(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 10.)
Don’t despair. Things are not as bad as they seem. At least that’s the optimistic message I’ve taken from all the unedifying political argy-bargy of the past few weeks.It’s easy to think the worst, mind you. First, there was the YouTube video of Christchurch students moronically chanting “F… John Key”. That was a low in New Zealand politics, but it took only a couple of weeks to be surpassed in loathsomeness by a “song” – I use that word in the loosest possible sense – in which a semi-literate swamp-dweller snarled that he wanted to kill John Key and f … his daughter.
How the group that made it avoided prosecution is a mystery, especially when the Electoral Commission had previously huffed and puffed mightily over a clever and essentially harmless musical video called Planet Key.One was a sophisticated, legitimate piece of political satire, the other a primitive, malevolent rant (the creator of which subsequently claimed, in a display of mock ingenuousness that would have fooled no one, that he was merely trying to encourage young people to vote).
Then there was Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, which – at the risk of sounding melodramatic – was like shining a torch into a dark political backroom, the existence of which was previously unknown, and seeing rats scurrying around trying to escape the light.
Democracy depends on accountability, but the people whose machinations Hager exposed were neither elected nor accountable. Democracy also depends on transparency, but their attempts to subvert the political process relied on concealment. We are better off now that they are out in the open.Much the same can be said about Judith Collins’ resignation as minister of justice, which had a cleansing effect. Collins denies the claims against her and deserves a chance to clear her name, but the trail of allegations against her meant she had become tainted goods. She had to go.
What about Hager himself, then? Yes, he performed a public service by exposing what needed to be exposed. But he remains open to the accusation that he is himself, ironically, part of the dirty politics that he professes to despise.He is not an impartial journalist sifting objectively through all the evidence and weighing all the facts. He is a highly partisan, agenda-driven campaigner who used stolen emails and apparently made no attempt either to corroborate his material or allow the people he accused to respond, as a journalist would.
It’s surely significant that even after all the furore of the past few weeks, public support for Key and his government, as measured by the opinion polls, appears to have barely moved.That suggests the public, after weighing everything up, has largely discounted Hager’s claims. They will have noted the strategic timing of the book launch and possibly regard Dirty Politics as itself a bit dirty, notwithstanding all the claims about the purity of the author’s motives.
That’s one of the great things about an informed, open democracy. It has a remarkable way of enabling people to see past the smoke, flames and noise and eventually find their way to the right conclusion.I always remember Mike Moore’s philosophical response when the Labour government of which he was briefly the leader was thrown out of office in 1990. “The people are always right,” he said.
He was saying that in a democracy, you can’t argue with the result of a free and fair election. But what he said was also correct in a broader sense: an informed electorate is capable of making wise decisions.That’s one of the reasons I remain hopeful. But there’s another factor too.
It’s agreed by everyone that this has been an unusually vicious election campaign. But the important thing is that the worst of the nastiness is on the fringes of politics, among noisy and highly partisan activists on either side.In the middle, where most New Zealanders dwell, life goes on. Politics isn’t everything. They tune out most of the unpleasantness.
Another thing that gives me heart is that when the firestorm over Dirty Politics was at its height, I watched rival politicians debating on television. On one programme, Education Minister Hekia Parata was in the studio with Labour’s Chris Hipkins. On another, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was up against her Labour counterpart, Jacinda Ardern.The striking thing about both these exchanges was that they were intelligent, respectful and civilised. It was good to be reminded that where it counts most, New Zealand politics isn’t so dire and soiled after all.