Voters have more to worry about

LIAM HEHIR
Last updated 12:00 19/08/2014

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OPINION: Having barely secured a copy of Nicky Hager's briskly selling Dirty Politics, thanks to the always helpful staff at Whitcoulls on Broadway, I've had to speed-read to get my take into this week's column. By next week we might already have moved on to the next scandal supposedly about to unravel the Government.

The beginning of the end of John Key's government has been prophesied by political commentators in the past few years. Some of the things proclaimed as "game changers" have included Labour appointing Matt McCarten as chief of staff and its rejection of orthodox monetary policy; the Oravida, John Banks and Maurice Williamson affairs; and the formation of the Internet Party and its subsequent alliance with Hone Harawira.

And yet, in the face of all these so-called game changers, the state of play has remained stubbornly static - with polling showing that support for National remains at historic highs and that the Labour vote is collapsing. How can this be?

I think it just emphasises that the concerns of most political commentators are just not in alignment with those of ordinary voters - who are more concerned with perceived good economic management than political intrigue involving figures they have never heard of. Dirty Politics falls into the latter category.

In terms of the content itself, it's difficult to make a definitive assessment. The material underpinning it seems to be authentic (as is typically the case with Hager's work). Setting aside the irony of a self-styled privacy champion writing a book based on emails stolen from a private citizen; however, you can't help but also notice that his analysis is sometimes strained.

To give one example, the book dedicates a whole chapter to David Farrar, a market researcher affiliated to National. Farrar owns a firm that undertakes a lot of internal polling for National but is best known as the author of the popular and widely read Kiwiblog.

The supposed scandal is an allegation that Farrar systematically and effectively hides his affiliation to pose as some kind of independent commentator. In Hager's telling, the media are reliable dupes for this ruse. The book claims that "[Farrar] is usually given a title such as ‘political blogger' and his National party polling role is almost never mentioned".

Having digested this apparent bombshell, you should now Google the phrase "National's pollster David Farrar". As you behold the multitude of media reports that have accurately used this description, you can relax a little about our journalists not being total suckers. You can also pat yourself on the back for apparently undertaking more fact checking on the claim than Hager's editors did.

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Of course, Dirty Politics is mostly about Cameron Slater, the Auckland man who runs the infamous blog known as Whaleoil. His is by far the most read political blog in New Zealand, but I have to admit that I am not really a reader. The style is not really to my taste; he has regularly insulted my Catholic religion, denigrated this region and written mean things about people I know and like. For several years now, I have exercised my consumer sovereignty to satisfy myself with other sources of news commentary (it is, after all, a big internet).

What Hager has published tends to validate that decision, but it is difficult to know by how much. The book's accusations are built around selected communications which paint a circumstantial picture at best. The missing context is mostly supplied via insinuation, guesswork and padding. There is even a lengthy quote from an internal memo from the Nixon White House - presumably just inviting us to infer that the Key administration works in the same way!

Without the full context it's hard to know whether we are really getting an insight into the inner workings of National's hierarchy, or just the braggadocio of those working at its periphery.

The book's exclusive focus on National also leaves us clueless as to whether competing parties operate similarly. In fairness to Hager, he can only work with the material in front of him (short of soliciting further illegally hacked emails). However, Labour dissident Josie Pagani claimed on Friday that much the same occurs between Labour staffers and the party's own simpatico blogs.

Despite that, and my general scepticism that the book will sway voters, there is a risk that it could hurt the Government if its media management of the controversy is found wanting. If so, it could echo the damage caused to Labour by its flat-footed response to the Corngate scandal of 2002 - also ignited by a Nicky Hager book. Even then, it is worth remembering that Labour's share of the vote increased in that year's election and that National was still routed. Maybe I am wrong. We will see soon enough.

- Manawatu Standard

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