National sets up 'intelligence unit' to dig up info on political opponents during 2020 election campaign

Newshub can reveal that under its new leadership the National Party has set up an "intelligence unit" to dig up information on its political opponents during the 2020 election campaign.

National MPs leaked details of the unit to Newshub, concerned it would be used for "black ops" and dirty politics - claims National's campaign chair Gerry Brownlee has flatly rejected.

It comes after National's new leadership team of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye suffered a fraught first day in Parliament on Tuesday, as they struggled to defend a lack of Māori MPs on the party's refreshed frontbench. 

Not long after National's first top secret caucus meeting wrapped up that day, MPs were leaking, telling Newshub new campaign chair Gerry Brownlee had announced an "intelligence and espionage unit" - black ops to dig dirt on National's political enemies.

Newshub asked Brownlee on Wednesday to explain the "intelligence and espionage unit" he's setting up and he insisted those words do not describe it.

"Firstly, take those words away - they're completely ridiculous."

Asked if it's about digging dirt on opponents, he said: "No, it most definitely is not my style. We have no interest in that."

Brownlee says his comments have been deliberately misconstrued by bitter backers of former National leader Simon Bridges.

"I may have used the word intelligence [but] I said it was not espionage," Brownlee said. "It's a misinterpretation and a mischievous interpretation."

He said the fact that National MPs are leaking out of caucus to Newshub is "disappointing".

Dirty politics, black ops and Machiavellian politics were a major feature of the 2014 election campaign, and National says its new intelligence unit is completely different and it's promising to play nice.

Asked if National's planning on campaigning dirty this election, Muller said, "No, not at all."

"It's very common to have the opportunity and a requirement, actually, to get a sense of what the opposition is doing," he said.

But apparently that's not a requirement for the Labour Party. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is promising no opposition research.

"Nope, I did not do it in the last election; we will not do it in this election," she said.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says he's not worried about National trying to dig dirt on his party because there is "no dirt on New Zealand First for anyone to dig".

National's finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith says there's nothing unusual going on, telling Newshub: "We're trying to win an election and we want to know what the other side are doing. That's fine."

Despite being Pākehā, Goldsmith was held up as a poster child of National's Māori representation on Tuesday by deputy leader Nikki Kaye.

He said Kaye has since apologised.

But the race debate continued at a select committee on Wednesday, with National MP Judith Collins taking issue with questions over Treaty of Waitangi partnerships.

Collins could be heard protesting in the background, saying: "Stupid questions."

The committee chairperson, Labour MP Deborah Russell, could be heard describing Collins' interjection as "quite a white girl comment". 

Collins shot back, describing herself as "someone who's greatly sick of being demonised for my ethnicity, thank you very much".

It doesn't help Collins' new boss who is desperate to talk about anything other than the dreaded d-word: diversity.

Analysis by Political Editor Tova O'Brien

Todd Muller sure does have his work cut out for him. 

Not just on the diversity front - that is a major work-on - though he's not planning to make any changes to his white-washed frontbench.

He's also got to somehow pull off the Herculean task of uniting his divided caucus.

Leaving aside whether you think opposition intelligence units are good or bad, leaking out of a caucus is always bad news for a leader.

When I ran into Nikki Kaye on Wednesday she wasn't ruling out an investigation into those leaks to Newshub. Remember when Simon Bridges did that it backfired magnificently.

Witch hunts don't unite caucuses - strong leadership does, and so far we have not seen a tonne of that from Todd Muller.  

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