Friday, September 26, 2014

This was not in the Left's script

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 24.)]
What an extraordinary election campaign. And what an extraordinary result.
I am writing this column on the morning after. By the time it’s published, most of the dust will have settled. But even at the time of writing, I think some firm conclusions can be drawn

Obviously the result can be seen as an endorsement of the National-led government. But for me the really significant point was that voters overwhelmingly repudiated concerted efforts by outsiders to sway the outcome.
New Zealanders were emphatically saying this was their election and they weren’t going to have it hijacked by agenda-driven activists, some of them with no stake in the country.

By outsiders I don’t just mean literal outsiders such as Kim Dotcom, the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the security leaker Edward Snowden. I include anyone trying to exert influence from the sidelines.
That means Nicky Hager, whose book Dirty Politics was obviously timed to derail National’s election campaign. It’s not that Hager was wrong to expose the unsavoury goings-on detailed in his book. National deserved to be shamed and Hager was entitled to the scalp of cabinet minister Judith Collins.

But questions remain about his motive, his method and most of all his timing. It’s reasonable to ask whether he was just as guilty of trying to influence an election as the furtive National Party funders he exposed in his 2005 book The Hollow Men.
The media firestorm over Dirty Politics dominated the first weeks of the campaign. When that subsided, it was Dotcom’s turn. But the momentum of the campaign shifted noticeably after the German’s much-touted “Moment of Truth” event in the Auckland Town Hall.

Again, it was a carefully orchestrated attempt to sabotage National. All those high-profile speakers, parachuted in or beamed in by video link from their various boltholes; it all looked a bit too obvious.
It didn’t help that Dotcom failed to deliver on his promise to expose John Key as a liar, and even less that he then angrily turned on journalists when they challenged him. Suddenly the public saw the less benign side of the fun-loving German.

No one can say with absolute certainty why people vote the way they do, but as the campaign went into its final days I sensed a stiffening public resistance to all these finger-wagging interlopers telling us how rotten our government was.
If I’m right, it’s highly ironic that it was the Left, not the Right, that was damaged.  Labour’s support collapsed and the Greens fell far short of the ambitious goal they had set themselves.

This was the law of unintended consequences kicking in big-time. It was not the outcome that the Left had scripted for itself.
Interviewed on Sunday morning, Labour leader David Cunliffe said the firestorms over Dirty Politics and state surveillance had sucked up all the oxygen in the campaign, leaving little opportunity for voters to consider policy issues.

I’m sure he’s right. The issues that the Left had been pushing, such as child poverty and the inequality gap, hardly got a look in.
The biggest irony of all, of course, is that Dotcom’s own party was humiliatingly wiped out, taking with it three-term MP Hone Harawira.

Both men will have learned a lesson. Dotcom will have learned that New Zealanders resent big-spending outsiders throwing their weight and money around (he acknowledged, to his credit, that his influence had poisoned the Mana Party), and Harawira will have learned about the dangers of Faustian pacts.
He was seen as compromising his principles, and his people punished him for it.

I felt a bit sorry for Colin Craig, who was thwarted by the vagaries of a flawed electoral system. The cheerleaders for MMP frequently remind us of the failings of the old first-past-the-post system, but they can’t ignore the shortcomings of one that denies a seat to a party that commanded more than four percent of votes while giving two to parties with less than one per cent support.
You have to wonder, too, whether distrust of MMP explains the marked falloff in voter participation since it was introduced. Voters are cynical about MMP because they realise that the system puts more power, not less, in the hands of the politicians. That was not the promise when it was introduced.

I almost felt sorry for Cunliffe too. He was more convincing by the end of the campaign than he was at the beginning – but given the history of leaders who lose elections, it’s unlikely he’ll get another shot.
What Labour must do now, urgently, is rejuvenate. Too many of its list MPs in the last term looked as if they were merely keeping their seats warm.

The need for a vigorous opposition is never greater than when a government has convincingly won a third term and risks becoming arrogant and complacent. Democracy prevailed on Saturday, but the concern now is whether it will be up to the job of holding the government to account over the next three years.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Key's enemies may have overcooked things

(First published in The Dominion Post and The Press, September 19.)
WHAT A CAMPAIGN. Its most striking feature, apart from the unprecedented viciousness on the fringes, has been the attempt by agenda-driven activists – some of them high-profile outsiders – to influence the outcome.
This may ultimately count in John Key’s favour. His enemies may have overcooked things.

Voters could well look at the role played by external agents five days out from the election and decide it looks too much like a concerted effort to hijack their democracy.
Certainly Kim Dotcom has burned up whatever political capital he acquired as a result of the ridiculous police raid on his home. New Zealanders are over him.

Voters may also feel that the barrage of savage denunciation aimed at Key during the past few weeks went beyond the bounds of fairness. Whether he deserves their sympathy is another matter, since there is ample evidence that he hasn’t been straight with voters. 
The public may also have wondered at the remarkable number of recent events – protest marches by Women’s Refuge activists, highly political Nigel Latta television documentaries, alarm-laden reports on child poverty, teachers’ union attacks on charter schools – that showed the government in a bad light.

That this crescendo of outrage came immediately before an election is, of course, entirely coincidental.
A few other observations:

■ Claims of media bias have been flying from both sides of politics – not from the politicians themselves, who know better, but from their overheated supporters. As usual, the accusations largely cancel each other out.
The one area where the media left itself exposed to criticism was in its generally uncritical acceptance of Nicky Hager’s cloak of moral purity. Hager has yet to explain why it’s okay for him to use stolen emails while he simultaneously condemns state intelligence-gathering.

The obvious conclusion is that the Left reserves for itself the right to decide when illegal acts are permissible because of their high moral purpose. Call it the Waihopai Three Syndrome.
The canonisation of Hager aside, the worst the media could be accused of was getting over-excited. Journalists thrive on drama and conflict, and no election campaign has delivered more than this one.

■ Winston Peters is again under fire for refusing to disclose which of the major parties New Zealand First is likely go with.
But even if he did reveal his intentions, there’s no guarantee he would stick with them. In 1996 he appeared happy for everyone to believe he would support Labour, then went the other way – after first keeping the country guessing for weeks.

If he really wanted to convince us of his integrity, the obvious course would be to guarantee support for whichever party wins the most votes. What could be more democratic than that? But that would deny him the pleasure of playing games and indulging in indignant bluster, which is what he does best.
■ Watching party leaders making their pitches at a pre-election conference organised by BusinessNZ, it was clear that the most philosophically coherent parties – perhaps the only philosophically coherent parties – are two from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: ACT and the Greens.

All the others – with the exception of Internet-Mana, which is the political equivalent of a pantomime horse – are scrambling for the middle ground.  
Thomas Pippos, chief executive of conference co-sponsors Deloitte, made the point that policy differences between the centre-Right and centre-Left are slight in the context of the overall regulatory framework. The two major parties, in other words, are noisily squabbling over a small patch of turf.

One of the most impressive performers at the BusinessNZ event, incidentally, was Greens co-leader Russel Norman. He was polished, articulate and in command of the policy issues.
In his stylish suit and tie, Norman looks almost mainstream. He personifies the transformation of the Greens from the flaky days of hand-knitted jerseys and dreadlocks.  

■ Will this election be ACT’s last hurrah? At its peak the party had nine MPs and provided a credible voice for what is often pejoratively referred to as neoliberalism.
Jamie Whyte has made an heroic attempt to resuscitate ACT after the dire John Banks era, but he’s too cerebral to connect with voters. His other-worldly quality was cruelly exposed when he had to admit he hadn’t heard of Whanau Ora.

A strong ACT lineup in Parliament would provide a counter-balance to the Greens on the left of Labour and stiffen National’s spine, but it’s hard to escape the feeling the party has done its dash.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Politics isn't all dirt, even if it sometimes looks that way

(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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The baneful influence of social media

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 5.)
EVERYONE agrees this has been the ugliest, most vicious election campaign period in memory.
The previous benchmark was set in 1975, when the Citizens for Rowling campaign foolishly lit Robert Muldoon’s fuse. But the past few weeks have been even more ill-tempered than Muldoon at his most belligerent.

What’s different this time?  Well, there’s Kim Dotcom, for starters. The big German’s motive for entering politics was wholly negative: he wants to get rid of John Key. It may be the first time in New Zealand history that a party has been founded on the basis of a personal grudge.
Dotcom likes to play the amiable prankster, but the “F--- John Key” video was an attempt to legitimise mindless abuse as a political tactic – something not seen here before.

Then of course there was the cleverly timed launch of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics – a limpet mine attached to the hull of National’s supposedly unsinkable dreadnought.
But underlying all this is a bigger incendiary influence: the role of social media.

Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere have played a large hand in dictating the tone of this election. Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil is just the tip of a large and dirty iceberg.
Much of the political commentary in online forums, both on the Left and Right, is extraordinarily toxic and abusive.

Mercifully, much of it fails to penetrate the mainstream. And to their credit, most politicians try to stay above it.
But among activists on both sides of politics, overheated online forums have created an atmosphere of rage and bigotry that has reshaped political dialogue. You can sense this baneful influence filtering through into media coverage, which is more intense and aggressive than ever before.

How could this happen in a country with a deserved reputation for being civilised, liberal and tolerant?
A couple of factors come to mind. The first is that the Internet enables instantaneous comment. Someone feeling a rush of anger can be on Facebook or Twitter within seconds.

In a previous era, if you wanted to comment on politics, you wrote a letter to the paper. That allowed time for sober reflection – a cooling-down period.  
Then there’s the fact that in online forums, the person you’re attacking is unseen. You’ve probably never met. In such circumstances it’s all too easy to demonise your imagined enemies.

Online, you’re safely distanced from those you’re attacking and feel less compunction about putting the boot in. I’ve succumbed to this depersonalising effect myself and know how easily it can happen.
And politics has become intensely tribal. Each political blog, whether it’s Whale Oil on the Right or The Daily Blog on the Left, has its own tribe. They are united in hatred against the other tribe. There are even factions within tribes that hate each other.

Any member of the Left-wing tribe foolhardy enough to stray into the Right-wing tribe’s territory, or vice-versa, will be eviscerated.
How did we arrive at this point? At the risk of being ridiculed for romanticising the past, I believe it has come about partly as a result of the decline of the traditional news media.

The old-style newspaper was a “broad church”, presenting a wide range of information and comment from which readers were able to form their own conclusions. But the digital revolution has given politically minded people an alternative.
They now tend to gravitate to the online forum that represents their tribe. They show no interest in hearing what the other side thinks, still less considering whether an opposing view might have some merit.

The newspaper was also the traditional forum for political debate via its correspondence columns. Good newspapers took the trouble to ensure a broad spectrum of opinion was published, and still do.  
Crucially, letters were subject to an editing process which filtered out abusive and defamatory comment. And just as important, anonymity was prohibited. The price of being able to comment publically was that you had to identify yourself. No such constraints apply online, where anonymity emboldens cowards.

Champions of the Internet applaud the fact that public comment is no longer controlled by gatekeepers in the mainstream media, and they’re right, up to a point. But the gatekeepers were a civilising influence whose absence from social media we may come to regret.