Thoughts by way of a Definition

A frequent question I get asked, in my capacity as the `Conspiracy Theories’ Theorist, is whether the actions of, say, administrations doing things for something other than a stated principled (and we can use that term lightly, facetiously, et al) reason count as examples of conspiring (and thus making the assumed real reason a Conspiracy Theory).

Let’s look at Kiwiblog, bastion of the Right. David Farrar has been following up the actions of UMR, a polling company that does a lot of work for the Labour Party here in Aotearoa/New Zealand (for avid readers overseas who care not about international politics I can reveal that the Labour Party are the majority party in Government here). A few days ago Farrar revealed that (according to sources) UMR are polling as to what the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, should so should her Foreign Minister be found to have engaged in some suspicious, if not illegal, actions to do with donated monies. Given that polling companies should not work for competing interests Farrar has assumed that the poll was ordered by the Labour Party, something the Prime Minister has denied. Now, in comments on this post someone has suggested that this is a plausible denial by the PM; the poll may have been an omnibus poll with only some of the questions designed by Labour. Farrar, a Polling Man, doesn’t seem to have responded to this suggestion; his latest post assumes that the PM is lying…

So Helen will be reading the results of the UMR poll on how she has handled [Foreign Minister] Winston [Peters] very carefully.

and then argues that should the Foreign Minister be investigated by the Privileges Committee, then the PM will call an early election to curtail such an awkward enquiry. She may well trot out other reasons, Farrar claims, but the real reason will be stopping the enquiry.

Is this a Conspiracy Theory?

On some level, yes. The PM is just one member of the Cabinet and if she calls an election it will be (one would hope) the collected action of the Government with her as spokesperson. Indeed, given that the Labour Party is a well-oiled machine it fits the bill of a possible conspiring cabal with great ease.

So we have a cabal. Do they have a desired goal? According to the conspiratorial reading of Farrar’s theory, yes. They seek to stop an enquiry (and, presumably, increase their chances of getting back into government).

Is it a malign goal? Once again, plausibly yes. If the goal is to stop an enquiry that would be in the Public’s best interest, then the desired goal is malign in character.

So is is a Conspiracy Theory? Note that Farrar doesn’t talk about it being a conspiracy (which doesn’t necessarily make it not a putative Conspiracy Theory; lots of Conspiracy Theorists deny they are putting forward Conspiracy Theories) and that’s because it probably isn’t. For one thing, calling an early election for the reasons of stopping an enquiry might be one of many rationales for calling the election. It may be a significant one or it might not be; an election has to be called soon and there might be other factors motivating calling it early (Farrar does seem to think that his cited reason is going to be a significant one, however:

So if Helen does call a snap or early election, it will not be due to any of the public reasons she will trot out. They will be as ludicrous as her justification for the 2002 snap election – she claimed an extra 12 minutes a day of points or order (about the status of the Alliance) had paralyzed Parliament and made governign impossible.

The reason will be the possible testimony of Owen G Glenn – Labour’s largest donor.

which does kind of make the whole thing swing back towards Conspiracy Theory…). More importantly, however, you could argue that this is just a) normal operating procedure for governments (now) and b) it isn’t particularly secret; the talk about enquiries is happening in the media and everyone is watching how the Government is going to act. Just because they might lie, or distort their real reasons as to why the election might be called early doesn’t make it necessarily conspiratorial, in the same respect that a child lying about why they said someone wanted sugar in their coffee when they did not (true story) doesn’t make the child inherently deceitful.

I haven’t really answered my own question here, I realise, but that’s because this is a vexing issue. Some things look obviously conspiratorial and some things don’t; that still leaves a whole host of things that are possibly conspiratorial, or conspiracy-like, and that’s the kind of definitonal debate I’m working on at the moment.

Should be working on at the moment. I seem to be writing a blog post rather than a thesis chapter right now.

Back to work.