Dirty Politics

“Dirty Politics” (a new book by Nicky Hager: buy it now! – ) is not just a book by one of the country’s best investigtive journalists but it is also a bit of a phenomenon. Over the last week it has caused consternation for the government, anger by members of the previously slumbering press and a lot of outrage (most of it justified) by elements on the Left (and a some on the Right as well). “Dirty Politics” – the book and the consternation which has followed – is the story of two conspiracy theories, one of which is well-evidenced and the other… The other is tendentious.

There is nothing wrong with conspiracy theories, as regular readers of this blog will undoubtedly know. I do not think poorly of conspiracy theories or conspiracy theorising. Such theories are not inherent implausible or irrational to believe, and I reject totally the pejorative way in which people use “conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist” in public discourse. I also think that any investigative journalist worth their salt, like Hager for example, needs to be some kind of conspiracy theorist. After all, the investigative journalist needs to not only ask “What aren’t we being told?” but also “What are they hiding?” So, when I say Nicky Hager is a conspiracy theorist, I by no means am calling his character into question. Indeed, I very much admire Nicky Hager and his past investigative efforts. “The Hollow Men”, which detailed the machinations behind Don Brash’s short stint as leader of the National Party is both well-written (rare in a book that long) and supported with oodles ((I’m sure that’s a technical term.)) of evidence. Hager’s “Other People’s Wars” is similarly well-written and evidenced ((But not as conspiratorial, I think.)) and his first major work, “Secret Power” is still thought of as an insightful and relevant analysis of the global surveillance state maintained by the USA. ((I’ve left out comment about “Seeds of Distrust” because that book is incredibly divisive and I’ve not read it, thus making whatever I think about it null and void.))

“Dirty Politics” (for my foreign-based readers who probably have no idea what I’m talking about this far into the post) is the story of Cameron Slater, aka Whale Oil, an obnoxious, odious blogger who supports the National Party in general and MP Judith Collins in particular. Based upon a leak of Slater’s emails and Facebook messages, “Dirty Politics” reveals that Slater not only attacks people opposed to the National Party using inside information, but that his blog is a bit of an astroturf site for elements associated with Big Tobacco, Big Dairy and the like. That on its own should render Slater unfit for public discourse (for he is a bit of a media darling at the moment). However, “Dirty Politics” also shows that he routinely digs for sex scandals, talks about blackmailing people he doesn’t like and engages in behaviour which, if not actually illegal, is definitely immoral.

Slater does not work alone: amongst his cartel of conspirators are prominent bloggers like David Farrar, political specialists like Jason Ede and Simon Lusk, and wannabe politicians like Aaron Bhatnager. Slater conspires with these people in his quite impressive campaign against all those who would dare allow themselves to be thought Cameron Slater’s enemy (a role most people get no say in). However, I’m not convinced that “Dirty Politics” is quite the expose of the conspiracy some of my allies on the Left think it is: I’m not convinced, based upon the evidence Hager presents, that we can truly say Cameron Slater is an integral part of a two-tier electoral strategy, one where John Key gets to maintain his facade of being a nice guy while the dirty business of politics has been farmed out to people like Slater, Ede and the like.

To be fair, it’s not that clear that even Hager believes that Slater is a lackey of the National Party. Rather, Hager argues Slater is an ally who can be trusted to act in the National Party’s interest. Slater works with the Party and for the Party’s interests, but he does not seem to work for the Party itself (or, if he does, no smoking gun evidence has yet come to light). Elements of the Party certainly has fostered formed close ties in order to keep Slater informed (and presumably people in the Party would like to guide the things he does) but he’s still very much his own agent.

That also doesn’t mean that Hager hasn’t uncovered a dirty conspiracy by Slater and his chums. After all, if you have read “Dirty Politics” (which, I repeat, you should: it’s a short, easy read), then you’ll have boundlessly come to the conclusion that Slater and company have colluded in activities designed to ruin the Opposition in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and, by extension, prop up the National Government. However, the argument that we can link this back to a plot by senior members of the National Party  – which some would like to argue – rests not so much on hard evidence but a lot of suppositions (some of which are reasonable but some of which trade on vague terminology).

“Dirty Politics” is really all about one thing, plausible deniability ((I’m being overly broad and simplistic, I know.)).

To be in a state of plausible deniability is either to be in a state where it’s plausible that you can deny knowing something (even if you do know it) or its plausible that you wouldn’t know something (and you might not). Governments like senior members of the ruling party to be in various states of plausible deniability, in part so they can do things without the public knowing about it and, in part, because it means they can do things without other members of the government knowing about it. So, for example, if you really thought John Key was just a figurehead, a friendly face which hides the dire nature at the heart of the party, then you might also think he is in a state of plausible deniability where he really and truly doesn’t know what happens in his office (because no one is telling him things he does not need to know) Some people thought this was truemof George W. Bush, for example, arguing that he can’t have really known what someone, say, like his old friend Scooter, was up to because people where told to not tell him things.

Plausible deniability is baked in to a lot of our modern politicking, which is a problem. It’s a especial problem for the bigger, grander conspiracy theory people have picked out of “Dirty Politics” because linking what Slater does to the office of the Prime Minister and thus, by extension, to the senior members of the National Party is not as trivial as it seems.

Let me step back a bit. “Dirty Politics” starts out as an almost unashamed sequel to “The Hollow Men”. It recaps on how that book ended and develops the character of John Key, who was one of the hollow men of the previous title. Hager argues that Key either inherited the leadership of the National Party post from the previous leader, Don Brash, and decided to keep the same old advisors as Brash or that Key was parachuted in because he came across as  friendly and genial compared to the tarnished brand of Don Brash. Whatever the case, one of the central tenets behind the new John Key-led National Party was a desire to focus on positive, not negative campaigning. Hager writes:

The main asset in the campaign was the party leader John Key and he should not be tarnished by the things his government had or had not done in the previous three years. Much better to talk about the future than their record. Key was to remain positive and look forward. The campaign slogan, ‘Building a Brighter Future’, was optimistic, inoffensive and comfortingly meaningless.

Enter then, Cameron Slater, whose presence in the blogosphere at the tme was minimal. Hager argues that Slater was used by the National Party as a way for the Party to engage in negative campaigning (which was taken to be deleterious to National’s chance of winning an election) without having to actually campaign negatively. Slater could carry out the attacks whilst National could act all bemused on the sidelines.

There are two distinct rival theories at play here (with a few options which fall between them): either Slater works for the National Party or he works for the interest of the National Party. That might seem like a slight distinction, but whilst I think it’s clear that Slater works in the interest of the National Party, I’m just not that convinced we can say he works for the National Party. Here’s why.

“Working for the Party” entails being under the direction or control of the Party. Working for the interests of the Party merely means you are looking after their interests whether or not you are under the control of the said Party. The distinction is crucial, because it effects just how we apportion the moral responsibility of Slater’s actions. If Slater is a lackey of the Party who is directed, say, by the PM’s office, then said office is morally responsible for what Slater does. If, however, Slater merely (and I use the term advisedly) works for the Party’s interest, then it becomes less clear whether we can hold the Party responsible for what Slater does.

This is one reason as to why the PM is trying valiantly (and it seems, unsuccesfully) to say “Whatever this is about, it’s all on Cam!” After all, if Hager is to be believed, that’s precisely the arrangement they have and want. Slater volunteers to do the work, and it’s not explicitly condoned by John Key or his office. As such, John Key and his office exist in a state of plausible deniability. It’s just a case of mates helping each other out. It’s still a conspiracy, mind. It just happens to be much more complex than anyone thought.

Now, wise readers will be going “Hold on!” What I’m describing here is completely congruent with the PM knowing exactly what is going on. In this kind of scenario, Key is simply denying or hiding the implicit or institutional nature of what he and the National Party are allowing to occur. There is an analogy here between what most people think of as “racism” and what those of us call “institutional racism”. Commonplace or explicit racism is obvious and obviously hurtful. No one wants to be called a racist! Institutional racism, though, is largely invisible and thus easy to deny. In this scenario what Key is endorsing is a strategy that is invisible just like institutional racism; if you know what to look for, it’s there but if you take it that such activity must be explicit (like explicit racism) then it’s not obvious and thus you have plausible deniability.

Some close readers of the book will doubtlessly say “Look, it’s obvious Key knows what is going on because one of his advisors, Jason Ede, is co-ordinating the entire thing!” They will, quite rightly, point out that this passage is really quite suggestive of this particular thesis:

The turning point in this relationship came two weeks later, when Slater got an e-mail from Kevin Taylor, John Key’s chief press secretary. Taylor explained that the National leader’s office had decided it was not going to engage with any blogs. ‘I have no intention of answering questions from a Labour-backed blog,’ he wrote, so they did not want to be seen helping National-aligned blogs either. However, ‘FYI, Jason Ede asked me to mention that he will be giving you a call in the next few days.’ The new plan was that there would be no official links between Key’s office and the right-wing bloggers, but Jason Ede would become the ongoing connection. According to insiders, as the 2008 election campaign intensified, Ede established and ran morning telephone conference calls with Slater, Farrar and one or two other influential bloggers. Ede became known by his Beehive colleagues as the ‘black ops’ man, co-ordinating the smears against Labour and other opposition party politicians.

I would note that what we have here is a a denial from the PM’s office that blogs will be used in an attack strategy and just the vaguest mention that Ede will be getting in contact with Slater. Crucially, we’re not told what that communique from Ede to Slater was about. For example, it could have been a personal explanation of why National didn’t need Slater’s services and then Ede saying “Look, mate, we don’t need authorisation from head office. Let’s just take down the Left ourselves!”

“Hold on,” the sensible reader will say, “that doesn’t seem likely.” We know Ede and Slater worked together. Indeed, most of “Dirty Politics” is an account of the things Slater, Ede and Simon Lusk did. An account which, for large chunks of the narrative, makes no reference whatsoever to the office of the PM. There’s a lot about the role of Judith Collins, a Minister of the Crown, and a National Party IT specialist who probably was Ede, but…

Ede did work for the PM throughout the period covered by the book, and he’s now working on National’s re-election campaign. That’s certainly very suggestive and I by no means what to say that I don’t think it’s possible that Slater was getting fed information by people in the office of the PM. I’m just not sure that, on the evidence Hager has been able to provide, that we can’t also say that Ede, like Slater and Lusk, was simply working in the interests of the Party whilst also working quite separately for the Party. I.e. Ede may well have been a great advisor to the Prime Minister who also happened to be a kind of National Party-themed Batman, delivering vigilante justice to the Left between shifts.

And then there’s Slater and his conspiratorial correspondence. Slater’s emails and Facebook messages are confusing, since sometimes he talks about himself as an insider and other times he thinks of himself as very much outside the Party and very much unappreciated by it.

Craig Ranapia, over at Public Address, has presented an argument I will call “The Ranapia Conundrum”: if you think that Slater is a fantasist and a blowhard who makes things up and also inflates his role in proceedings, why would you believe anything he says? Now, this argument is pretty nuanced: when, say, Judith Collins praises Slater for some deception or piece of slander, it’s fairly reasonable for us to think that says Slater was responsible (after all, Collin’s may be many things but she is not the kind of person to give out praise easily). However, when it’s Slater boasting to Ede, Lusk or Bhatnager, why think he’s not boasting his own ego in order to impress them?

“Oh, for god’s sake!” some will respond. Yet we need to keep the fact that Slater may well be a blowhard in mind, since the story of “Dirty Politics” can either be seen as a narrative about how Cameron Slater is actually really good at playing at attack politics, or that he’s an ego maniac with enablers. If he’s being enabled, then we have to at least admit the possibility that some, if not a lot of the things he claims about his work are just the statements of a blowhard, one who has been at being the arch manipulator and has needed others in order to maintain the facade.

There’s also what I will call “The Helen Robinson Objection”, since it’s based upon a comment of hers in a Facebook post on “Dirty Politics”: why is it that Hager assumes that Slater is always telling the truth in his correspondence when we know he’s not really the most truthful person in the world? 

Still, let’s not be too focused on Slater the fantasist or Slater the liar. There is a lot of evidence that very, very dodgy things have been going on, all of which are worth investigating. I’m going to ignore the material about Judith Collins, mostly because I think it’s clear she is venial, corrupt and needs to go. No, what stands out to me are things like the remarkable speed in which Slater got access to SIS documents.

Documents like the SIS briefing notes are not usually released to the public, under the official information law or otherwise. Someone had overruled the usual practice and then fast-tracked the release. The released documents were stamped as being declassified on 26 July 2011, the same day that Slater sent off his request. Where was the time for decision-making and consultations?

Whilst the Devil’s Advocate in me thinks this could just be coincidence I have to say he’s not convinced: the timeline is just too convenient for coincidence to be the most likely explanation. That’s Hager’s point, of course: a lot of the material he reports could, on its own, just be the product of coincidence (or Slater being a blowhard fantasist). However, when taken together it suggests the existence of a much more involved conspiracy.

Then there’s the Len Brown affair and Cameron Slater’s involvement in breaking that story. Slater’s father was Brown’s main rival, John Palino, campaign manager and it now seems certain that if Slater senior didn’t know about Luigi Wewege and John Palino’s (unsuccessful) plan to destroy Brown with evidence of his affair, then Slater senior really wasn’t doing his job properly. Given Slater senior’s role in the National Party (he’s a former president), it’s not that much of a stretch to assume that some idle chatter between senior members of the National Party might have included talk of bringing down Brown.

Finally, there’s also this:

On Wednesday, 12 February 2014 John Key was in Parliament, being asked uncomfortable questions about his own coalition partner. Peter Dunne was in trouble over a genuine issue of political accountability, accused of leaking a confidential intelligence report to a journalist. Winston Peters joined in the questioning and enquired if Key had asked Dunne for his assurance that he did not leak the report. Key had his answer ready. ‘No,’ he said, ‘because I accepted him at his word, just as, I am sure, I will accept that member’s word that he did not discuss anything untoward when he went to the Dotcom mansion three times.’10 There was instant attention from the parliamentary journalists at the prime minister making such an intriguing allegation.

So, how did the PM know to say this? Was he briefed? Did he talk to Slater? Does he simply read the gossip pages where this was first reported (by Rachel Glucina, who seems closely connected to Slater)? Whilst none of this suggests a massive plot, it does suggest something sinister. Perhaps Slater doesn’t work for the National Party, but he’s certainly been tolerated by the Party and allowed a certain access. Luckily for us, the media seem to have decided that perhaps this special relationship shouldn’t be tolerated any more, and given we’re in election season, this new air of intolerance might well be good for democracy ((An example of a sentence which a) you think you’ll never write and b) is likely to come back to haunt you.)).

So, for those who have skipped to the end of this very long, somewhat rambling post, here are my thoughts: Hager has definitely uncovered a conspiracy between Slater, Ede and Lusk (who I take it are core to the plot Hager describes). This is, I would argue, proven. Hager has also suggested that the plot originates in the heart of the National Party, possibly in the office of the PM, and is the result of a “Public face: positive; secret face: negative!” campaign strategy. This is unproven, although it is suggested by the total evidence, and it deserves further investigation (indeed, I think we are morally obliged to investigate further because if it turned out to be true, then shady business indeed is going on in the heart of one of our major political parties).

Also, even if it turns out that Slater’s actions are entirely of his own making, it’s clear that Slater has been supported and aided by members within the National party, some of whom are very senior indeed and desire the leadership of that Party. National can’t shrug this off. Plausible deniability (of any form) can only get you so far. It doesn’t mean, like the PM seems to think, that you aren’t obliged to investigate serious claims of malfeasance. Failing to do so just makes people think the bigger claims of conspiracy are plausible.

I’ve been working on this review (or commentary) for days, and over that time a lot has happened. I, like I suspect many others, thought this book would merely confirm what many of us on the Left (and some on what I will call the “principled Right”) have believed for a while, but that the general public and the media would ignore it/buy into the National Party spin about Hager being a “crazy left wing conspiracy theorist”. However, given that a) the media seem to asking the hard questions, along with b) someone is providing us with dumps of the correspondence Hager based the book on and c) the National party spin on the matter is faltering (and the PM is failing to sound convincing or sincere), it seems that (just maybe) “Dirty Politics” might lead to, at the very least, a culture change, if not a change in government. Indeed, even if “Dirty Politics” has no real effect on the election, there is bound be some culture change in the National Party, because it’s now just more obvious how nasty and factionalised things things have got in there. It’s also now clear who has dirt on who. Some people, I wager, are going to stop talking to other people, and that’s going to make the National Party look a bit like the modern Labour Party. The next term of the National Government, should they get re-elected, will probably be best described as “acrimonious.”

Well, moreso than now.