28 April 2015

Dirty Politics

Nicky Hager's work "Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment" is one of those books which will be largely ignored by those who should read it (National and ACT party voters), and widely read by those for whom it will contain few surprises (supporters of all other parties, most particularly Labour and New Zealand First ).

"Dirty Politics" is a compelling brief of evidence against a network of individuals, all associated in some way with the New Zealand National Party, who have used tawdry and duplicitous methods to unduly influence the outcome of the political process in New Zealand.   Evidence is what is usually lacking in "conspiracy theories", but in this case sufficient evidence is presented to transform the "theory" of collusion and subterfuge into proven fact.   In that respect Hager and his sources have done the nation a service.

Hager exposes the workings of attack politics with clarity and detail, in terms of its constituent elements.   The system works on four levels: which I categorise as "funders", "handlers", "attackers", and "collaborators" on the one hand and "targets" on the other.

The "funders" are mainly business corporations which include British American tobacco, Coca Cola, Fonterra, Dominion Breweries, Ports of Auckland and Crest Commercial Cleaning, but also the National Party as a whole, and factional or private interests within the National Party, in particular the parliamentarian Mark Mitchell.

The "handlers", in rough order of proximity to the action, have been Carrick Graham (Corporate Relations Manager), Simon Lusk (political organiser),  Jason Ede (political aide), Judith Collins (Cabinet Minister), John Key (Prime Minister) and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.

The "attackers" include Rachel Glucina (New Zealand Herald), David Farrar (Kiwiblog), Cameron Slater (Whale Oil), Kathy Odgers and Aaron Bhatnagar.

The "collaborators" comprise state and private radio, television, print media (particularly the New Zealand Herald) and, perhaps surprisingly, many left-wing blogs.   The role of the collaborators is crucial.   The main stream media, who are both politically and financially motivated, amplify the effect of the attackers "hits" by an order of magnitude.   They take content from the attack websites, which may be viewed by, say, 30,000 people, and publish that content to audiences of mass audiences of 300,000 or more.

Left-wing websites collaborate by providing links to attack sites like Whale Oil and Kiwiblog because they share the same basic liberal premises as the right-wing attack sites.   That is not as improbable as it may first appear, because the contemporary left is defined not by Marxism, socialism, social democracy, or any of the principles which ostensibly drove and guided it throught the first half of the twentieth century, but by liberalism.  The objective is a liberal society, and the "enemy" is no longer capitalism, but social conservatism. Hager, himself a left-winger and therefore a liberal, frequently uses a person's position on the Marriage Amendment Bill (same-sex marriage) as a litmus test of his or her political virtue.   Slater and Farrar would pass Hager's test with flying colours.  They are liberal to a fault.  Thus they are loved as much by the liberal left of New Zealand politics as by the right, and feared and despised as much by the conservative right as by the left.  It is not so simple as the left versus right dichotomy implied in Hager's book.

The main targets of these attacks have been the New Zealand Labour Party (and its former leaders Phil Goff and David Cunnliffe), the New Zealand First Party and its leader Winston Peters, Len Brown (Mayor of Auckland), Kim Dotcom (founder of the Internet Party), Independent Liquor Limited, the Maritime Union of New Zealand, Brent Robinson, Rodney Hide, Doug Sellman and an assortment of other health lobbyists and the Building Services Contractors Association.  Most, but obviously not all, targets have been on the left-wing of politics.   Right-wingers such as Brent Robinson and Rodney Hide, and politically undefined groups such as Independent Liquor and the Building Services Contractors Association have been targetted by the attackers for mercenary, pragmatic or opportunistic reasons without the consent or direction of high level handlers such as Simon Lusk, Cabinet Minister Judith Collins, or Prime Minister John Key.

This exposes a fatal flaw in the National Party's system of attack politics.  The attack dogs are savage and effective, but undisciplined.  Left to their own devices, as by and large they have been,  they will take food from almost any hand, and bite any hand at the instigation of those who provided their last meal.  The natural outcome is the "Chaos and Mayhem" which the attackers used as their group moniker.  By the time that Hager's book reached the bookshelves in 2014, the situation must have become intolerable to the wider ranks of the National Party and the business community.   In the interests of long-term stability the exercise of power needs to be controlled, distributed and  predictable.   But Chaos and Mayhem put power without responsibility into the hands of a few individuals - handlers such as  Carrick Graham, Simon Lusk, Judith Collins and John Key - and and allowed the arbitary and unpredictable exercise of that power.

Ultimately bloggers like Slater are not strictly accountable to anyone but themselves, and that is why they are so useful to handlers like Graham, Lusk and Collins, who can use them to promote personal and factional interests.   But their lack of accountability is a recipe for eventual disaster, not just for the targets, but for the funders, handlers, collaborators and the attack dogs themselves.  No one in the National Party hierarchy or the business community could know for sure who would  be the next target and who, if anyone, would be immune to attack.   If Nicky Hager had not brought Chaos and Mayhem to book, sooner or later either the National Party itself or the  business community, would have been obliged to do so.

For all that, Hager has done the New Zealand public a service.   Unfortunately, however, he falls short on analysis and explanation.  That failing may be ascribed to the pressure to get the information in the book to the public before the 2014 parliamentary general election.

The subtitle "How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment" implies that attack politics is a cause (the cause?) of the toxic state of New Zealand politics, yet Hager brings no evidence or logic to show that it is a fundamental cause, rather than one of many phenomena reflecting a more widespread and profound decline in public morality.  Many, arguably most, of the badly bitten targets - for example Goff, Cunliffe, Brown, Hide, the Maritime Union and Independent Liquor - have exposed themselves to attack by their own amoral, mercenary or duplicitous acts.  Chaos and Mayhem would never have gained traction if the left of politics was wholy or even largely comprised of people of upright character and self-less motives.

Hager also touches on the religious associations or motivations of the actors in his drama.   Slater, he notes, is a Seventh Day Adventist.    Does Slater's behaviour tell us anything about the ethics of the Seventh Day Adventist Church?  It may, but Hager leaves the question hanging in the air.    The SDA church has a history.  Most notoriously, its members were complicit in the Rwandan genocide.  The church draws on old testament teaching that "winners" are ipse facto blessed by God, and "losers" are, by the same token, condemned.   Thus the church, and its members, are sometimes capable of the most amoral conduct when that is seen, rightly or wrongly, to serve  their long term interests.   Slater is an excellent example of the doctrine in action.   But it should not therefore be assumed, as Hager seems to invite us to do, that all religious believers, or even all Christians, are prone to the kind of monstrosity displayed by Slater in his Whale Oil blog.

Hager's approach to the interplay of religion and politics, liberalism and conservatism, left and right, is  too simplistic, wherever he touches on these vital questions.   While deploring the exposure of the private sex lives of liberal politicians he implies that "hypocrisy justifies publication, for ... an outspoken morals campaigner..".  This assumes that hypocrisy is one personal moral failing which justifies intrusion into private lives that would otherwise be inexcusable.   True, Jesus of Nazareth did suggest that hypocrisy was among the greatest of sins, but liberal doctrines are meant to be based on reason rather than scripture.   Hager cannot have it both ways.  The exception which he wants to allow goes beyond the issue of hypocrisy.   Are a secret smoker who campaigns against the tobacco trade, or a pro-marriage campaigner who as a 17 year old girl had a child out of wedlock, to be considered "fair game" while the philandering liberal politician is to have his private life kept strictly private?   Is a momentary fall from grace or singular moral lapse sufficient to discredit any moral position?   You either keep the debate to policy and principles, or if you include personalities, you must put everyone on notice - not just the "outspoken morals campaigner".  Hager has not thought this one through and the reason, I suggest is the left's deep ntagonism to anyone who espouses traditional sexual morality.  Such people are considered beyond the pale, and therefore undeserving of the basic respect and protections which the left would allow to any other of the seven billion human beings on this earth.  It is a contradiction, but more than that, it goes to the heart of the left's liberal malaise.   By chipping away at the moral foundations of society, the political left has harmed all classes, and  most particularly the working classes.  It has also, perhaps more  pertinently, brought its own ranks into moral and political jeopardy.   "Dirty politics" is the natural consequence for a society and a political movement which has abandoned its moral compass.  Sleazy politicians, duplicitous unionists and muck-raking foul-mouthed sociopathic bloggers are the product of a deep and wide social influences which originate in the liberal mainstream of New Zealand society.  They are not the original unaided creation of the far right, as Hager's book might suggest.

But other of Hager's assertions carry conviction.

For example "anonymous speech .. brings out the worst in people" invites the conclusion that anonymous comment should be unacceptable in any public political debate.  If that rule were to be followed, Chaos and Mayhem could never have progressed as far as they have in New Zealand politics.

Hager's suggestion that "the real divide is between news organisations that hold governments to account .. and those who are friendly to the powerful..." could perhaps be more succinctly expressed as "news organisations should report fairly and without fear of or favour to any individual or  institution".  Those who show bias towards the weak and powerless only open themselves to dispassionate criticism, while those who have a bias in favour of the rich and powerful are contemptible cowards, of whom New Zealand has more than its fair share in state and private broadcasting, print media, and internet websites.   Never-the-less, it is not only governments and wealthy corporations that should be held to account.  Wrong-doing, whether by a cabinet minister or a state welfare  beneficiary, a liquor  company or a trade union, is still wrong-doing and the left needs to learn that over-looking wrong-doing in its own ranks now will cause it further troubles in the future.

In the afterword, Hager makes a number of suggestions, some of which have merit.

His recommendation that "Leaders budgets need to be given the same transparency as MPs' spending.  Ministerial Services and Parliamentary Services need to be brought under financial scrutiny and strengthened freedom of information laws" seems to me to be unexceptionable.

But his implicit suggestion that the state should fund party election campaigns is simply a recipe for the perpetuation of a privileged political cast at the expense of the general population, as is his suggestion of public funding for "independent research and policy institutes"  aka "think tanks". This is the cause that has been taken up by former Green Party Member of Parliament Sue Bradford.   Bradford has studiously avoided any serious debate over the merits of her proposal, leading to the suspicion that it is motivated by the self-interest of left-wing academics cum political activists like herself.   This is an issue which the left wishes to promote rather than debate.  Enough said.

Hager's next proposal that "all academics, scientists, medical staff and others on public salaries should be actively encouraged to participate in pressing social and political issues" is again unexceptionable, but why restrict the encouragement to those on "public salaries"?

The same call has come from the left-wing Fabian Society website, where it was argued "The .. thing that need (sic) to be fixed is the deligitimising (sic) of politics for people such as academics, scientists, all those who know about what is going on. If we don't have the maximum freedom of speech for such people then we are leaving politics to the Cameron Slater's (sic) of this world. Countries need  intelligent motivated people and the great reservoir of those people is in the public service. What we have at the moment is that we don't have a public servant who doesn't think that they are doing something wrong if they get themselves involved in what is going on as a citizen"

To which I responded on this site:

"Ironically, the Fabian Society declined to publish any comment criticial of the idea that giving  "maximum freedom of speech" to academics and scientists  would restore the fortunes of the left.  Evidently the Fabians believe that the rest of the population, who presumably have no idea "what is going on" in New Zealand, do not need or deserve the same "maximum freedom of speech" as academics and state servants.

The idea that the "great reservoir" of  "intelligent motivated people"  who "know about what is going on" is in the "public service" is the left-wing equivalent of the rightist myth that the most industrious members of society are to be found among the ranks of the wealthy.   The reality is that millions of ordinary New Zealanders work harder than the privileged rich and think more critically than the Fabian academics".

(The full text of my comments on the "great reservoir" of  "intelligent motivated people"  may be found here )

Lastly Hager argues that "attacking other people's personal lives .. is not fair play".   Criticism of private lives is only unfair if it is done in an unfair way, though even when "fair" it may unconstructive and self-defeating.   My own advice and inclination would be not to do it.   But while Hager allows an exception for "moral campaigners" I would avoid such selective morality, and suggest that the licentious liberal should not enjoy any protection which is denied to the "moral campaigner".

One reason why the fortunes of the left have declined so dramatically is that the liberal left has won an emphatic victory over the forces of social conservatism, to the point where it no longer has a convincing raison d'etre.   In the current political context, all political parties, and all main stream media, are eitherly moderately or vehemently liberal.  As the left-wing liberal Brian Edwards flirts with the right-wing liberal Michelle Boag, finding their common interests in film, fashion, food and wine more compelling than the faint relicts of political difference which merely adds spice to their relationship, so the left-wing parties can bring no conviction to their competition with the forces of the right.  Politics, both within and between parties, has degenerated into a squalid struggle for power, in which the right-wing parties fight harder and dirtier than the left.   Hager has exposed  the problem of dirty politics, but he has yet to propose viable solutions.