A Monster in Their Midst
Why does anyone think dirty politics is inevitable in a democracy?
The most surprising thing about Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, for me, was the realisation that there is a monster loose inside the National Party.
They’ve looked for so long like such a well-oiled machine, capable of handling internal conflict in a way that serves the greater good of the party. While it is disturbing to read example after example of the way Cameron Slater and his cabal spread Chaos and Mayhem — their gleeful term, not mine — all over people they don’t like, or are paid not to like, it is no surprise to learn this includes political opponents on the left and in the centre. The real shock comes in learning they have made many of their nastiest attacks on members of their own party.
The monster isn’t Slater, or his unpleasant colleague in arms Simon Lusk, although they are two of its most prominent manifestations. The monster is bigger than them. It is a whole political ethos: a belief that politics is a dirty, corrupt game, and therefore that the players who will win, and will deserve to win, are those who can use the dirt and corruption the best.
Is my use of the word “monster” harsh? If you think that, read a chapter of the book. Any chapter. I wanted to take a shower every time I put it down.
The initial media focus has rightly been on allegations of wrongdoing on the ninth floor of the Beehive — the Prime Minister’s floor — and also relating to the activities of senior Cabinet minister Judith Collins. Few of the charges have yet been satisfactorily answered.
But the wider problem awaits scrutiny too. Inside the National Party there are people accused of using every dishonest trick they can get away with to ensure their chosen candidates are selected in safe seats. They spread lies and nasty insinuations, they use underhand means to learn about people’s private lives and then abuse the knowledge, they bully, they blackmail, and they want us to believe it is normal and fair. It’s not, and as their online chats to each other make clear, they know full well they are transgressing. It’s part of their fun.
And nobody, yet, in any position of authority in the party, has made any public statement to condemn this behaviour. Bill English has come the closest, by distancing himself from it.
In private, we know from Hager, many of them are extremely worried: there has been Cabinet advice to party members to keep their distance from Lusk. Why hasn’t National spoken out? Because they don’t want a fuss during the election period? That’s not quite understandable. National would surely gain more than it lost by condemning dirt and corruption.
But there is another explanation: Slater and co have powerful friends. Judith Collins we know about. Lusk boasts in the book about his relationship with others too, including Auckland MPs Sam Lotu-Iiga and Mark Mitchell. It’s hard not to conclude there is a culture war raging inside National: that they’ve got a Tea Party movement on their hands.
On one side, the moderate old school, centred on English and Steven Joyce. On the other, the sleazy monster, centred on Collins.
Standing up to that monster does not mean damping down the vigorous exchange of ideas. That is what Slater and co are trying to do. They want us to be so disgusted by politics that we embrace only those leaders whose image they have calculatedly kept out of the dirt or, better, simply turn away from politics altogether.
We all need to say: enough. Yet there are some, including some journalists, who have condemned Hager by equating his actions with Slater’s. That is absurd. It’s what those in power who are under attack, any attack, always want us to think. The reality of whistleblowing is that it often requires that rules be broken: Watergate’s Deep Throat would have gone to prison if his identity had been known; Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed illegal US bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia in The Pentagon Papers, did go to prison. They were right to do what they did, and most journalists know it.
Does Labour have the same problem? Perhaps — we just don’t know. But the question misses the point. We should not be shrugging our shoulders because this is “what politics is like”. The real question is: what do we want our politics to be like? What will we do about it?
That’s why it is so disappointing the Prime Minister has refused to condemn Slater or hold Collins to public account. Does he lead a party that’s better than them? This is a time for John Key, no less than the rest of us, to take sides.
This editorial appears in the September 2014 Metro, on sale now.