QOTD: Gordon Campbell on SkyCity

At Scoop:

For the record, we started out last week with (a) Prime Minister John Key telling the public that a $402 million convention centre would be only an ‘eyesore’ in downtown Auckland with the clear signaling that (b) the extra $128 million was probably necessary and justified under the contract. Within 24 hours and driven by the potential risk to his own credibility, Finance Minister Bill English became (c) the first Cabinet heavy hitter to break ranks and question the extra spending which led to (d) Key suddenly agreeing that he’d need a lot of convincing to spend the extra millions which led to (e) SkyCity agreeing to go back to the drawing board and (f) design and build a new convention centre for the original price that would (g) somehow be just as good. Yeah, right. Clearly, the screeching U-turns were being driven by nothing other than the public’s outrage at gifting SkyCity with $128 million on top of its other goodies.

There’s been some great campaigning by Labour and even the Taxpayers’ “Union” on this issue – essentially coordinating the increasing concerns people have felt about the SkyCity deal ever since it was first announced.

You can spin any number of theories out of the Government’s, and its Ministers’, behaviour. Is this yet another move by English to set himself apart from his Dirty-Politics-stained colleagues? Is Key afflicted with third term arrogance, unable to recognise that many people are tiring of the “actually quite relaxed” approach he takes to governing the country? Has Joyce’s bungling of SkyCity opened up a new path to career redemption for Judith Collins? Will everything be forgotten as soon as the flag referendum gets a definite date?

Whichever’s your favourite, 2015 is not shaping up to be a good year for National.

Connecting the dots on satire, Parliament, and dirty politics

Danyl McLauchlan has a great suggestion for NZ politicians who really want to show their dedication to freedom of speech and the press in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack:

People might be surprised to learn that in New Zealand satirists are not actually protected by the law at all, …while it is illegal to use images or footage from Parliament that subjects the House to satire or ridicule. So if some of the New Zealand politicians or newspapers standing on their soapboxes … wanted to actually promote those values and campaign to update our laws protecting satire so that they’re in line with that of most other western democracies (a simple members bill should do the trick) that’d be lovely thanks.

Sorry for quoting such a huge chunk, Danyl, but it was a very concise post!

In 2007 the use of parliamentary footage for satire was banned, in a move so utterly ridiculous it made The Daily Show. (I apologise for the abysmal streaming which Comedy Central persists in inflicting on us.) Unsurprisingly, the two parties which stated the loudest objections to this were Act (back when they had 2 whole MPs) and the Greens. Michael Cullen decided to declare the media were “taking themselves too seriously” and Peter Dunne – Peter Dunne – got very snooty about mockery “going a bit far.”

(As a side note, at the time Gerry Brownlee said the rules were an “interim” thing and could be reviewed, so Labour supporters may finally have the “you’ve had EIGHT LONG YEARS” rallying cry we’ve been waiting for.)

This all seems like ancient history, but it gets particularly interesting in the light of John Key’s very strong, high-minded statements about the freedom of the press:

“The targeting of journalists going about their daily work is an attack on the fourth estate and the democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression, which must be strongly condemned,” he said.

Two immediate contradictions which were immediately pointed out by folk across the left were:

1. Um, what about that possibly-unlawful raid on Nicky Hager’s house? (Directly connected to the Dirty Politics scandal, and put a pin in that for a moment.)

2. Um, what about the police raiding four separate media organisations over the “tea-pot tapes” – a recording of this totally private conversation – then going “oh whoops, there’s no public interest in pursuing this case”?

But there’s yet another Dirty Politics aspect to this issue. And that’s the fact that since 2007 it has been illegal for you or me or even Patrick Gower to use images from parliament for the purposes of “satire, ridicule or denigration” …

Yet no action was ever taken over the fact that a government MP was taking nasty photos of other parties’ leaders, in the House, and sending them straight to WhaleOil.

So John Key can make all the bold, principled statements about press freedom he likes; the fact remains that his government has kept in place unnecessary restrictions on that freedom. He, personally, has derided one of our leading investigative journalists as a conspiracy theorist – and all the while his MPs are feeding vicious attack stories to their pet blogger – exactly what Nicky Hager documented.

The meaning of dirty politics

One of the strategies of the right in NZ politics has been to take any complaint levelled against them – of corruption, of malpractice, of conspiracy – and reduce it down until it’s meaningless.

An excellent recent example of this took place on the Open Mike post at the Standard, where political hacking, and thus Dirty Politics, was being discussed. Dirty Politics, to most people in the NZ political sphere, has a pretty specific, well-known meaning. It refers to the actions documented by Nicky Hager by a cast of unethical players on the right, who use smear, innuendo, ghostwritten blog posts and allegedly even blackmail to shut down political opponents and promote a far-right, conservative ideology.

The book didn’t have the killing-blow impact on the general election which many people thought it would. It hasn’t stopped people like Matthew Hooton and David Farrar being used as political commentators in the mainstream media – sometimes even being asked to comment on Dirty Politics as though they have no stake in the game. It didn’t even claim the scalp of Judith Collins – that was another terribly revealing email – though it set the stage for it.

It’s still a powerful weapon for the left. As much as the right have tried to say “but the left do it too” – with their only example being one post which briefly appeared on The Standard in 2008 and was pulled precisely because it was an unethical move – their political machine has been damaged by the exposure. Cameron Slater is no longer a good conduit to get dirt into the mainstream. John Key cannot replace Jason Ede with another “blog liaison officer”. And they’ve relied on that two-track strategy for so long, into their third term (which is when the wheels start to fall off the masterplan anyway), that it could be impossible to build a completely new framework to control the political narrative.

What they can do is co-opt the idea of dirty politics and divorce it from any real meaning at all.

Thus you get Pete George – the derailing mastertroll ofNZ political blogging – leaving 20 comments on one post at The Standard which include contradictory assertions: that dirty politics isn’t serious because it’s what everyone does; that dirty politics is serious because it involves hacking, ergo Cameron Slater isn’t involved in dirty politics because he’s not a hacker; but also that people who tell Pete George to shut up and stop trolling are playing dirty politics.

When called on his behaviour, he complains that Nicky Hager “doesn’t get to control” how the phrase “dirty politics” is used.

I don’t think Pete George himself is a part of the Slater/Ede/Collins/Odgers dirty politics machine, but he’s a useful weathervane of how effective their strategy is: defining dirty politics as everything and nothing to render it powerless.

From being a significant piece of investigative journalism which shone a spotlight on the forces which are trying to turn NZ politics into a nasty, back-stabbing, big-money game, the aim is that “dirty politics” will enter our lexicon as just another way to say “people in a political debate calling each other names.” In the long run, it’s part of the strategy of turning people off politics so they don’t agitate, don’t organise, don’t vote.

How do we stop it? It’s a big project, turning around a well-resourced, widely-heard narrative. But we can be very clear in our meaning when we talk about dirty politics. We can keep pointing out when it happens and naming it for what it is. And with online platforms it’s much easier to get those messages out to a wider, less political audience.

And we don’t let the right de=fang Dirty Politics.

(Repost) When is a nasty attack not a nasty attack?

Originally posted at On The Left.

John Key was on Breakfast on One this morning talking about the political year past and the challenges facing him in 2015. And it was a fascinating display of how someone can say utterly contradictory things with a straight face.

On the “low point” of the election campaign – after talking dismissively about Nicky Hager – Key says:

“The low point was the campaign … it was a style of campaign that New Zealanders aren’t used to, don’t want … the whole thing was just awful.”

“[Labour] have done every rotten trick in the book.”

But of course:

“It’s the nature of politics and I don’t complain about it.”

Then, after the ad break:

“The one difference with [Andrew Little, compared to previous Labour leaders] is, he’s comfortable in his own skin … he’s got a pretty narrow base … and he’s always been the aggressive hard man, there’ll never be a change of dial or temperature, if a kitten crosses the road … he’ll be screaming like that.”

What was that about nasty attack politics being a turn-off to voters?

This has been the rightwing response to Dirty Politics since the day it dropped, throwing up utterly contradictory defences (“everyone does it so get over it”, “no you’re the dirty ones”, “it turns off voters”, “it’s a beltway issue voters don’t care about”) and assuming

The problem is, it’s worked. So in under 12 minutes on Breakfast, Key can attack the integrity of one of our best investigative journalists, repeat the WhaleOil smear about Andrew Little having no support, and literally accuse him of yelling at kittens.

But apparently it was Labour’s nasty attack politics which resulted in their bad election result.

To add insult to injury, he even kicks off the resurrection of Judith Collins’ career by talking about how good a minister she was! The minister who tried to smear a gallery journo to another in order to distract from her shady dealings with Oravida! (Collins is clearly still holding a grudge on that one, too.)

So when is a nasty attack not a nasty attack? It’s basic emotive conjugation: I am making a neutral observation, you are a nasty attack blogger, he just keeps texting me and I can’t stop him.

It’s frustrating as hell: it seems utterly bizarre that our own Prime Minister can sit in a television studio and act like a victim of attack politics then moments later hurl personal insults at the Leader of the Opposition.

Apparently that’s the nature of politics in New Zealand these days. But unlike our Prime Minister – who will assure you as often as you care to hear that he’s “not complaining about it” – I expect better.

The downfall of John Key

The question of the day is whether John Key mishearing, forgetting, or not wanting to answer questions about Cameron Slater’s bizarre text messages is going to be the nail in his coffin.

Bryce Edwards is asking it, and Bryan Gould is one of many people wondering what kind of dirt Slater must have on Key to make him, against all apparent political logic, refuse to jettison the alliance with the attack blogger.

The thing is, if you’ve been around the online world of NZ politics for any amount of time, it’s always felt fairly obvious that associating with a nasty smear merchant like Cameron Slater would have to blow up in Key’s face at some point. It had to, if there were any justice in the world.

Haven’t we known for years that Cameron Slater/WhaleOil was a vicious piece of work who built his pageviews on clickbait, spam, and personal attacks? Haven’t we known for years that he was, in one way or another, deeply involved in the National Party political machine? Weren’t people pointing out that his writing style changed markedly from post to post depending on the target, and that his targets were frequently people or organisations which were opposing the interests of key National Party players?

Wasn’t everyone saying when Dirty Politics was released that it just confirmed everything we already knew?

So in a sense, last week’s text messages, and the shifty-looking way Key has tried to avoid talking about them, doesn’t feel like much of a killing blow. If you were already looking at Cameron Slater and John Key and thinking “well we know something’s going on there” it’s not even the biggest, scariest piece of information we know about their friendship. For it to bring about John Key’s downfall, it would have to mean the wider situation had changed.

And maybe it has, with journalists feeling pretty pissed off – that Key doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s dodging their questions, that Key gave his new cellphone number to Slater but not even members of the Press Gallery, and that all this is coming after it’s been made crystal clear that Slater has access to information, even help straight from the PM’s office to get that information, which they will never get.

On the other hand, the general election’s done. National could crash ten points in the polls overnight and it wouldn’t change the fact that we can’t recall Prime Ministers, and they don’t have an obvious, immediate replacement for Key who could hope to make things any better.

And in three years, who even knows if people will care about what John Key texted to that WhaleOil guy that one time?