‘Dirty politics’, for many, is a tautology. Isn’t all politics dirty politics? Whatever one might think of that proposition, as of this month the phrase has acquired a far more specific meaning in New Zealand, following the release of the latest book by investigative journalist Nicky Hager.
In Dirty Politics, Hager chronicles the activities of a loose network involving a blogger with family ties to the ruling National Party; the longest-serving adviser to the Prime Minister; at least one senior Cabinet Minister; a ruthless operative bent on importing hardline US Republican tactics into domestic politics; a public relations firm working for the tobacco industry and other major corporations; the Tories’ main pollster; various pundits; and assorted others. The main activities of this network – all of which lead back to the blogger at the centre of the revelations, one Cameron Slater – involved using the media to run attacks against opposition parties, advance the cause of the government, increase the number of ultra-conservative candidates within the National Party, and mete out swift and vicious retribution against public servants, journalists, academics and members of the public who stood in the way of the interests they intended to protect.
So, for instance, in 2009, after leaked documents alerted journalists that Minister of Finance Bill English was using a loophole of the accommodation allowance to charge the public for living in a house that he owned, another minister, Judith Collins, passed on to Slater the contact details of the suspected whistleblower. Subsequently, the public servant in question – who to this day denies any involvement – was subjected to multiple personal attacks on Slater’s blog, including threats to his life. ‘Ah, fuck it,’ wrote a commenter after a long tirade. ‘Shoot him, and shoot his wife and kids if they can’t be bothered to pay for the bullet.’
In another salient passage, Slater is recorded discussing the immediate future of Christchurch after the earthquake of 2011.
Writing to his friend Peter Smith, he said, ‘The place is fucked … they should just board it up and close it down.’ Smith replied, ‘A real tragedy, but it will fuck labour for the election.’ Slater said, ‘Yep blessings.’ Later his views hardened: ‘What I can’t believe … is how we have to bail out those useless pricks in the sth island, again.’ Smith replied, ‘I said to someone today National should let them rot, after all they are useless scum Labour voters especially in the areas where the earthquake hit … well hopefully more scum labour voters will piss off to Australia [and] at least the uninsured get fucking nothing.’ Slater added, ‘Those suburbs are hard core Labour … the owners will be Nat voters though and the voters tenants, so the houses are gone and the scum are gone too, and so they should get nothing.’
The book breaks a number of important stories, including one about how the office of the Prime Minister likely oversaw the release to Slater of information held by the Security Intelligence Service so it could be used to attack the leader of the opposition. But passages like the one above seem to have struck people the most.
I think it’s because of the level and quality of the detail. After Slater wrote a particularly contemptible post, in February of this year, mocking a young man who had died in a car crash as a ‘feral’ who had ‘done everyone a favour by dying’, someone hacked into his blog and gathered a very large archive of material – consisting principally of Facebook messages and emails – which was then passed on to Hager. This is why the book contains not only specific charges of political and possibly criminal wrongdoing but also – and crucially – transcripts of the conversations that went on behind the scenes. Together, these convey with a vividness that one might expect of a novel the sheer contempt in which the majority of New Zealanders are held by people with intimate connections with the highest levels of government.
The genuine and widespread shock that these revelations have caused may require some justification. Are we so naïve, so provincial as to think that we are immune to the style of attack politics that is commonplace in America, or for that matter Australia, whose very own Crosby Textor have helped the National Party run its last three election campaigns?
Perhaps. But we are a small country, with a capital that is less concentrated and interests that are less powerful, and of which it is often said that one cannot easily keep secrets or shut people out. Besides, we might have known that these forces existed – we certainly saw their effects – but their inner workings hadn’t been shown to us for quite some time, and possibly never with such clarity. I described it earlier this week as a generational loss of innocence:
What we have come to call dirty politics, and which several commentators have painted as a product of minority grassroots extremes of our political environment, is in fact an institutional practice. It doesn’t start at the bottom, but at the top … It uses intimidation and coercion to protect and consolidate vested powers, and in this of course it’s hardly unique. We know of the advocacy groups that have been silenced, of the police raids on Māori communities, of the Ministers who have disclosed the private details of citizens without needing to resort to Mr Slater or his associates. We’re just not always sufficiently aware of how this other power operates at any one time. And so, whenever the story gets told, it produces a loss of innocence among those who have not yet witnessed that particular incarnation of the state. It’s like the first time a cop swings a baton at someone in front of your eyes during a demonstration, unprovoked, gratuitously, just because he can. You didn’t feel the blow but you feel the shock. Nothing prepares you for it.
What of it, then, and what next? The book has landed in the middle of the election campaign like a grenade, and may well radically affect its outcome. It would be glib to suggest that this doesn’t matter: it does, if only in terms of elementary justice. But the questions raised by Hager require a change of culture before a change of government. Our almost entirely profit-driven media has been shown to be embarrassingly vulnerable to manipulations by people of – let’s be honest – fairly limited intellect and resources, while tackling fundamental issues of ministerial accountability and government transparency appears just as urgent. Beyond that, however, it’s an entire approach to civic life that needs rethinking, along with the critical role of citizens within it. We need independent and resilient institutions protecting the public from intimidation and abuses of power. It’s the work of years, not the days that separate us from next month’s election. And yet what we do of these days, so charged with outrage and discovery, matters as well.
It may not be abusing the cliché, for once, to say that interesting times are ahead.