Dirty politics across the ditch may cost Key the election

New Zealand prime minister John Key is accused of attack politics by proxy. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Since its publication in August, Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment has dominated the political agenda in the lead-up to the September 20 general election.

Partly, this reflects Hager’s cast of characters. The lesser lights include a clutch of right-wing bloggers and sundry consultants to the governing National Party. But the supporting cast also numbers a special adviser working in prime minister John Key’s office, and former justice minister (and one-time aspiring National Party leader) Judith Collins. Most importantly, at centre stage stands Key.

Based on the contents of a USB device Hager received “out of the blue”, and which contained thousands of documents hacked from the website of right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, the book has poured generous quantities of political petrol on a campaign that had been on a slow burn.

Dirty Politics contains a series of high-octane allegations, including that:

  • A computer at National Party HQ was used to download donor information and credit card details from a supposedly secure Labour Party website;

  • Someone in Key’s office encouraged the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) to respond favourably and with unusual willingness to an Official Information Act (OIA) request from Slater for an SIS briefing prepared for the then-opposition leader;

  • Death threats were received by a public servant whose name Collins had given to Slater (in retaliation for purportedly having leaked government policy); and

  • A political staffer in Key’s office had been the conduit between the government, the attack bloggers and sympathetic journalists in the mainstream media.

Blogging and blagging

The torch Hager has shone into the murky corners of the right-wing blogosphere also channels the profile of digital technologies in this election. Previously, all eyes had been on Kim Dotcom, the larger-than-life German who founded file-upload service Mega and who is wanted by the US Department of Justice on charges of breaches of copyright and money laundering.

Former justice minister Judith Collins allegedly fed inside information to friendly bloggers. STR/AAP

Dotcom, who is bankrolling the new Internet Party, has an intense personal dislike of Key. He has promised his own “big reveal” for September 15, which will apparently feature Julian Assange. More generally, what Hager describes reverberates loudly given the post-Snowden sensitivities about the security of personal data.

There is little doubt that Dirty Politics is hurting the National Party in the run-up to the election. National has constructed a public image of Key as [blokey, friendly and down-to-earth]((http://www.smh.com.au/comment/nz-shows-trust-is-key-to-popularity-20130325-2gqad.html).

Key remains exceptionally popular and is National’s prize electoral asset. By directly linking him to the outsourcing of attack politics, the book threatens that carefully cultivated persona – and hence National’s prospects in the election.

Accordingly, National has tried to turn the blowtorch on Hager, who Key has described as a “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”. Hager may well be the first of these things but he is not the second, and his allegations have not been convincingly rebutted.

Until two days ago it looked as though the government had weathered the worst of the storm. Following National’s campaign launch on August 23, Key had simply stopped answering questions about Dirty Politics. The first polls taken after the book’s publication showed some loss of support for the government, but other centre-right parties - rather than the opposition Labour Party - appeared to be benefiting from the shift.

Then two things happened. In a televised debate, Labour leader David Cunliffe outshone Key. And on Saturday justice minister Judith Collins resigned. The first came as something of a surprise; the second is a bomb exploding in the middle of National’s campaign.

Collins’ resignation has been forced not by the contents of Dirty Politics, but by a new allegation: that as the responsible minister she was linked to a smear campaign (also involving Slater) against the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). This came at the time the SFO was involved in an inquiry into the failed finance company Hanover Finance.

Apart from anything else, Key will be sweating on the reactions of the 16,000 or so mum-and-dad investors who lost the better part of NZ$500 million when Hanover collapsed in 2008. The wheels are starting to wobble.

Political carnage ongoing

Dirty Politics will continue to resonate after the election. If Key can successfully characterise Collins’ behaviour as that of a rogue minister he may limit the damage on September 20. But his own standing – both publicly and in his party – is likely to have suffered. His senior colleagues have largely kept their counsel, although finance minister Bill English, himself a former Treasury official, has laconically observed that handing the names of public servants to bloggers is “not his style”.

Disquiet is growing within National about the links between Key, his staff, Collins and Slater, and with the blogger’s influence on National’s internal workings. At some point there will be a reckoning.

Dirty Politics also raises fundamental issues, not only of probity and decency, but also of accountability at the heart of executive government in New Zealand. Parliament had risen by the time the book went on sale, so Key has so far avoided parliamentary questions concerning his responsibility for the actions of Jason “Black Ops” Ede, the (now-former) political staffer.

The attentions of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, who has announced an investigation into the SIS’s response to Slater’s OIA request, will be harder to avoid. The prime minister is the agency’s responsible minister, and the Inspector General has issued a subpoena to staff in the prime minister’s office to appear in a closed hearing nine days before the election.

The saga looks set to continue given that Hager’s source – “Rawshark” – continues to dish the dirt under the Twitter handle @Whaledump. You get the sense, then, that Hager’s cast of characters is not having a whale of a time. And one of them, Judith Collins, has just been harpooned.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.