting the poll. That is why we are one of the few companies that publish the results both including and excluding the undecideds.”

Sarah Pallett, middle, shadowed Labour leader Chris Hipkins on a pharmacy visit in Christchurch during the election campaign. Photo: David Williams

The phone numbers – mostly mobile phones – used in the poll were leased/purchased from a specialist company with a database of almost one million New Zealand phone numbers tied to specific addresses.

Electorate polls are a snapshot and shouldn’t be seen as a conclusive forecast, he says.

“Generally, electorate polls are less robust than national polls. A smaller sample has a larger margin of error.”

Polls can influence voter behaviour to some degree, Farrar says, but they also allow voters to make a more informed choice.

“When national polls showed Labour in the 20s, this probably did have some influence on turnout as some supporters would have thought no way they can win, as happened to National in 2020.”

If polls are wildly inaccurate, the media should be more cautious about reporting results from those companies. There should be lower expectations about a poll in, say, August of this year, compared with close to election day, Farrar says – “campaigns matter”.

Asked about the Taxpayers’ Union’s direct, behind-the-scenes influence, Williams says: “I speak to the leaders or their representatives before the release of each month’s poll and provide the results under embargo, as is custom for major political polls.

“As I – and nearly everyone else in the team – have been out on the road, we’ve run into loads of MPs, leaders, and party officials. What we say to them, or lobby them on, is no different to what we say publicly.”

Of the debates, Williams says it’s not fair to say left-leaning candidates were heckled more – although that was the view of some candidates.

The most heckling occurred at the Tāmaki debate, he says, in which the front runners were on the centre right.

Every participating party or candidate received equal allocations of free tickets.

Silencing The Voice

On election day here, Australians voted in the indigenous ‘The Voice’ referendum.

The previous month, Australian academic Jeremy Walker, a senior lecturer in social and political sciences at University of Technology Sydney, published a paper in the journal Cosmopolitan Civil Societies, summarising his research into the ‘No’ vote.

(One of the anti-Voice campaign’s themes, that its implementation would divide Australians on the basis of race, was similar to the New Zealand Act Party’s election campaign slogan and billboards of ending “division by race”.)

Walker’s article argues the ‘No’ campaign was conducted on behalf of fossil-fuel corporations and their allies, and coordinated by the Australian branches of the Atlas Network – the “mother of all think tanks”; a global umbrella organisation for 515 public policy research institutes.

Atlas’s stated aim is to “litter the world with free-market think-tanks”, Walker’s article states. The network has a “permanent anti-climate policy campaign”, the article says.

Limited disclosure laws prevent Australians from knowing who finances that country’s Atlas organisations which, Walker writes, gives rise to the possibility of “dark money” from fossil fuel and mining companies.

Atlas Network’s director of marketing and communications Adam Weinberg says it thinks highly of the Taxpayers’ Union. Screenshot: Atlas Network

“The Atlas Network’s ever-growing roster of think-tanks have foundational histories of oil-derived core funding among wider corporate support, including from ExxonMobil and other oil majors, from the oil-refining billionaires Charles and David Koch’s ‘philanthropic’ foundations, and those of Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the family banking, Alcoa and Gulf Oil/Chevron fortune.”

For decades, the Australian organisations affiliated with Atlas have “worked in concert with their US-based counterparts to challenge the long-established scientific confirmation of global warming, and to oppose government policies to phase out fossil-fuel extraction and combustion, such as carbon taxation, government support for renewable energy, and an effective UN climate treaty”.

A core aim of the Atlas Network’s expansion since 1988, when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was formed, “was to enhance oil industry efforts to undermine support for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and to prevent the negotiation of binding, equitable, quantified, timetabled, legislated, science-based national CO2 reduction targets”.

Walker writes the Atlas Network constantly generates “abundant, seemingly diffusely sourced ‘independent’ publications and media content promoting the same agendas, to exert influence on public opinion and policy without its corporate investors or the global network itself being exposed to public scrutiny”.

Newsroom has previously reported the Taxpayers’ Union’s (and the NZ Initiative’s) links to Atlas.

Cindy Baxter, who has spent years researching think tanks in the United States, says the Taxpayers’ Union’s links to the Atlas Network are almost never mentioned in the New Zealand media. Certainly not during this election campaign.

“Nobody here seems to care. I find it extremely concerning.”

.@JordNZ is onstage at Investors Summit for Liberty 2022, pitching @TaxpayersUnion and their plan to make New Zealand world leaders in economic policy once again. #LFFD22 pic.twitter.com/0SK24BzMCV

— Atlas Network (@AtlasNetwork) November 17, 2022

The association is declared on the Taxpayers’ Union’s website.

It’s a proud member of the Atlas Network, the Taxpayers’ Union says, sharing its vision of a “free, prosperous, and peaceful word where the principles of individual liberty, property rights, limited government, and free markets are secured by the rule of law”.

Atlas has provided Taxpayers’ Union travel grants, professional development, and scholarships. In 2018, Williams was made a Smith Fellow, and travelled to Washington DC for training in marketing, fundraising, management and other relevant skills.

Williams rejects descriptions of Taxpayers’ Union as a dark-money think tank.

(The definition of dark money on Dictionary.com is: “Money donated to politically active non-profit organisations or anonymous corporate entities, which spend this money to influence political campaigns or other special interests but are not required to reveal their donors.)

“I can’t think of a single specific policy initiative they’ve facilitated that I or any of my staff have been involved in.”

Atlas Network’s director of marketing and communications Adam Weinberg says it’s a non-partisan US-based non-profit that provides training, grants, and networking opportunities. It doesn’t support or oppose candidates or political parties, or contribute to political campaigns.

Of ‘The Voice’, Weinberg says: “We had no involvement in the campaign in any capacity.”

Atlas’s name is sometimes invoked in “disinformation campaigns”, he says.

“Sometimes these attacks are driven by authoritarian governments that invoke Atlas Network’s name with the goal of making dissenting voices in the country appear disloyal, and sometimes – as in the case of Australia – our name is used in conspiracy theories by activists who believe these stories will help them discredit their opponents or explain why their policy views aren’t winning.”

“We do need to have a critical eye – particularly with the digital environment – on who’s influencing whom, and what kind of vested interests are using their financial clout, and economic muscle, or just sheer networks to unfairly tilt the playing field in their favour.” – Political commentator Grant Duncan

The network supports aspirations of its partners in advancing their own policy solutions “and that adhere to our common values”. “It’s not our role to decide what the policies of Australia or New Zealand should be.”

Weinberg says Atlas thinks highly of the Taxpayers’ Union, which competes “vigorously” in its professional development and grant programmes.

“They are a very good example of an organisation that has built a grassroots following, is a peer and mentor to similar organisations around the world, and has persuaded our donors (which are almost entirely composed of private foundations and individuals) that they have locally focused projects worth our investment.”

Williams accuses Walker, the Australian academic, of making claims he knows to be dishonest.

His views won’t be a surprise to Walker, who confirms Williams has sent emails to himself and his institution in an attempt to intimidate his freedom of inquiry and expression.

(This is something the Taxpayers’ Union executive director has done before, as the NZ Herald detailed about University of Otago nutritionist Dr Lisa Te Morenga, who called Williams a “twat” but later apologised after a string of complaining emails to the Vice-Chancellor’s office.)

The pair had a Twitter exchange in December last year, in which Walker said opposition to Three Waters “is being whipped up by dark money neoliberal think tank NZ Taxpayers Union, linked to sister org. the New Zealand Initiative and both to the NZ oil and gas peak body, should be central to understanding the politics here”.

Walker shouldn’t make stuff up and smear, Williams retorted. The Taxpayers’ Union doesn’t do a thing with oil and gas, he said, but he did confirm a link: “The only link to oil and gas peak body is that one of my ex staffers works there. So what?”

Jordan Williams claims the Taxpayers’ Union has “one of the strongest positions on tackling climate change in New Zealand”. Photo: Supplied

Both will probably claim victory.

Walker noted on Twitter last year Williams confirmed a link to oil and gas: “Making deceptive claims and amplifying them are what professional PR agents working for oil and gas (your staffer?) and associated ‘think-tanks’ are sadly well known for. So why don’t ‘free market’ Atlas think tanks like NZI and NZTU declare their funding sources?”

Williams says the Taxpayers’ Union is not “mostly funded” by US dark money. (That didn’t appear to be what Walker was claiming.)

“It is a shame academics aren’t as interested in truth seeking as playing cheap political point scoring.”

With Walker’s journal article, Williams says the academic “simply projected his views about some Australian groups (who are also members of Atlas) to the Taxpayers’ Union despite the shoe clearly not fitting”.

It’s ridiculous to suggest the Taxpayers’ Union’s position on climate change has been influenced by Atlas or industry, claiming it has “one of the strongest positions on tackling climate change in New Zealand”.

(Newsroom asked the Green Party for comment but it didn’t respond.)

Williams isn’t just sensitive about claims made by academics.

Last week, after we sent him Baxter’s claims, errantly mentioning her association with Coal Action Network Aotearoa, he rang her in the evening.

In a subsequent email, he said: “I am absolutely sure [original emphasis] that they have had zero influence on the Taxpayers’ Union’s approach to how New Zealand should respond to climate change or how best to meet our emissions targets.”

Baxter says some of the Taxpayers’ Union’s ideas come from its collaboration with the Atlas network and its coaching.

“That’s the point – these are not a Kiwi thing.

“They’re the product of an international neoliberal network that’s not designed to help the average Kiwi.”

Williams says: “David and I founded the Taxpayers’ Union before I had even heard of the Atlas Network,” Williams says.

“To suggest the union is a ‘product’ of some American effort is nonsense on stilts.”

Money and political influence

Beyond the claims and counter-claims, political commentator Grant Duncan, a freelance writer and scholar, believes New Zealand needs to have a conversation about money and political influence.

What if, for example, a powerful offshore influencer like the gun lobby National Rifle Association, in the United States, started becoming involved in New Zealand politics? How would the public know?

“We do need to have a critical eye – particularly with the digital environment – on who’s influencing whom, and what kind of vested interests are using their financial clout, and economic muscle, or just sheer networks to unfairly tilt the playing field in their favour.”

That’s an argument for more state funding.

Third-party promoter rules are better than they were in 2005, when the Exclusive Brethren anonymously inserted its financial muscle into the general election campaign. But Duncan says they should be improved further.

“We should be able to see who is making the donations,” he says. “Personally, I’m in favour of looking at a cap on donations – on party financial donations, as well as these third-party promoters.”

That shouldn’t particularly worry Sarah Pallett, Labour’s former Ilam MP, who will be looking for a new job outside of politics.

She won’t comment specifically on the Taxpayers’ Union, but says generally: “We need to be asking some very hard questions about the influence of big donors, whoever they are, on political campaigning and on elections at the moment.”

Isn’t that sour grapes from a defeated candidate?

No, she says. “I’m only asking for transparency – I’m not complaining.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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