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When John Key was concerned about dirty politics

When John Key was concerned about dirty politics

by Branko Marcetic
August 15, 2014

If Nicky Hager needs some support in the midst of a whirlwind of government criticism for his allegations of “dirty tricks” by the National Party, he may find one unlikely ally – John Key, six years ago.

The release of Hager’s Dirty Politics has set off a flurry of denials and criticisms from the upper echelons of the government over the last couple of days. Accused of secretly running a “dirty tricks” campaign from the earliest days of John Key’s leadership, a charge based on private correspondence between Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater and various government officials, government ministers have been dismissive of the claims.

The Prime Minister told Fairfax Media on 14 August that the book was simply using left-wing conspiracy theories to damage National prior to the election, and that what “Hager has done is join a whole lot of dots that can’t be connected, makes wild allegations.” It was “full of baseless allegations and theories which don’t stack up.” Judith Collins, the most senior minister directly implicated in the book, dismissed the claims as “bizarre” and a “smear campaign” on Newstalk ZB. Meanwhile, Steven Joyce, who has been doing the rounds defending the government on various TV programmes, told TVNZ’s Breakfast that Hager’s book consisted of “breathless” allegations “that are completely sort of ‘1 + 1 = 49’.” As far as the government is concerned, the allegations are a distraction they’d rather not dwell any further on.

Despite minsters’ palpable lack of concern here with Hager’s charges, it’s instructive to look at National’s response to the last time dirty tricks were alleged during a New Zealand election. Back in August 2008, Bill English was surreptitiously recorded at a National Party conference telling an attendee that National would “eventually” sell Kiwibank, contradicting his party’s official assurances that it would stay publicly owned. The recording was released to the media and sparked widespread outrage at National’s apparent duplicity. Key and the party went into full damage-control mode, with English eventually apologising and walking back his remarks, and Key affirming that his government wouldn’t sell the state asset.

“It has all the feel of a dirty tricks campaign,” the then-Leader of the Opposition told Mike Hosking on TVNZ’s Close up.

When Hosking suggested this was just simply for the course when it came to national politics, an unpleasant aspect one had to tolerate when playing in the big leagues, Key replied with a rumination on negative campaigning’s ugly effect on New Zealand politics that wouldn’t sound out of place in Hager’s book today:

“I personally think this sets an absolutely low standard for politics in New Zealand. When you’re starting to get to the point where you’ve got people effectively running entrapment campaigns, doing all sorts of things that feel pretty shady – I wouldn’t have thought that’s the way the New Zealand public wants this thing to run.”

Of course, Hager’s allegations of what National has been doing – organising political ‘hits’ on opponents, hacking into Labour’s computers, feeding bloggers confidential information – are of a far greater scale and immorality than the act of catching a National MP in a lie at a private function. Not only that, but if Hager’s book is to be believed, at the same time that Key and other National MPs showed such outrage about these supposed dirty tricks, the party’s two-tier campaign strategy – one positive and one negative, the latter which the Prime Minister would be insulated from – had already been formulated. In other words, National were not only being duplicitous on the matter of Kiwibank, but also in their outrage over the recordings.

Interestingly, despite the criticisms from ministers today of Hager’s book for its supposedly baseless allegations and failing to connect the dots, National in 2008 did not hesitate to point the finger at Labour for the secret recordings.

“You’re flying a kite on Labour, though, aren’t you?” Hosking challenged Key. “You don’t know who it was.”

“I don’t think you have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that it’s somebody who’s our political opponent,” Key replied. “We do know that Young Labour tried to get into the conference because we evicted them.”

In other words, in 2008, members of Labour’s student wing trying and failing to get into the National conference was enough to implicate the whole apparatus of Labour leadership in a dirty tricks campaign in John Key’s eyes. By contrast, in 2014 the release of a raft of emails which reveal the Prime Minister’s longest-serving press officer has been closely involved in co-ordinating political smear campaigns with right-wing bloggers are simply “baseless allegations” that “have nothing to do with my office.”

Memory in politics tends to be short. But given the scale of allegations currently out against the National Party, it’s not surprising the Prime Minister seems to have forgotten the time dirty politics was a powerful concern of his.

ENDS

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