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Opinion: A review of Dirty Politics

Opinion: A review of Dirty Politics

by Grant Duncan
August 18, 2014

Nicky Hager's new book sets up Prime Minister John Key as the main target. It suggests that there is a dark side to his political management that New Zealanders ought to be aware of. But does Hager hit the target?

The main villain of the story turns out to be Cameron Slater, closely supported by his chums and clients. Slater's correspondence is ugly reading. His malicious thoughts and deeds (and his enjoyment of his own malice) are, to put it mildly, disgraceful. It damages Judith Collins's political reputation, therefore, to read her email exchanges with Slater, as reproduced in this book.

It was clearly wrong for her, as a Minister, to pass on to Slater the name of a public servant whom she wrongly blamed for leaking information. (A take-home message here is never to write anything in an email that you would not want to see published one day!)

In the end, though, there is no king-hit on the Prime Minister. Hager's style is readable, rational and grounded in evidence (mostly email and chat messages). But he resorts to conjecture to implicate Mr Key. On the release of an SIS briefing note that embarrassed Phil Goff (then Labour leader), Hager writes: "there seems no doubt that John Key knew..." (p. 40). This is ambiguous. "Seems" implies mere appearances, while "no doubt" implies certainty. And yet Hager presents no hard evidence that Key knew. From either a journalistic, forensic or academic viewpoint, this is sloppy.

This kind of weakness gives Key the ammunition to fire back at Hager. Nonetheless, questions need to be asked about whether Slater had privileged access to official SIS information, and if so, why.

Assuming that Hager's cache of supposedly hacked files is reliable evidence, then Slater and company were up to no good. Sometimes their efforts, though nasty, are ineffectual. They tried but failed to dig up more salacious gossip about Len Brown, and even some about Rodney Hide. (Hide's subsequent denial that he was in any way blackmailed by these guys into standing down as ACT leader is believable).

It's been asked whether Hager should have published extracts from hacked computer files. He justifies this in the preface on 'public interest' grounds. He says he has chosen not to use a lot of material that was purely personal and hence private. On balance, I agree that Hager has done the right thing to expose the attack politics that Slater and company have engaged in. They have tried to manipulate democratic processes, not least of which was the Auckland mayoralty, but also included a National Party candidate selection process. The public does need to know that this kind of thing is going on.

When Hager published The Hollow Men (2006), its main target, Don Brash, tried to turn the story into one about "who stole the emails?" But Brash couldn't deny that the emails were genuine. And he soon resigned as party leader.

Similarly, I see no reason to doubt the veracity of the evidence in Dirty Politics. And the public-interest case in favour of publication stands up well. We should all read Dirty Politics. Then we can make sure that such gutter-level attack politics does not succeed in this country.

But the scandals that this book has caused will tend to erode people's trust in politicians even further and hence discourage voter turnout. They may harm National at the polls, but the lost votes will either become abstentions, or go to minor parties that would support National anyway.

So, despite any damage to National's brand, the effect may see them back in office anyway. National should distance themselves from Cameron Slater in future. But so far the Prime Minister has not done so. Instead, he argues that bloggers like Slater should be followed and briefed just like other media. Does this normalise dirty politics?

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Associate Professor Grant Duncan is a lecturer in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University. He teaches public policy and political theory at the Albany campus, and has published a book on social policy in New Zealand. He has also published more widely in the field of public policy and public management.

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