Dirty politics – how deep is the rot?

I find it an intriguing aspect of modern democratic societies – where power is contested by two major rival parties – that the closer their policies get, the more bitter and rancorous their political differences.

The classic example is the United States, the home of neo-liberalism, where the policies of Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable, but where the political divisions are so deep and toxic, that they lead to periodic shutdowns of the government.   The same goes in Australia where, for year after year, on Sky TV News on any given night, one could see the then opposition leader Tony Abbott tearing into the prime minister Julia Gillard in the most brutal fashion.

In New Zealand, despite a blurring of policy differences between National and Labour parties, both accept the post-Rogernomics consensus, we have seen much the same thing.   Its in local politics also, where I have been intrigued about the level of vitriol the Mayor Len Brown has attracted from the right – given how ‘business friendly’ and pro-development, indeed how right-wing, his policies are.  I am not sure whether this seeming paradox, ‘similar policies-bitter politics’, is a matter of cause and effect, or if it is an expression of another underlying factor.

This general election had already become very much focussed on personalities, especially that of the prime minister, John Key, rather than on policies, long before Nicky Hager released his latest book Dirty Politics.  One reason for this is that National had decided to heavily promote John Key’s personality and capitalise on his ‘relaxed, nice guy’ image as its main campaign theme.  It was also because a bitter personal feud between the German multi-millionaire Kim Dotcom and Mr Key had escalated into the political arena with the start-up of Internet Mana – whose campaign rallies feature crowds of young people chanting ‘expletive-deleted John Key!’

But the revelations of Hager’s book based on hacked emails indicating secret and unsavoury dealings, principally around the Whale Oil blog-site have taken things to a new level.  Even the most hardened follower of politics after reading this book could not put it down without a sense of deep unease.   As Duncan Garner said, ‘this is about a group of bloggers and political operatives dealing to opponents with brutal tactics and blackmail.’  Even worse the group has links to the prime minister’s office and to the minister of justice who, if the book’s claims are true, have secretly manipulated information to damage political opponents.

That John Key has stuck to a script attacking Hager as ‘ a left-wing conspiracy theorist’ does him no credit.  As the normally National-leaning political commentator John Armstrong has pointed out, Key’s personal attacks on Hager seem like something straight out of the Hager book.

Clearly Key needs to take steps to quickly and surgically disassociate himself and the office of prime minister from the Dirty Politics scandal.  I am puzzled why he hasn’t.  That he refuses to, (so far), might also be revealing.   Whatever, the fallout from the Dirty Politics affair is likely to end up damaging John Key’s ‘relaxed, nice guy’ image – and cost National a bunch of votes into the bargain.  Where those votes go is another matter.  Swinging voters in particular will be eyeing the opposition to see what sort of government a Labour-led coalition might form.

The credibility of such a coalition in this Auckland Central electorate would certainly be enhanced if Labour and the Greens could persuade Green supporters in particular, not to split the electorate vote as they have in the last two elections.

This article was published in the September issue of Ponsonby News.





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