It’s been three months since Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics was published. Since then, Judith Collins resigned and then returned to Parliament as the MP for Pakuranga. John Key continues to dodge questions from the opposition while consistently mispronouncing Nicky Hager as Nicky Hay-ger (Hager rhymes with lager... or saga). Hager’s house was raided by police, who were seeking information on the hacker Rawshark. Hager will now challenge the legality of the search warrant used by police, a legal campaign crowdfunded by public donors.
It’s far from over with. We’ll hear more about dirty politics as the trial progresses, and as we find out the results of the SIS Inspector General Inquiry, a response to allegations Slater was given details of a briefing between the head of the SIS and Labour’s Phil Goff. We’re also awaiting a government inquiry into claims Judith Collins “was involved in efforts to undermine Mr Feeley during his tenure as director of the Serious Fraud Office.” The scope of the inquiry is narrow, but of course it is — Key would hardly risk further damaging his own party with the results of a commission of inquiry. The risk itself it is too great and the pressure from media and the public simply isn’t great enough.
While Dirty Politics continues to reverberate, life for many of those implicated in both media and politics has largely continued as usual. Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater continues as a commentator on Newstalk ZB and National party pollster David Farrar of Kiwiblog keeps on blogging and commentating, as does New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union executive, Jordan Williams.
While Dirty Politics continues to reverberate, life for many of those implicated in both media and politics has largely continued as usual.
The New Zealand Taxpayer’s Union (NZTU), set up by Farrar, is, according to Dirty Politics, “An example of a supposedly independent organisation designed to back up the work of a political party.” Hager writes the NZTU “Had a policy of accepting anonymous and undeclared donations [and] operates, in effect, as an arm's-length ally of the National Party.” They haven’t fronted or been held to account. In fact, when I called Jordan Williams, wanting to know whether his behaviour (which has been pretty awful on a personal level) or the operations of the Taxpayers’ Union have altered since the publication of Dirty Politics, he hung up on me. What the NZTU really need to do, if they are to be considered credible, is not hang up on reporters, but acknowledge the claims made in the book and make public the sources of their donations. What media should do is not speak to the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union until they’ve done just that.
It’s not just Slater, Farrar and Williams who have escaped largely unscathed. Giovanni Tiso, political blogger and commentator at Bat Bean Beam, is disappointed that there hasn't been more change made by journalists. In a recent blog post, he writes:
Rachel Glucina is still employed by the newspaper she was using as a mouthpiece for the Minister of Justice. Cathy Odgers was approached by the New Zealand Herald to comment on the political campaign, and the column might well have gone ahead if she hadn't pulled out herself. Matthew Hooton admitted to Kathryn Ryan his role in the ‘chop chop for Nicky’ affair, and has kept his half-dozen jobs as a political commentator and columnist, including on the public airwaves. Jim Mora continues to invite representatives of a Tory front organisation and the likes of Stephen Franks – whose legal firm made use of Whaleoil – on his popular show at Radio New Zealand. Cameron Slater remains a commentator for Newstalk ZB (which led Wendyl Nissen to resign her job at the station), as is Jordan Williams (which led Helen Kelly to resign), as is David Farrar.
That’s quite a list. Tiso says part of the problem stems from a lack of solidarity, “And that's not just in media -- that's across all sectors.”
While many of the media personalities implicated in Dirty Politics have retained their positions, in Parliament the subject of Dirty Politics continues to pop up during Question Time. On 26 October, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman questioned the Prime Minister about Jason Ede, who accessed data that wasn't properly secured on the Labour Party website. The data, which included lists of donors and supporters, was clearly supposed to be private and inaccessible. In Question Time, though, the Prime Minister underlined that the information was publicly available. He also made personal digs at Nicky Hager, which has become bit of a theme.
Classic Question Time. Russel Norman asked: “Is the Prime Minister satisfied that his office upheld the highest ethical standards when his employee Jason Ede accessed the Labour Party’s private database without permission?” John Key's response: “In answer to the first part of the question, yes.” I'm not sure what the 'first part of the question' is, because that looks like one nicely-rounded question to me. The Prime Minister should not, and, Hager suspects, will not, continue to get away with such evasive answers.
While Tiso is disappointed more hasn't changed in the media, Hager himself is both positive and pragmatic about the response to the book, appreciating that so many have read and discussed its contents, but lamenting that many of the players, most of all John Key, have so far escaped unscathed. He further believes people will soon get frustrated at the lack of solid answers from the Prime Minister. When I spoke to him, he said that “the election took over, as it should have done, but now the issues still haven't gone away… [Key] deserves to be had on about it, because he was at the heart of the system I wrote about.”
I asked about the lack of practical change in response to all this. Hager replied that he “could be grumpy about it, because a lot of things haven't changed yet, but I see it as a work in progress. I believe it's no longer credible or looks at all dignified for people to use Cameron Slater or David Farrar or the people who were highlighted in my book, but you can't expect people to change overnight.”
Does he think that we'll see an end to dirty politics? He's not so sure.
When politicians get in trouble — and this is the value of revelations and transparency — when they get caught out, they are much more careful in future. They probably don't use the same tricks in the same way, but I'm not confident that there won't be new tricks, and the general modus operandi, which was to control information and not release information they didn't want the public to see and to be very unhelpful under the Official Information Act and to have a big emphasis on attacking their opponents — I think we'll see that all continuing.
So, while some are frustrated at a lack of change in so-called dirty media, and Hager himself says he has no doubt dirty politics will continue, he writes in the afterword of Dirty Politics:
The attacks, manipulation and other dirty politics... are made possible by problems and weaknesses in the political environment: under-resourcing of news media, weak freedom of information laws, too much advantage for parties aligned to wealthy interests and a lack of understanding of blogs and political ethics. Each is a human problem and so can be improved.
It’s cautiously optimistic. Dealing with Dirty Politics may well be a case of waiting: waiting for the inquiries and Hager’s court case. “Change,” as Hager said, “is slow.” In the meantime, we can at least recognise that these things are a reality. Parties aligned to the wealthy are advantaged. Personal attacks are getting in the way of actual politics. Lobby groups are — or at least have — worked with Cameron Slater and others to personally attack those who speak out against products that may be detrimental to public health.
This is why, three months on, we should care. When those with political motivations work to silence academics and journalists, and those in the halls of Parliament work to control the release of information, the health of our democracy is directly affected. Until we can trust our politicians to deal honestly - and until we can trust our media not to trust them on that - we'll have no choice but to second-guess everything that comes out of Parliament.