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.

Repost: Employment law: it’s toasted

In an early episode of Mad Men, when the company’s going for the Lucky Strike account, sleazebag antihero Don Draper asks the client exactly how cigarettes are made. They talk through the process, mentioning the tobacco is toasted – and Don says, “there’s your line. It’s toasted.”

But, the Lucky Strike guys protest, all cigarette tobacco is toasted. There’s nothing special about the way Lucky Strike toasts its tobacco.

“Doesn’t matter,” Don says. “You’re the only people talking about it.”

Watching Mad Men explains a truly depressing amount about the success of John Key’s government.

Take their employment law changes: right now, they’re legislating away the right to a tea break, replacing the current mandatory minimum rest periods (two 10-minute breaks and one half-hour break for an 8-hour shift) with non-mandatory, “if your employer thinks it’s unreasonable they can take it away” rest periods. And the examples that keep getting cited are of teachers (those unreliable moochers) “just” walking out of a classroom when break time rolls around, or air traffic controllers “just” downing tools and letting all the planes crash.

The fact is, minimum breaks aren’t currently set to a compulsory schedule. The law does not say, “if you start at 8am then you must stop work at 10am for 10 minutes”. They’re a minimum level because some employers absolutely would make you work a twelve hour shift non-stop if they could (and probably pay you $2 an hour for it too.)

But you never hear about it. And because people are generally well-natured and assume their political leaders are well-natured too (and that their media is well-informed and analytical and will provide any necessary context) it just gets taken for granted that there must be a problem with our current break system. Because, well, the Minister says of course he supports regular rest breaks! National wouldn’t take them away unless there was a problem, right? It’s just giving people flexibility, and they obviously need flexibility, you can’t just have air traffic controllers wandering off and letting all the planes crash.

It was the same story around 90-day fire-at-will trials. Under the old law, employers could put new workers on probationary periods – longer probationary periods than the 90-day trials, even! The difference was, those probationary periods had to be genuine trials. Workers had to be given feedback on their performance, and still had basic work rights – unlike the 90-day trials.

But you never heard about it. And because people are generally well-natured, etc, it just got taken for granted that we needed the 90-day trial period. Because, well, they wouldn’t do it if it already existed, right? It’s just fair to allow employers to give someone a go, right? Why are you complaining about job creation?

It’s lying by omission, capitalising on people’s goodwill and faith that our government isn’t really an out-of-control pack of cynical profiteers, who rule for the rich and powerful and put no stock in ideas about wellbeing, community or anything besides the money they can get their hands on right now.

Watch for it.

(For a side-by-side comparison of the tea break rules, check Helen Kelly’s Twitter.)

Added: I’d already written this article when Mike Hosking’s diatribe about “just work hard and your boss will never exploit you” came out. Suffice it to say, I think if you’ve never worked in a role where your rest breaks were strictly scheduled, and you didn’t have to worry about how much you earned in your first job, you are a very, very privileged person.

Repost: A rightwing fairytale about Labour Day

(Originally posted at On The Left.)

I was casting about for something to write today, and that’s when the Internet gave me a gift: a column from Rodney Hide, conveniently timed, which decries the role of unions and even the very history of Labour Day:

Tomorrow is Labour Day. Once again we will endure the annual claptrap that unions are great and won for us the eight-hour day. Without unions we would be working 24/7. It’s nonsense.

He cites the story of Samuel Parnell, considered the father of the eight-hour working day. Conventional history will tell you that, in a terribly union-y fashion, Parnell organised his fellow tradesmen in Wellington to refuse to work more than an eight-hour day. Rodney tells it a little differently:

Hence was born the eight-hour day. The practice caught on. For more than 100 years we have celebrated the eight-hour day as a victory for trade unionism. We know it as Labour Day which, on the fourth Monday of every October, is a public holiday.

It’s a myth. The so-called victory had nothing to do with unions. It was simple supply and demand. The demand for skilled labour was high in the new and growing settlement. The supply was low.

Parnell could have negotiated more pay. But he chose fewer hours. That was his choice. That was the free market.

The myths are actually all on Rodney’s side. The myth that good business practices just “catch on”, like a fashion trend – when the reality is that unions almost always lead the way in securing better wages and conditions for workers, which non-unionised businesses then have to keep up with – unless of course you’ve spent a few decades dismantling workers’ rights and entrenching the power of employers, so they can do things like refuse to offer frontline workers a basic guaranteed number of hours while your CEO earns $11,000 a day.

The myth that the concept of unionism can’t have been involved in Parnell’s victory, because “it was just about supply and demand”. Yes, this was a unique circumstance – in 1840 Wellington there were literally three carpenters. You couldn’t hire one from London and pop them on the next plane over.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the eight-hour victory came down to collective action. If Parnell had said “nope, only working eight hours, soz” and the other two carpenters had said “sweet, we’ll take the job” there would be no history to remember on Labour Day.

The difference is that today, very few workers are in a position to say “well there’s only three of us you can hire, so you have to take our terms.” These days, thousands of people will queue for 150 supermarket jobs. People are living in cars. They don’t have the luxury of leveraging their specialised skills in a remote corner of the world.

And thirdly, the myth that unions have never achieved anything, ever. It’s a standard rightwing line. It relies on people taking a lot of things for granted – like equal pay for women, having four weeks’ annual leave, getting sick leave, having basic health and safety protocols in the workplace.

The greatest achievement is this, though: if you’re in a union, the chances are your pay is keeping up with, or even staying ahead of, inflation. This is an old graph from a 2012 post at The Standard, but it makes the point pretty clearly:

wages graph

In the year to June 2014, 98% of workers on a collective agreement got a payrise – compared to only 48% of workers on individual agreements.

I think that’s an achievement which a lot of workers can feel pretty happy about. Because they stood together. Because they leveraged their collective power into getting real gains for themselves and their fellow workers.

One important thing to note is this. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Hide’s bizarre re-writing of history. It’s easy to insult his intelligence or imply he’s out of touch with reality. But Rodney Hide isn’t a stupid man. Rodney Hide isn’t unable to see the ridiculousness of his words.

This is why the rightwing narrative has dominated NZ political discussion for years: because they decide what story they want to tell and they push it through every avenue they have. They drown out dissent and academic arguments about what really happened or how the economy really works in practice.

Let’s not read Rodney Hide’s column as a ludicrous piece of near-satire. Let’s take it for what it is: a cynical, deliberate attempt to erase the importance of unionism from New Zealand history and perpetuate the fantasy that workers and employers are on a level playing field.

And let’s celebrate Labour Day, and the power of our unions.