Dirty politics - is there any other kind?

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 19:17 19/08/2014
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OPINION: It is nearly 20 years since I first read Dirty Politics. Impossible? Given that Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment was only published a few days ago, how could I possibly have read it in the 1990s?

The answer, obviously, is that Hager's is not the only book bearing this arresting title. The American scholar, Kathleen Hall Jamieson's, Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy, was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1992.

As the subtitle of Professor Jamieson's book suggests, her research covers much the same ground as Hager's Dirty Politics; the obvious difference being that her examples are drawn from American politics.

About the subject matter of her study Jamieson writes: "Those who claim that politics is cleaner now than it was in the nineteenth century are usually marshalling evidence that compares toucans to tangerines, unsigned print ads to televised claims. But if one compares print to print one finds as much that is disreputable in today's campaigns as in the past."

Jamieson's claims for the historical continuity of attack politics are further reinforced by quoting American Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.

To his friend, Robert Morris, Franklin observed that the public "is often niggardly, even with its thanks, while you are sure of being censured by malevolent Criticks and Bug-writers, who will abuse you while you are serving them and wound your Character in nameless Pamphlets".

Franklin presses home his complaint in language which undoubtedly strikes a chord with today's political leaders; accusing his critics of "resembling those little dirty stinking insects, that attack us only in the dark, disturb our Repose, molesting and wounding us while our Sweat and Blood are contributing to their substance".

Nor does one have to look too hard to discover evidence of attack politics in New Zealand's political history.

Of the 1951 snap election, University of Otago Professor of History, Tom Brooking, writes: "The campaign was probably the dirtiest in New Zealand's political history. National declared the election was a contest between the 'The People versus the Wreckers'. Hackneyed old stories that [Labour Leader, Walter] Nash had once been a bankrupt were dredged up and his earlier visit to Russia was cited as proof of his communist leanings."

Much worse, however, were the series of highly embarrassing and potentially criminal incidents which dealt death-blows to the political careers of Labour Party politicians Colin Moyle and Gerald O'Brien.

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Nor is the dark anti-hero of Hager's Dirty Politics, Cameron Slater, without precedent when it comes to the New Zealand Right's long history of doing damage to its political enemies.

As Listener journalist (and now Bill English's press secretary) Joanne Black wrote in her review of Redmer Yska's study of the newspaper Truth (of which, ironically, Slater was the last editor): "For nearly 40 years [James] Dunn, as Truth's in-house censor, read almost every word of every edition before it was printed. But his influence was not only on what not to publish for fear of defamation suits. He also played a backroom editor-in-chief role and was himself the source of many stories, including those that satisfied his virulent anti- Communist beliefs, which were shared by editor Russell Gault."

The great Prussian military theoretician, Carl von Clausewitz, famously described war as "the continuation of politics by other means."

I would argue strongly that the reverse of that famous formulation is equally true. That politics is the continuation of war by other means.

Democratic politics, in particular, requires both the political leadership of the state - and its citizens - to resolve the fundamental economic and social issues dividing their communities through institutions and processes that are of their essence both formal and peaceful.

Legislatures and elections are thus charged with settling those issues which would, in previous centuries, have been resolved (to quote another Prussian) by "blood and iron".

In practical terms, therefore, the accepted (if unacknowledged) principle of professional politics has always been that so long as politicians and their follower eschew actual physical violence, then all other tactics are permitted.

Politics is not an occupation for the faint-hearted, nor is it one whose practitioners can remain both effective and unstained. Bluntly, "dirty politics" is the only kind there is.

Hager argues that: "Exposing dirty politics is an essential step in allowing reasonable people to understand and to choose other approaches. There is no need to follow those who are least principled down into the pit."

But the choice is not - with all due respect to Hager's ardent idealism - between decency and the pit.

The choice is between accepting "dirty" politics, with all its "Criticks and Bug-writers", and rejecting altogether the formal and peaceful processes of democracy.

The options are not fair means or foul: They are foul means or fouler.

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