Dirt-digging at heart of dirty politics

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 08:13 15/08/2014

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OPINION: Nicky Hager's book highlights the role of senior National adviser Jason Ede.

As NZ First leader Winston Peters puts it, Ede has been working in a ministerial office not to do a ministerial job but "to get dirt and spray it around about opponents".

But the book also casts doubt on the judgment of Justice Minister Judith Collins, who is shown exchanging gossip and tip-offs with blogger Cameron Slater, known as WhaleOil.

The welter of expletive-laden emails touches on four political pressure points.

1) Accessing Labour's website.

Wealthy Right-leaning Aucklander Aaron Bhatnagar found a security hole in Labour's website and tipped off Slater.

National's IT expert accessed it, but the party said it was mostly concerned about National's own security. Ede accessed the site the day before National's IT man and again later. Hager says Slater and Ede discussed which information to emphasise and later exchanged emails expressing relief Labour had not discovered Ede's role.

Prime Minister John Key said that if the website was in the public domain, as he maintains Labour's was, then "it would be fine" for staff to trawl through it.

2) The release of SIS material embarrassing Labour leader Phil Goff.

Goff denied being briefed by the SIS over Israeli backpackers who hurriedly left New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquake, but he backed down after SIS director Warren Tucker reminded him of the briefing. Slater asked for the documents under the Official Information Act in what Hager says was a carefully worded request. Hager says there seems "no doubt" Key knew what was happening and his staff liaised with Slater but provides no proof. Key said Slater's request had "nothing to do with my office".

3) Contact between Slater and Collins.

Hager says emails show Collins fed ideas and gossip to Slater to embarrass opponents. One email named public servant Simon Pleasants, who had previously worked for Helen Clark's government. Slater suggested he was a source for Labour's questions about Finance Minister Bill English's accommodation costs.

During the Bronwyn Pullar- ACC saga in 2012, former National Party president Michelle Boag, who was supporting Pullar, sent an email to Collins. It was leaked to the media but the minister denied her office was to blame.

Hager presents no proof she or her office leaked the letter. Collins has refused to comment.

4) The Hide "blackmail".

Hager says a campaign to "take out Rodney Hide and save ACT" was put in train by Slater and ally Simon Lusk, who was looking to replace Hide as party leader with Don Brash in 2011. Hager says they had discussed hearing that Hide sent "dodgy texts" to a young woman. Lusk suggested telling Hide they would leak them if he didn't resign. Hints were dropped on blog posts and two days later Hide stood down.

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There is no evidence the texts existed and no evidence in the book of a direct threat to Hide, who yesterday referred to Lusk and Slater's conversations as "two guys who email each other sort of like they're standing around in the pub talking bulls..."

- The Dominion Post

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