Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Not-So-Foreign Country

The Shadow Of The Past: The only positive aspect of Watergate was the way in which the venerable US Constitution was able to defuse what could have exploded into a full-blown “legitimation crisis”. Is New Zealand’s unwritten and historically untested constitution capable of rising to the challenge of this present political scandal as effectively as America’s rose to the challenge of Watergate? Can the Prime Minister and his Cabinet be relied upon to pass judgement on themselves?
 
I’M WRITING THIS COLUMN on the fortieth anniversary of Norman Kirk’s death. As someone who cast his first vote in 1975, it is tempting to eulogise the New Zealand of forty years ago and to compare it, favourably, with the scandal-ridden country of today. Certainly “Big Norm” was an extraordinary political leader against whom very few – if any – of today’s politicians could hope to measure up. One has only to watch his 1973 interview with David Frost (available online at NZ On Screen) to realise just how much the New Zealand electorate once demanded of their prime ministers.
 
We must, however, be cautious, and not only because, as L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
 
Beset as we are with a rapidly spreading and intensifying political scandal, we would do well to bear in mind that although the New Zealand of forty years ago was very different from the New Zealand of today, it was also, in “dirty politics” terms, surprisingly similar. Hartley’s caution notwithstanding, they did many things the same.
 
Forty years ago, far from being the preferred weapon of the Left (as today’s Prime Minister, John Key, alleges) the political smear campaign was the speciality of the Right. When the newspaper Truth (the Whaleoil blog of its day) published a front-page story alleging Kirk’s involvement in a sinister plot to socialise the New Zealand economy, it was written in exactly the same belligerent style as Cameron Slater’s postings.

Another instantly recognisable aspect of “dirty politics” 1970s-style was the Security Intelligence Service’s leaking of sensitive information to right-wing editors and journalists. Then, as now, they needed no further instruction on how to put such material to good use.

Most of all, however, the period leading up to and following Kirk’s death was characterised by a sense of powerful yet unidentified forces moving unobserved behind the scenes. A very similar characterisation of the political zeitgeist was one of the most memorable parts of Nicky Hager’s speech to a packed hall of interested Aucklanders last Wednesday. In explaining his reasons for writing Dirty Politics he referenced exactly the same feeling of unease about the way politics was being conducted; the same conviction that apparently isolated political events were, in some unrevealed and sinister way, connected.
 
The anxieties of the “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists” of the mid-1970s concerning the malignant political machinations of the “Kirk Years” were eventually proved right. Fortunately, Hager has not had to wait forty years to have his worst fears confirmed. Thanks to the intervention of a “White Hat” hacker known as Rawshark, New Zealand’s foremost investigative journalist has been able to demonstrate that the dark arts of attack politics are being applied in 2014 with no less devastating effect than in 1974-75.
 
The unfolding revelations, in which so much of the action has been concentrated in the offices of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice, have inevitably invited comparisons with the Watergate Scandal. That story also reached its crescendo in August 1974 when, for the first and only time in US history, a serving President was forced to resign his office.
 
It is worth recalling, given the proximity of our own General Election, that the exposure of the Watergate burglary in June 1972 had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the Presidential Election held in November of that year. Indeed, President Richard Nixon was emphatically re-elected – winning 49 of the USA’s 50 states. The slow unravelling of the scandal and its subsequent cover-up did, however, transform Nixon’s second term into a political and constitutional nightmare. As a result his administration was effectively paralysed and the USA gravely weakened.
 
The only positive aspect of Watergate was the way in which the venerable US Constitution was able to defuse what could have exploded into a full-blown “legitimation crisis”.
 
Democracies, much more than other political systems, depend upon their citizens’ belief that the people they elect to public office are decent, conscientious and law-abiding. If high ethical standards are not maintained; if citizens become convinced that their elected representatives are engaged in large-scale and largely unreproved corruption; then the legitimacy of both the government and the state is called into question.
 
Is New Zealand’s unwritten and historically untested constitution capable of rising to the challenge of this present political scandal as effectively as America’s rose to the challenge of Watergate? Can the Prime Minister and his Cabinet be relied upon to pass judgement on themselves?
 
Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974. Norman Kirk died 22 days later on 31 August. That’s when it began: forty  years ago; that’s when the poisons currently disfiguring our body politic first entered the nation’s bloodstream.
 
In the polling booths on 20 September can we purge ourselves of those poisons? Will we vote to impeach?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 September 2014.

12 comments:

Kat said...

From someone who cast their first vote in 1972 I can assure you Chris that after watching David Cunliffe's superb performance tonight in Christchurch the spirit of Norm Kirk is alive and well.

Anonymous said...

Still backing Internet Mana, Chris?
Even their own candidates are either disallusioned with Dotcom, or don't trust him.
If a right wing party was being backed by a forigen criminal, you'd be screaming blue murder, if you'll pardon the pun.
That is the real scandal in NZ politics.

Tiger Mountain said...

Poignant moment considering Big Norm today. No digital records of the dirty tricks back then, it all had to be pieced together in a different way.

Re Anony-mouse; New kid Internet Mana is solid on 2% and has hit 4% in one poll and 2.2%, 2.4% and 2.6% in others while well established ACT, Hairdo and Māori Party sit on 1% or even less.

If any party has under the radar support it is IMP and it will likely be favoured by the extended voting period and Dotcoms Greenwald Sept 15 event.


peterpeasant said...

The times and context are very different but there is a whiff of Kirk about Cunliffe. I have said this before,on other sites, and been pilloried (quel surprise?)

Anonymous said...

From one anonymous post to another.
That the Government of a Western Democracy employed a group of people to carry out the corruption and destabilisation of its regulatory authorities using information supplied by its own Government is the only scandal here. A minor political party not in Government funded by a convicted criminal is abhorrent but not new to New`Zealand. The National Party has in the past and still is funded by donations from convicted fraudsters and bankrupts, and secured its governing power by the support of political parties with MP's convicted for taking the identity of dead people.

Ted Blaikie said...

"When the newspaper Truth (the Whaleoil blog of its day)"

I read somewhere Cam Slater was the last editor of Truth before it folded. If so, this indicates even greater continuity between Truth and Whaleoil.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Funny, that "foreign criminal" was the poster boy of the right until he turned on them and bit the hand that fed him :-). You notice the difference in attitude to him and to Cameron Slater. Slater is being ignored rather than reviled, because he's on their side. But morally he's a much worse person.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous of 22:39 here!

Slater is a nasty nasty man, and I don't excuse his behaviour.
But the prospect of having several MPs controlled by a foreign criminal?
Cunliffe has not ruled out using them for confidence ans supply.
I don't recall Dotcom being the right's poster boy, but he certainly was tight with Banks. Look what it did to Banks. You'd think Hone/Mana would have learned from that.

Personally, I think Hone knows what he is doing is wrong. You can read it in his body language - he used to be the most forceful and open politician on TV. Now he looks guilty and evasive. Laila just looks besotted and spouts platitudes.
Sykes admits she doesn't trust him. Beyer says he's only out for himself (surprise!). Minto is uncharacteristically silent.
And Pam has hissy fits when the media don't swallow her bullshit.

Incidentally, Hager doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between illegal/unethical behaviour like Slater's, and being a National supporter like Farrar. He included a whole chapter on Farrar, who's only crime is being a National supporter and honest about his work. It is this sort of behaviour that gets Hager labelled a conspiracy theorist. That and his breathless wild eyed appearance.

And Chris still hasn't answered my question.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Slater might be a nasty, nasty man, but right wing people saying this before it all blew up in his face were pretty much hen's teeth. They held their noses because they wanted to use him. I didn't realise he was a Seventh-day Adventists though – how on earth could he reconcile what he does with Christian beliefs?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous of 22:39 again,

Guerilla Surgeon, yeah agreed.
Though religious people generally have little problem in reconciling their behaviour with their alleged beliefs.
Perhaps the 'religious' in that sentence is superfluous.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Again Victor, if he is so biased why did he almost bring down Helen Clark's government in 2002?
I suggest you read Eric Hoffer's book "the true believer". :-) Should be right up your alley – man of his hands, hard life, intellectual, anti-Communist. But his thoughts on why people don't change their minds in the face of evidence to the contrary are useful :-).
It's obvious that Hager (rhymes with lager :-)) is an idealist. Perhaps a trifle head in cloudsy, but an idealist with the ability to research and write. I notice the oily whale hasn't sued HIM :-).

kumararepublic said...

Guerilla: Slater is technically a Christo-libertarian, a little bit like the Paul family in US Republican circles.