Thursday, February 29, 2024

David Farrar: The Atlas conspiracy theory continues

Joshua Drummond writes:

To recap, quickly: The Atlas Network is a “think tank that creates think tanks“; a global network of more than 500 right-wing think tanks and lobby groups. New Zealand members of Atlas include the Taxpayers' Union and the New Zealand Initiative (formed from a merger of two think tanks, one of which was the infamous Business Roundtable.)

This, like everything else, is wrong. Atlas does not create think tanks. It did not create the NZBR, the NZ Initiative or Taxpayers Union. I know. I co-founded the NZTU and don't think I had even heard of Atlas when I did.

Seymour's extraordinary denial came during a recording of Mata with Mihingarangi Forbes on RNZ, recorded and released on Waitangi Day, February 6 2024. The relevant parts of the transcript are excerpted below.

Forbes: And those indigenous Australians are now warning Māori that the same groups are behind this referendum. Are they, do you think?
Seymour: Well, if you're about to go into the new Pizzagate of the left conspiracy theory, then I'll be real disappointed.
Forbes: What's that, the Pizzagate?
Seymour: That's some crazy conspiracy theory that Trump has had in the US.
Forbes: The campaign in Australia had links to the Atlas network.
Seymour: Oh, here we go.
Forbes: A network of think tanks, which promote individual liberty and free enterprise. And it said that the network pushes opinion pieces in favour of free speech. Do the ACT Party have any links or connections to the Atlas group?
Seymour, very quietly: No.

That is a lie. David Seymour and the ACT Party have numerous links to the Atlas Network. Here are some of them.

They have links, in the sense that people are linked to Kevin Bacon. They have links in the sense that I am linked to Hitler because Hedy Lamarr once babysat my father, and her husband had dinner with Hitler. You can claim almost anything is linked to anything else if you try.

After a 10 month stint as an electrical engineer – his sole non-political, non-think tank job – David Seymour worked for a Canadian think tank called the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, from 2007 to 2011. From January 2013 to February 2014, he worked for The Manning Foundation (now called the Canada Strong and Free Network). Both these think tanks were members of the Atlas Network at the time.

Yes David Seymour interacted with Atlas when he worked for a Canadian think tank. As Atlas is basically a support network for freedom focused organisations, this is about as surprising as the fact someone who worked for greenpeace interacted with the Climate Action Network.

There are other overt ACT links to Atlas. According to his LinkedIn profile, Louis Houlbrooke is currently “working at Parliament in support of ACT's vision of an open and benevolent society in which individual New Zealanders are free to achieve their full potential.” Before this, he worked as Campaigns Manager for the Taxpayers' Union, an Atlas Network member, for four years, eight months. During this time, Houlbrooke attended multiple Atlas Network events, as documented by the Atlas Network.

This is even funnier. Louis attended events when he worked for NZTU. He then went overseas, and when he came back he got a job (again) working for ACT. Somehow this means Atlas controls or influences ACT.

One former NZTU staffer was the daughter of a Labour MPs. That means Labour is linked to Atlas by this insane conspiracy theory,.

Forbes: Have you spoken or taken advice from them or any group associated with them about the treaty?
Seymour, even more quietly: No.

This is not true, as Forbes quickly demonstrates. Seymour attended a Taxpayers' Union (which is part of the Atlas Network) function in Wellington where British politician Lord Daniel Hannan – one of the principal architects of Brexit, and founding president of the Initiative for Free Trade (which is, if you haven't guessed, part of the Atlas Network) – spoke specifically about the Treaty.

This part gets funnier. In conspiracy world, taking advice from a group means listening to a speech by someone whose organisation is a member of that group.

This would mean I take advice from the Fabian Society, the ctu, the greens etc etc.

Now why I am even wasting my time on ridiculing this stuff? If it was just Josh blogging I wouldn't. But again his theories formed the basis of an entire program on TVNZ which was funded by taxpayers. Its the equivalent to the state funding a program on how the WHO and WEF secretly control the NZ Government.

Graham Adams at The Platform dissects the conspiracy theory and actually talks to some people involved.

She [Forbes] asked him about Act's links to the Atlas Network, which fosters connections between centre-right think tanks around the world. When Seymour expressed his incredulity and disappointment that she was raising a “conspiracy theory”, she defended her line of questioning with: “My role is to ask questions on behalf of other people.” In fact, at that moment, Forbes closely resembled an arsonist asking a fire crew if they could help her find out more about how a blaze had started when she had lit it herself. In effect, she was asking Seymour to respond to insinuations she herself had made in her earlier 25-minute documentary on the proposed Treaty principles referendum.

Yes it was asking about her own program.

The first culprit to be singled out for attention in the programme was the prominent “No” campaign lobby group Advance Australia, “bankrolled by some of Australia's richest people”.

However, this was only the prelude to introducing the Atlas Network — which Advance Australia was alleged to be linked to. Dr Jeremy Walker, a political scientist at the University of Technology Sydney who “studies the Atlas Network”, told us it was established in 1981 “to promote free-market policies around the world” and that some of its funding comes from “oil and gas interests”.

Advance Australia incidentally is not a member at Atlas. An inconvenient fact they ignored. And one prominent Yes campaigner is on the board of an Atlas member.

Every major Australian news outlet in the run-up to the referendum publicised the eye-watering amounts of money that major businesses pledged to the “Yes” campaign. Some estimates put the total in the tens of millions of dollars. And, ironically, the biggest donors included the big oil and gas producers.

BHP and Rio Tinto donated $A2 million each, while resource giants Woodside Energy, Newcrest and Origin Energy, among others, publicly advocated for the “Yes” vote. The Minerals Council of Australia backed it too.

That Forbes failed to mention these well-established facts about corporate Australia's enthusiasm for the “Yes” campaign while she pumped the narrative that a sinister and secret conspiracy with links to the oil and gas industries had propelled the “No” side to success is a sorry indictment of the programme's integrity.

So in fact big oil all backed and funded the yes campaign.

However, New Zealander Debbi Gibbs — who is the chair of the Atlas Network, headquartered in the US — told The Platform that Forbes had not contacted her for comment.

Asked whether Atlas had put any money into supporting David Seymour's campaign on the Treaty principles, or whether it intended to, she replied:

“We don't make donations to campaigns, candidates, or parties. Additionally none of the partners in our Network are political parties. They are all independent, non-governmental, civil society organisations.

The entire conspiracy theory is based on the fact that freedom orientated think tanks belong to a network of freedom orientated think tanks.

“We have just finalised the figures for the 2023 Annual Report that is not yet published, and we spent a total of $62,000 on grants to partners in Australia and New Zealand… You can see examples of the projects we have supported on our web site.”

Yep $62,000 spending in Australia and NZ. This is publicly available information, but one they chose not to report.

In addition, Gibbs corrected two claims made or implied in the documentary: “Advance Australia is not an Atlas Network partner… and the statements made about the Atlas Network's source funding are completely false.”

I understand that any industry donations or Koch donations happened around 20 years ago. Yawn.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Forbes' allegations about well-funded groups working behind the scenes to promote Seymour's principles bill is that the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, administered by NZ on Air, has been running for three years with explicit criteria about how the Treaty must be presented and promoted by successful applicants — namely as a partnership.

Ironic indeed.

“Trick or Treaty?” was funded by taxpayers' money, but surprisingly NZ on Air doesn't seem to have ready access to the exact amount the programme cost. The Platform's request for that figure has been classed as an inquiry under the OIA, with a response promised “within the statutory timeframe”.

I think I know a good area Nicola Willis can save money.

Oliver Hartwich from NZ Initiative also writes:

Many of you have probably heard about Atlas Network in recent weeks. It is a network of think tanks around the world, and the Initiative is proud to be a part of it.

Despite being a friend of Atlas, I was unaware of its influence. There is a conspiracy theory that Atlas controls government policy in many countries – at least in Australia and New Zealand.

If only that were true. Atlas promotes sound policies, noble ideas and inspiring projects.

To achieve this, Atlas provides support to local organisations. Although these policy shops are diverse, they share a commitment to individual liberty, property rights, limited government, and free markets.

Atlas' affiliates make abstract ideas concrete. In the favelas of Brazil, they helped residents establish property rights, become entrepreneurs and escape poverty.

Against a bureaucracy that prevented independent Nepali e-rickshaw drivers from operating, Atlas helped them register.

In the US state of Georgia, Atlas partners with the ‘Georgia Center for Opportunity'. They embarked on a large project to rehabilitate former offenders. That was a decade ago. Since then, the prison population and recidivism have significantly decreased.

There are dozens of success stories like this from all around the world that were supported by the Atlas Network.

So, when the Initiative started in 2012 and Atlas asked if we wanted to be affiliated, we felt honoured to join this network. We still are.

Atlas does not fund our work. Well, they gave us a camera a decade ago (and thank you, it still works). That was it.

For us, it has always been about belonging to an organisation that helps people achieve amazing things, and being part of a network whose goals we share.

I can say the same for the NZTU. Not once in ten years on the board was there ever a conversation about what Atlas might think on a policy issue.

So people might wonder what does Atlas do? Why would organisations join. Well here's my experience:
  • They have some great training courses you can send staff to. They range from fundraising to communications to video editing etc etc.
  • If you have a successful local project, you can enter it into one of their awards and if you win you get kudos and a small amount of money (think under 1% of income).
  • They have regional forums where you get to meet other organisations and share ideas, strategies, trends, fundraising ideas etc.
This is all unexceptional. This is why almost any NZ organisation joins a global body of like minded organisations.

As I said I don't think I even knew of the Atlas Network before we formed NZTU. It is possible before 2013 I have interacted with someone from Atlas as I have attended events in the US hosted by Heritage, Cato, ATR and the IDU, but they were not on my radar.

Since 2013, I attended one Atlas forum in Sydney in 2022 or 2023. It was a small gathering of around a dozen people where we talked about how to increase support for policies that enhance economic freedom. If the Australian referendum or the Treaty of Waitangi was ever discussed, it must have been while I was taking a five minute toilet break.

I look forward to the taxpayer funded documentary on how the Open Society Foundation is actually influencing events in Australia and NZ. After all like Atlas they are a network of 120 partners. They have funding of US$32 billion, compared to Atlas annual spending of US20 million.

Of course when it happens on the left, it is not something the media show any interest in.

David Farrar runs Curia Market Research, a specialist opinion polling and research agency, and the popular Kiwiblog where this article was sourced. He previously worked in the Parliament for eight years, serving two National Party Prime Ministers and three Opposition Leaders.

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