Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Dirty Politics - Is There Any Other Kind?

No Escape: If war is "the continuation of politics by other means", then the reverse may also be true: that politics is the continuation of war by other means. In practical terms, the accepted (if unacknowledged) principle of democratic politics has always been that so long as politicians and their followers eschew actual physical violence, then all other tactics are permitted.

IT IS NEARLY TWENTY YEARS since I first read Dirty Politics. Impossible? Given that Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment was only published a few days ago, how could I possibly have read it in the 1990s?
 
The answer, obviously, is that Mr Hager’s is not the only book bearing this arresting title. The American scholar, Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s, Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy, was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1992. As the subtitle of Professor Jamieson’s book suggests, her research covers much the same ground as Mr Hager’s Dirty Politics; the obvious difference being that her examples are drawn from American politics.
 
About the subject matter of her study Professor Jamieson writes: “Those who claim that politics is cleaner now than it was in the nineteenth century are usually marshalling evidence that compares toucans to tangerines, unsigned print ads to televised claims. But if one compares print to print one finds as much that is disreputable in today’s campaigns as in the past.”
 
Professor Jamieson’s claims for the historical continuity of attack politics are further reinforced by quoting American Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.
 
To his friend, Robert Morris, Franklin observed that the public “is often niggardly, even with its thanks, while you are sure of being censured by malevolent Criticks and Bug-writers, who  will abuse you while you are serving them and wound your Character in nameless Pamphlets”. Franklin presses home his complaint in language which undoubtedly strikes a chord with today’s political leaders; accusing his critics of “resembling those little dirty stinking insects, that attack us only in the dark, disturb our Repose, molesting and wounding us while our Sweat and Blood are contributing to their substance.”
 
Nor does one have to look too hard to discover evidence of attack politics in New Zealand’s political history. Of the 1951 Snap Election, University of Otago Professor of History, Tom Brooking, writes: “The campaign was probably the dirtiest in New Zealand’s political history. National declared the election was a contest between the ‘The People versus the Wreckers’. Hackneyed old stories that [Labour Leader, Walter] Nash had once been a bankrupt were dredged up and his earlier visit to Russia was cited as proof of his communist leanings.”
 
Much worse, however, were the series of highly embarrassing and potentially criminal incidents which dealt death-blows to the political careers of Labour Party politicians Colin Moyle and Gerald O’Brien.
 
Nor is the dark anti-hero of Mr Hager’s Dirty Politics, Cameron Slater, without precedent when it comes to the New Zealand Right’s long history of doing damage to its political enemies. As Listener journalist (and now Bill English’s press secretary) Joanne Black wrote in her review of Redmer Yska’s study of the newspaper Truth (of which, ironically, Mr Slater was the last editor): “For nearly 40 years [James] Dunn, as Truth’s in-house censor, read almost every word of every edition before it was printed. But his influence was not only on what not to publish for fear of defamation suits. He also played a backroom editor-in-chief role and was himself the source of many stories, including those that satisfied his virulent anti-Communist beliefs, which were shared by editor Russell Gault.”
 
The great Prussian military theoretician, Carl von Clausewitz, famously described war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” I would argue strongly that the reverse of that famous formulation is equally true. That politics is the continuation of war by other means.
 
Democratic politics, in particular, requires both the political leadership of the state – and its citizens – to resolve the fundamental economic and social issues dividing their communities through institutions and processes that are of their essence both formal and peaceful. Legislatures and elections are thus charged with settling those issues which would, in previous centuries, have been resolved (to quote another Prussian) by “blood and iron”.
 
In practical terms, therefore, the accepted (if unacknowledged) principle of professional politics has always been that so long as politicians and their followers eschew actual physical violence, then all other tactics are permitted. Politics is not an occupation for the faint-hearted, nor is it one whose practitioners can remain both effective and unstained. Bluntly, “dirty politics” is the only kind there is.

Mr Hager argues that: “Exposing dirty politics is an essential step in allowing reasonable people to understand and to choose other approaches. There is no need to follow those who are least principled down into the pit.”
 
But the choice is not – with all due respect to Mr Hager’s ardent idealism – between decency and the pit. The choice is between accepting “dirty” politics, with all its “Criticks and Bug-writers”, and rejecting altogether the formal and peaceful processes of democracy.
 
The options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.
 
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 19 August 2014.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Love Lifts Us Up: Thoughts From The Green Party's Campaign Launch.

Super Luminaries: Greens co-leader chats with Man Booker prize-winner Eleanor Catton who delivered a moving endorsement of "Love New Zealand - Party Vote Green" at the party's campaign launch on Sunday 17 August 2014. Photo by Peter Meecham.
 
NO ONE WAS QUITE SURE how he did it. Somehow Bob Harvey had persuaded the owners of the rights to Joe Cocker’s Up Where We Belong to authorize its use as the New Zealand Labour Party’s 1984 campaign anthem. The theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman had, of course, been enormously popular, so arranging for the David Lange-led Labour Party to make its pitch to the New Zealand electorate over its soaring melody and aspirational lyrics was a coup of no mean proportions.
 
But it was much more than that. Joe Cocker’s song perfectly matched the mood of the times. For nine long years, through Carless Days, Think Big, Olympic Boycotts, Springbok Tours and the Wage and Price Freeze the New Zealand people had borne both the curses and the blessings of Sir Robert Muldoon’s leadership with stoical endurance. But, by the winter of 1984, the patience of two-thirds of the population had been exhausted.
 
David Lange knew it and with oratory every bit as uplifting as Joe Cocker’s song he offered the voters the vision of a better New Zealand where consensus would replace confrontation and the cramped orthodoxies of a world that was fast disappearing would give way to new ideas, new opportunities and new freedoms. In the famous leaders’ debate, when, in the closing moments, Lange reached out to Sir Robert and assured him that any contribution he wished to make to this new New Zealand would not be scorned, it brought tears to the old tusker’s eyes and prompted his astonishing rejoinder: “I love you too, Mr Lange.”
 
Love lifts us up where we belong – and then some!
 

 
I’m wondering if we might not be heading into another election where Love lifts a new government into power. Rather appropriately, I suppose, the thought occurred to me at the campaign launch of the Greens.
 
Ever since the Green Party entered Parliament in 1999 it’s MPs have attempted to prove that politics does not need to be “dirty”. That it is possible to debate issues rationally – without rancour. And now, a month out from polling day, and with the National Party disintegrating before our eyes like a vampire in the sun, the Greens are asking us all to “Love New Zealand”.
 
This is not a mere feel-good exhortation, either, but an invitation to the 3 percent of New Zealanders who earn more than $140,000 to put their money where the hungry mouths of 200,000 children are. The Greens proposed new top tax-rate of 40 percent is to be devoted exclusively to the elimination of child poverty in New Zealand. A case of not only sharing the love, but the wealth as well.
 
It was a courageous speech that the Greens’ co-leader Metiria Turei gave. Indeed, it filled in the gaps that were so noticeable in David Cunliffe’s speech to the Labour Party faithful last weekend. Any words concerning the fate of the children of beneficiaries and what might be done for them were conspicuous by their absence at Labour’s campaign launch, so it was reassuring to hear them voiced loud and clear to the 300-400 people crammed into the auditorium at Auckland’s AUT campus.
 
Reassuring, also, to hear the words of endorsement penned by New Zealand’s award-winning young novelist, Eleanor Catton. Her speech was as moving and as evocative as any I have heard in 30 years of attending such occasions.
 
The sneak preview provided by the organisers of the Green Party’s opening political broadcast made it clear just how seriously the party is committed to remaining upbeat and positive. Russel Norman and Turei have both been used to good effect, delivering their party’s messages with energy and conviction.
 
The most telling moment in this broadcast – at least for me – came when Turei and her daughter, Piupiu, are walking along the beach at Piha and the proud mother talks about making sure that this simple pleasure remains for her children – and grandchildren – to enjoy. The look Piupiu shoots her mother will be familiar to all the parents of teenage daughters. The “Aw, Mum!” moment is so natural and so real that it steals your heart away completely.
 
If the revelations mounting up against the National Party continue into the election campaign proper, then the voters will very quickly become sick of the stench of “dirty politics”. Like people forced to spend too long in an abattoir, they will emerge into the daylight desperate to fill their lungs with clean, fresh air. And quite serendipitously,  that’s exactly what the Greens’ “Love New Zealand” campaign (along with Labour’s “Vote Positive”) aims to provide: relief from the odours of what Nicky Hager calls “the pit”.
 
A nation grown weary of sleaze and tired of being manipulated may yet decide to award a decisive election victory to an Opposition coalition determined to prove how much better New Zealand could be with “cleaner, fairer and smarter” policies.
 
In the immortal words of The Beatles: “All you need is love.”

 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 18 August 2014.

Jesus I Was Evil

 

 
AS THE NATIONAL PARTY slowly sinks into a mire of its own making, it occurred to me that Darcy Clay's magnificent 1997 anthem might be the most fitting song for the Nats to go out on.
 
Video courtesy of YouTube
 
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Going Up!


THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SIGHS OF RELIEF all around New Zealand tonight as Labour Party supporters receive the latest TV3-Reid Research poll results. Worries that the disastrous Fairfax-Ipsos poll results would be confirmed by other polling agencies have proved groundless. In the poll released tonight by TV3 Labour's numbers have improved by more than 2 percentage points to 29.0 percent, placing the largest of the progressive parties just short of the crucial 30 percent mark.

The Greens, on 13 percent, will also be thrilled. Launching their campaign this afternoon on the AUT campus in Auckland with an announcement of a $1 billion dollar programme to eliminate child poverty, the country's third largest party proclaimed an election night target of 15 percent of the Party Vote. With only two percentage points to go at a distance of 34 days from the election, their campaign manager's expressed hopes of exceeding that target may not be misplaced.

The party with most reason to worry tonight is, of course, National. On 47.5 percent, it will be alarmed to be dropping support so far out from election day. Most of the public polls (including TVNZ's Colmar Brunton) over-estimate National's support by 4 to 6 percentage points, so National's strategists will wondering just how much further they are likely to drop before the only poll that matters rolls around.

Deepening the furrows on National's brow will be the fact that the TV3-Reid Research poll was conducted before the release of Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics, and that in the One News-Colmar Brunton poll the Internet-Mana Party has doubled its support to 4 percent.

With Labour proclaiming it's invitation to "Vote Positive" and the Greens' asking the electorate to "Love New Zealand" by giving them its Party Vote, National may discover that, rhetorically speaking, "Working for New Zealand" is not enough - especially if the voters mentally alter John Key's strapline to read "Working with Whale Oil".

The full details of the latest TV3-Reid Research Poll are here.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

A Day In The Life - The Beatles

 
 
"I read the news today - oh boy."
 
The extraordinary A Day In The Life by the incomparable John Lennon.
 
Video courtesy of YouTube

Closing Our Eyes In The Sausage Factory: Some Thoughts On Nicky Hager's Book, "Dirty Politics"

Not A Pretty Sight: Everyone likes a good sausage, but if we knew exactly what went into the making of that sausage would it still taste so good? Democratic politics, too, is not always improved by too close an examination. It would, however, be a tragedy if Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics, caused people to abandon the political process altogether as irredeemably corrupt and to call down a plague upon the houses of both Left and Right.
 
IT WAS THE GERMAN CHANCELLOR, Otto von Bismarck, who warned his countrymen that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” The same could be said for democratic politics generally. That democracy, like a good sausage, is a wonderful thing, but you really do not want to know what goes into it.
 
With this in mind, it is tempting to take Nicky Hager to task for grabbing us all by the scruff of our necks and dragging us into the sausage factory. This is especially so when we consider the observations of right-wing political fixer, Simon Lusk, who Hager quotes in the first chapter of in his book Dirty Politics: How Attack Politics is Poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment.
 
In an e-mail to Hager about negative campaigning Lusk writes: “The are a few basic propositions with negative campaigning that are worth knowing about. It lowers turnout, favours right more than left as the right continue to turn out, and drives away the independents. Voting then becomes more partisan.”
 
If Lusk is correct then the publication of Dirty Politics could have the perverse outcome of suppressing the vote of those disgusted and demoralised by Hager’s revelations while ensuring the maximum turnout possible by voters sympathetic to John Key and the National Party.
 
It is certainly possible to infer from the response-lines agreed upon by Key and his allies that this is precisely the outcome they are seeking. It is presumably the reason for their constant reiteration of the idea that Hager’s revelations are nothing new, or even very remarkable, given that it has always been thus in the deeply compromised world of politics and politicians. This idea of the ubiquity of political evil is reinforced by TeamKey’s insistence that Hager’s behaviour is morally indistinguishable from that of the dark anti-hero of Dirty Politics, the blogger Cameron Slater. The sub-text here is simple: No one in politics has clean hands – even Hager. After all, his book could not have been written had the very same sort of hacking and privacy breaches which he so roundly condemns when practiced by the Right not supplied him with an information treasure-trove that was simply too compelling not to use.
 
Key, himself, has no choice except to point-blank refuse to engage with Hager’s allegations in any way. Were he to do so, Hager would be able to claim victory. This is because, in the most brutal terms: an allegation responded to is an allegation taken seriously; and an allegation taken seriously is an allegation which could, quite possibly, be true.
 
The moment Key allows the Chief Prosecutor, Nicky Hager, to have the Prime Minister called as a witness before the Court of Public Opinion, then, regardless of the nature of the evidence provided, the impression of there being a case to answer will be indelibly stamped on the voter’s mind. And that is “Game Over” for Key and the National Party.
 
No matter how shrill and false he may sound in the ears of Hager’s supporters, the Prime Minister will continue to refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Hager might be onto something. From now until Election Day, the author of Dirty Politics can only be “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist” who is “making it up”.
 
And there is method to this seeming madness. Key understands that his followers have been rattled by the appearance of yet another pre-election book by Nicky Hager. Their hero must, therefore, stand strong in the face of his persecutor.
 
The Prime Minister will make the same claims over and over again: Dirty Politics is without foundation; part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to bring him and his government crashing down; just one more vicious assault to set alongside obscenity-shouting students, anti-Semitic boguns, and a feral underclass of John Key effigy-burners. The slightest concession to even the most trivial of his persecutor’s accusations will be interpreted by his followers as weakness – tantamount to a full confession of guilt.
 
This is why the prime Minister is standing rock-solid behind his former staffer, Jason Ede. Why he will take no action whatsoever against his Minister of Justice, Judith Collins. Why he accepts the denials of Cameron Slater without demur. And why he will not deign to read even so much as a single word of Dirty Politics – not while he is so clearly the victim of dirty politics.
 
The Prime Minister can adopt this strategy because he knows that TeamKey is sufficiently powerful to block any serious attempt by the mainstream news media to take up the cudgels on behalf of Hager’s allegations. The public broadcasters will not dare to do it and the commercial networks and newspapers will not want to do it.
 
This failure will only intensify the feelings of disgust among those who feel there is something very rotten at the heart of New Zealand’s political system. In a grotesquely ironic abdication of the very civil responsibilities Hager’s book is intended to strengthen and mobilise, thousands of New Zealanders may yet abandon the political field altogether, calling down a plague on the houses of both the Right and the Left as they depart.
 
If that happens then the cynical political analyses of Otto von Bismarck and Simon Lusk will be vindicated. Hager will have demonstrated that although he is able to lead voters into the interior of the sausage factory, he cannot make them open their eyes.
 
What is it that John Lennon sings in his marvellous A Day In The Life?
 
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 August 2014.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Burning Issues

Sympathetic Magic: John Key is burned in effigy by angry youths at a birthday party. What leads our fellow citizens to the extreme of publicly destroying the image of their political leader. What is fuelling such incandescent anger? Who is responsible for the social and political desperation it represents?
 
BURNING THE PRIME MINISTER in effigy is evidence of some pretty serious political disaffection. The only other instance I can recall is the burning in effigy of Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson during the mass demonstrations against the Employment Contracts Bill and Mrs Shipley’s proposed social welfare cutbacks in April 1991. The image of the two stuffed dummies consumed in flames, while the delirious crowd chants “Burn, Shipley, burn!”, is one of the most powerful to emerge from that bitter time.
 
The practice itself is a primal expression of what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic”. The act of setting fire to a likeness of your enemy is driven by the same powerfully negative emotions as sticking pins in a voodoo doll. Unlike the private, even secretive, persecution of the voodoo doll, however, burning in effigy is almost always a collective and cathartic act, and the effigy itself almost always of a well-known – if not well-liked – public figure.
 
The act is undoubtedly more shocking to us now than it would have been to our parents and grandparents. Seventy or eighty years ago in the English-speaking dominions of the British Empire the very public burning in effigy of the hapless Guy Fawkes was an annual ritual in which whole communities participated. Behind the bonfires and fireworks, however, flitted the shadowy folk memory of a time when real men and women were burned alive in the public square. Those who cared to ponder the origins of such “harmless” folk traditions were reminded that believing in the wrong things at the wrong time was once a very dangerous practice indeed.
 
The Prime Minister’s supporters have naturally recoiled in anger and disgust at the image of their leader being put to the torch. His opponents, however, would be lying if they did not admit to feeling just the hint of a thrill as the flames climbed higher. Such is the power of fire. It speaks directly to the savage that lies within every one of us.
 
And it is precisely this appeal to our inner savage that makes burning in effigy such a profoundly undemocratic gesture. Because if democracy means anything, it means suppressing the savage within and submitting the issues that divide us as individual citizens to the judgement of the electorate as a whole. Even more importantly, it means accepting that collective judgement – even when it goes against our individual contribution to its formation.
 
Such high-minded pronouncements are no substitute, however, for a closer examination of what leads some of our fellow citizens to the extreme of publicly destroying the image of their political leader. What is fuelling such incandescent anger? Who is responsible for the social and political desperation it represents?
 
Because that is what it is: the burning of John Key’s effigy is, indisputably, an act of deep-seated anger and desperation. Proof that a whole layer of our population not only feels excluded from the “rock star economy”, but despairs of ever finding a political champion willing to obtain for them a back-stage pass.
 
But, perhaps, the use of the present tense in this context is misplaced. Perhaps what we should say is “despaired”. Because, in the course of the past few weeks, these reckless haters of John Key and his National Party government show every sign of having found themselves a champion; one of the most unlikely to ever bestride New Zealand’s political stage; Kim Dotcom.
 
Here is someone who shares the rage of New Zealand’s despised Underclass. And for much the same reasons. He, too, has felt the unwanted attentions of the Police. He, too, has been lashed by the whips of the mainstream media. He, too, has been branded a threat to public safety and decency.
 
Most importantly, however, Kim Dotcom and the Underclass blame the same man: John Key. And when it comes to voicing their political priorities, he and they both use the same three word slogan.
 
It is a powerful rallying cry for the young and the disaffected – incendiary even. But one wonders whether the young and idealistic activists on the Internet Party payroll would find much to talk about with those who deride John Key as a “faggot”, or, worse still, a “Jewish faggot”?
 
Especially considering that this time-worn term of abuse is derived from the tradition of consigning homosexuals (and Jews) to the flames.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 August 2014.