Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Dirty Politics: Kiwi style

If only politics was about having rational discussions about the best way to run your country! But hardly anyone nowadays can believe that. In a democracy most voters will not be influenced by discussion anyway - and fair enough that opinions can be held with unshakable conviction. Still, most of us would like to believe that our society still allowed enough public information and discourse that electors could, if they wanted, come to informed decisions on how they should vote.  Once that belief is undermined we naturally see widespread cynicism about politicians that discourages voter turnout and possibly hands control of a nominal democracy to a small group of manipulators.

The degree of this cynicism varies from democracy to democracy. In countries where the financial rewards of political office are highest (such as the US) we naturally see politicians gaming the system the most. And of course "first past the post" electoral systems vest power in one political party only so allow politicians to gain the greatest power. Here in New Zealand we took another step in the direction of cynicism with the publication of Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics.

For readers who don't live in NZ (or anyone who has not heard of the book) I'll give some brief details. Chief among the cast of characters is Cameron Slater who manages the right-wing blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked. The blog is ostensibly an independent forum for Slater's opinions that has achieved notoriety from publishing scuttle-butt leaked to it by sources many of whom are highly placed.

Nicky Hager is a left-wing investigative journalist who has written some hard-hitting critiques of the ruling National Party (The Hollow Men), NZ's role in the so-called war on terror (Other People's Wars) and many other establishment targets. A vast trove of Slater's Facebook postings and emails was leaked to Hager earlier this year and his present book is a distillation of this material and a commentary on what it means for the political forum.

What emerges from these transcripts is a picture of Slater as a thug who has no scruples about the truth and whose vaunted independence is a joke (much of his income comes from publishing material supplied by tobacco companies, soft drink manufacturers etc. as though they were his own opinions - and this gives the material more respectability than if it came directly from the companies themselves). This tactic is one that has been exploited by the National Party who have used Slater to disseminate information that they do not want to actually say themselves.

Had this happened in the US very little comment would have been made. Indeed this is so far merely a case of a rather unpleasant foul-mouthed pretend journalist spouting opinions (some planted) and you might merely breathe a sigh of relief that your daughter hasn't brought the man home. But Hager's analysis show there is something more sinister afoot. From the material that he has been given it is quite clear that some members of the National Party have been abusing their positions. Chief among them is (former) Justice Minister Judith Collins who resigned her ministerial portfolio last week because (so the material alleges) she used her position to bully the (former) Director of the Serious Fraud Office Adam Feeley (this was actually the last of several abuses of power for any one of which she could have been sacked).

It is clear that there is a well-used conduit between Cameron Slater and Jason Ede (formerly Prime Minister John Key's senior advisor and now a ministerial staff member working for the National Party). The very many messages that passed between Ede and Slater paint a picture of an enduring National Party strategy to smear their political opponents through Slater as a third party thereby maintaining the fiction that the smears do not originate with them. So widespread is the campaign that it may reach right to the Prime Minister himself although John Key continues to deny his own involvement.

It is beginning to look like some classical political scandals in which the accused vehemently denies any wrong-doing but, day by day, is confronted with more embarrassing revelations until their guilt is undeniable. Watergate anyone? Or the behaviour of the NSA as they reacted to Snowdon's revelations?

Unquestionably this story is not going to go away. It is already the case that Cameron Slater's journalistic reputation has been discredited and difficult to see now why anyone would take any further stories from him seriously. The NZ General Election is just round the corner and will already have taken place before any in depth conclusions about the culpability of National's senior politicians can be reached. Nevertheless the party has taken some damaging blows and if it is elected again may still face some serious fall-out.

In some sense NZ politics is at a cross-roads. An independent inquiry must establish exactly which politicians have behaved wrongly and they must be brought to justice. The inquiry will certainly begin with Judith Collins but other politicians figure in Hager's book. If justice can be seen to be done then voters can begin to take their politicians more seriously. If not there is every likelihood that voting numbers will continue to decline - any democracy should view that prospect with alarm.

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