Thursday, 23 April 2009

Pilgering the 2008 Election

John Pilger

TO fully appreciate this posting you need to imagine that you’re watching a documentary by John Pilger. Recall to your mind’s ear the film-maker’s mellifluous vocal delivery: his dramatic rises, his dying falls. Most of all, recall the tone of angry pity with which Pilger animates his narration. The way he uses his voice to signal that what you’re about to see and hear is both serious and sad.

The documentary opens with Pilger standing on a Thorndon hillside. Behind him loom the skyscrapers of Wellington and its stunning harbour.

The story you are about to hear would come as no surprise to a citizen of Chile or Argentina or Bolivia or Venezuela. In the Third World it’s an old story.

But this story didn’t happen in the Third World, it happened here, in this country, New Zealand.

This little nation of four million people, located 2,000 kilometres to the east of Australia, used to be known as "the social laboratory of the world’. For close to a century-and-a-half, New Zealand has enjoyed an enviable reputation as the home of good government and progressive reform. Its political scientists boast that their country has one of the longest histories of uninterrupted democratic rule on the planet.

But this documentary isn’t about social progress or good government, it’s about a meticulously organised and highly successful political campaign, bought and paid for by a handful of unelected men and women, to bring down what most international observers agree was the most progressive social-democratic government in the Western World.

Over the course of the next ninety minutes you will see how the rules governing the funding of election campaigns in New Zealand were cleverly manipulated by a group of wealthy, right-wing religious fanatics to run a covert campaign, valued at more than a million dollars, to help the conservative National Party opposition win the 2005 general election. And how, when the unexpected winner of that election, the New Zealand Labour Party, attempted to reform the electoral finance laws that very nearly allowed the 2005 election to be subverted, the country’s news media ran a relentless crusade to discredit the new legislation - and its sponsors.

You will also see how the Labour Party, over a period of just three years, was forced by New Zealand’s Auditor General to raise a sum equivalent to the cost of three election campaigns, and transfer nearly a million dollars of that money to the State. An unprecedented penalty, whose legal justification was forcefully disputed, at the time, by the Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament.

It’s a story, in the end, about the ultimate inability of elected governments to counter the private, and essentially unaccountable, power of those who control the modern news media. About how money, and the media influence it confers, can turn the rights and freedoms granted to publishers, editors and journalists against the very democratic processes they are supposed to protect.

It’s one of the great ironies of this story that the attempt by a progressive government to limit the influence of money over the electoral process was characterised by those opposed to such limitations as "Democracy under attack!".

I’ve seen and heard headlines like that before. Most particularly in Venezuela, when I was filming
The War on Democracy.

In the course of making that documentary, I realised that the coup against the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, had been masterminded not by the Venezuelan armed forces, nor even by Washington, but by the owners and operators of the privately owned, right-wing Venezuelan news media. Indeed, they openly boasted about how they had done it.

What saved President Chavez, was the existence of a single, publicly-owned television station, which was willing to tell the Venezuelan people the truth.

The tragedy of the story you are about to hear is that it has no such happy ending. Not only was there no major media outlet willing to stand up and tell the people of New Zealand the truth about what was happening in their country between 2005 and 2008, but New Zealand’s voters, denied access to that truth, had no means of knowing they were being lied to.

You can imagine the rest. Pilger interviews the Exclusive Brethren, Kevin Brady, Margaret Wilson, Nicky Hager, Don Brash, business leaders, newspaper editors, television and radio producers, dissident journalists, critical academics, Labour and National Party politicians, trade unionists, Winston Peters, Owen Glenn.

It would be an absolutely explosive documentary.

Unfortunately, the chances of such a programme being made and screened in this country are about as slim as John Pilger reading this posting.

Still, you never know, the managers of Jonathan Coleman’s new "Platinum Fund" might be willing to stump-up the cash.

Then again, maybe not.


Bryce Edwards said...

Indeed I’m sure John Pilger could make a great documentary about this issue. But somehow I think Pilger would see things quite differently to what is sketched out above. It would involve Piger showing how Labour in New Zealand was akin to Labour in the UK – a “me too” alternative Establishment version of the Conservatives. Pilger would show how NZ Labour was still a very neoliberal beast and unable or unwilling to roll back the market reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. He would show how Labour was just as much in the pocket of business and the elite as National. In fact he would point to the fact that Labour has nearly always spent more than National in recent elections. It has also received about the same – if not more – than National from wealthy donors (according to Electoral Commission records). Pilger would paint a picture of the modern Labour Party as an insular elite electoral-professional body of politicians that no longer relied on members or even its old trade union networks for money or policy, but instead pilfered both its politics and its resources from the state apparatus. He would rightly show the attempts to “reform” political finance (such as the Electoral Finance Act) to be a misguided sideshow from real democratic politics.

Although having said all that, I’d love to see the original journalists who produced the 1990 Frontline documentary, For the Public Good, be resourced by Jonathan Coleman to put together a follow up to that! But I can’t see even the Labour Party being keen on that.


Anonymous said...

....and as in Venezuela, the right-wing media monopoly also feted and exploited assorted disgruntled critics of the major left-wing party from within; unwitting naive saps whose "left-wing intellectual" label leant added impetus and credibility to one of the most blatantly vicious and dishonest campaigns of demonisation ever seen in this country.

Bryce Edwards said...

Chris – you make it sound like you think that “left-wing intellectuals” should subsume themselves to the Labour Party no matter how rightwing Labour becomes, no matter how ugly its politics, no matter how anti-working class its attacks are. Are leftwing intellectuals and activists supposed to just toe the party line, and are we are supposed to just ignore that Labour has become just as much in the pocket of business as National? (Or have you got evidence to the contrary?)

This is a grotesque form of intellectualism, whereby you must suspend all critical thought and suppress your analysis of things like the EFA if such analysis doesn’t fit the partisan interests of the Labour Party.

I accept that much of the left did in fact follow such a basic strategy in terms of the EFA and for political finance issues in general. But such a strategy was a huge mistake. It handed to the right (and the media) the intellectual/moral high-ground. In fact it should have been the left that took the role of defending liberty and democracy from such state interventions. When the left is up to the role, historically it does a much better job of being “extreme democrats”, but in this case it handed that mantle to the right to beat the left (and the Labour Party) with. (Although of course, I’m speaking generally here, there were a number of left and leftish opponents/critics of the EFA).

But more than all of this, the left needs a proper analysis of why “the ruling class rule” and why in countries like New Zealand various governments (of all colours) consistently implement and/or maintain pro-business economic and social policies. Instead, the very thin and laughable explanations for this dominance that most of the left clings to - which is nicely outlined in the blog post above – i.e. that it is business donations to political parties that determines state action, needs to be finally rejected. Even John Pilger doesn’t have such a flimsy analysis and understanding of why business interests rule all over the globe.

For more on this, see my blog post on: “Political finance and inequality in New Zealand” at:
(especially the final third of the post).


Chris Trotter said...

Careful with the use of the personal pronoun there, Bryce. The comments you seem to be responding to were not made by myself, but by "Anonymous". You should really address your comments to him - not me.

Bryce Edwards said...

Whoops! Sorry Chris, noted and withdrawn! Somehow I had just assumed the comments by anonymous were yours. And it does sound a bit like you... ;)

But I do wonder sometimes about the value of allowing "anonymous" comments and pseudonyms in the blogosphere. I guess they have their place, especially for those that have good reason to avoid public comment under their real names, but I'm still a bet skeptical about their value and over-use.


Chris Trotter said...

Well Bryce, you know what Oscar Wilde said:

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

Anonymous said...

Or her - careful yourself! (and while he or she is flattered to be mistaken for the illustrious Trottski, shamefully it is down to no factor less banal than her or his inability to work the intertube)

Read the post again Bryce - Chris fingers not "business donations to political parties", but the media: and considering that a handful of editors and journos (and possibly a gaggle of talkback hosts) monopolise the entire political input to the "central" voters who determine our elections, he surely has a point.

And to gain an inkling of the current media leanings to which Chris alludes, make an unbiased ("academic" even) overview of the circumstances and relative profundity of but the two following examples, and contrast the media treatment given to each:

Peters vs Worth

EFA vs Supercity

(a half-decent "leftish" academic might even be inclined to do a proper job of it, comparing gravity of allegations, editorial stance, number of stories, column inches etc, but I won't hold my breath...)

Chris Trotter said...

My humble apologies "Anonymous" - I obviously need to work harder on my sexism!

Graeme said...

You will also see how the Labour Party, over a period of just three years, was forced by New Zealand’s Auditor General to raise a sum equivalent to the cost of three election campaigns, and transfer nearly a million dollars of that money to the State. An unprecedented penalty, whose legal justification was forcefully disputed, at the time, by the Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament.So many thoughts ...

1. The Auditor-General did not force anyone to pay anything back, he does not have that power.

2. The Auditor-General made a report to the Speaker/Minister responsible for the Parliamentary Service, the extent of his powers was that he required her to table it in Parliament, along with her response.

3. The Minister/Speaker could choose to accept or reject his advice, and chose to accept it (while expressing reservations).

4. The Minister/Speaker advised that she could not force anyone to repay anything, although she did recommend that parties seriously consider repaying the money.

5. Nearly $1m? Equivalent to three election campaigns? The sum indicated by the Auditor-General to have been mis-spent by the Labour Parliamentary Party was $768,000. Over the 1999-2005 election campaigns (excluding the pledge card and other Parliamentary-funded advertising in 2005), Labour spent $4,865,081 in declared advertising spending. Rather than being the cost of three elections, it was less than the cost of half an election's worth of advertising. Still a large sum, certainly, but you're out of the ball park by half an order of magnitude.

6. Labour did very little fundraising to pay this off. They declared over $661,000 of declarable donations from MPs for the 2006 calendar year (this excludes any donations from MPs of $10,000 or less, so I anticipate that it will have been a littler higher). Given the difference in salary between an opposition MP and a Minister, it should have been affordable (and was).

7. For the 2008 election Labour declared spending of $2,271,821.59 (this excludes spending on candidate campaigns). This is more than National spent, and indeed, more than National could legally spend, so their efforts don't seem to have affected them all that negatively.

Steve Withers said...

A very small number of people control the privately owned media in the English-speaking world. The views put forward are the same. In New Zealand we will soon be told by these media the Supplementary Member (SM) is to be preferred to MMP. Just as Canada is being the same thing right now by the conservative national daily, The Globe and Mail, on the eve of the second referendum on STV in British Columbia on May 9th. Just as Ontarians were told the same thing in 2007 prior to their referendum on MMP. Our own Michael Bassett was widely in print in Canada saying the usual erroneous things about how bad democracy is. With the teams blended globally like this, it's obvious the conservative faction everywhere dislikes democracy if it does anything other than enable them to rule alone. The media proprietors are critical players in enabling this. I've seen it first hand as media spokesperson for the Vote for MMP campaign in Ontario.

Chris Trotter said...

Congratulations, Graeme, on some useful research into Labour's spending. You do seem to have demonstrated that Labour was extraordinarily successful at restoring the party's finances after 2005.

Labour's debts in 2006 included a sum of $500,000 still outstanding (at the national level) from the 2005 election. In addition to this they were then required to make over a sum of around $850,000 to the State. (And I use the word "required" advisedly because so loud was the media clamour to "Pay it back!" that to suggest that Labour and the other parties penalised by the Auditor General had any choice in the matter simply isn't credible.)

No sooner was this sum of $1.35 million raised and paid than it was time to start fundraising for the 2008 election campaign.

To achieve the results you have detailed the Party had to shake the money tree very hard indeed. Reserves which had remained untouched for decades were liquidated, and individuals tapped beyond what was wise (e.g. Owen Glenn).

Those resources have gone for good and can no longer be used to underwrite future campaigns. This confirms both the real, as well as the opportunity, costs of the AG's decision.

So, while I concede the point that Labour was able to find the money within the allotted time-frame with apparent ease, it was only by reducing its fundraising potential for future campaigns.

In that sense, my original criticism holds true: the financial penalty imposed by the AG was unprecedented - both in its scope and in its devastating long-term political effects.

Grant said...

AS far as the media goes ...there's RNZ and then there's the rest. RNZ still takes most things seriously and wasn't at all bad at communicating the truth about the 05-08 period as it happened. Problem is it is strangled by a pathetic budget ($30mill p.a.) and cannot develop into the true national broadcaster it should be. On the other hand of course, such a pathetic budget hopefully keeps them below the line of sight of English and the Budget razor gang hard at work in The Beehive.