New Zealand elections: dirty tricks helped John Key win another term
New Zealand’s National party resoundingly won a third term in government on Saturday, despite revelations in my recent book about a dirty tricks campaign run from the prime minister’s office. The book generated nation-wide interest and two major figures in the story were forced to resign. But as the voting results showed, it’s arguable that the dirty tricks had already worked, smearing and destabilising political opponents and paving the way to victory.
Prime minister John Key is hailed around the world’s conservative parties for his popularity, so it is important to understand what that success is built upon. First, he has cultivated an ordinary-bloke-next-door public image. He is in reality a ruthless politician (his nickname during his finance trader career was the smiling assassin) and his party is essentially a party of big business. But from the start, he created a “rags to riches” personal story and presented himself as friendly and easy going. This image remained intact for years.
Next, his government has worked systematically to close down critical voices: academics, scientists, media and more. Leaked documents in Dirty Politics show that a key tool was using National party-aligned blogs to launch personal attacks. Hundreds of people found themselves viciously derided by the bloggers (including a delight in personal and sexual smears). The leaked documents reveal that many of these attacks were initiated and supported by the National party and John Key’s staff, in particular a dirty tricks coordinator named Jason Ede working two doors along from Key’s office (Ede has since resigned).
Ede’s role was designed to be deniable. He was paid directly by the National party (dodging freedom on information laws), disappeared the day my book came out and was jettisoned after the election (“I think after 11 years he’s decided, look, the times come for him to leave,” Key said). The blogs pretended to be independent, thus also being deniable whenever the attacks generated a public backlash.
The documents also showed concerted efforts during the last two elections to trip up, distract and discredit opposing political parties. Politicians and parties are, of course, quite capable of making their own problems. But, for instance, Key’s dirty tricks man went inside the Labour party’s computers and dug dirt for release on a blog. The government used its access to official information to devise repeated mini scandals for launch by the bloggers. Various news organisations saw the attack bloggers as easy sources of scoops and cooperated in these manufactured scandals.
These activities have had a damaging effect on New Zealand politics, with widespread chilling of critical voices. Key’s political opponents have been painted as dodgy, untrustworthy or incompetent. It was no surprise at all that he has stayed high in the polls and won the election on Saturday.
The tell-tale signs were unusual levels of personal attacks, many instances of people being targeted for being outspoken, an unusual nastiness to the attacks, the use of arms-length allies to conduct attacks and a relentless series of targeted scandals, usually of little ultimate substance and appearing in the news out of nowhere. These things are not normal in New Zealand politics, including in the National party. Key had been attracted to the political benefits of negative campaigning without wanting to be accountable for the dirty tactics. Secrecy was an essential component.
US Republican party political strategists call this a two-track approach: seeking to benefit from attack politics without risking a public backlash for stooping to negative tactics. Track one is the political leader who apparently remains clean and positive. Track two is the apparently independent allies who conduct attack politics on the leader’s behalf.
Negative politics often results large groups of people turning off politics and falling voter turnout. This was one of the results in Saturday’s election. Right-wing parties bet that the people turned off voting are are more likely to support their opponents.
There is no easy answer to these anti-democratic tactics. You cannot legislate against dirty tricks and manipulation. The best defences are greater transparency (including bringing ministerial and parliamentary activities under freedom of information laws); greatly increased resources and independence for public news organisations; removing corporate funding from parties and election campaigning; and, most important, providing protections and encouragement to empower the widest range of specialists and citizens to participate in all levels of politics.
This is the best hope of stopping politics being dominated by PR people, party-aligned mouth pieces and industry lobbyists. In essence, the politics described in my book, and so influential in our recent election, is about freedom of speech and political activity versus those who would seek to gain by suppressing them.