Sadly, Hager's book won't clean up politics

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 14:15 24/08/2014
dirty politics
DIRTY POLITICS: Nicky Hager's book has dominated the news for 10 days.

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics has dominated the news for 10 days but interest is no doubt starting to wane. Which is just as well for the National Government.

Its strategists will be thankful the hacker who nabbed Cameron Slater's emails and phone records did not leak them to one of the big newspapers or broadcasters.

A newspaper would, for instance, have packaged the material into front page splashes which would have drawn the story out for much longer.

This weekend will be time for everyone to draw breath and access the damage.

The true measure of the impact will be on election day and, remember, elections are won and lost on the economy.

Aside from Justice Minister Judith Collins, the book fails to land any big hits on members of the Government even if Prime Minister John Key had to know something of what his staffer Jason Ede was up to.

Strangely, National comes out of the book looking better than you would expect. The book shows some important National Party people had considerable disquiet with links to the Whale Oil blog and Cameron Slater. The main damage to National is through its association with a nasty, allegedly corrupt and vulgar blog. Die-hard National people can forgive most things but vulgarity is not one of them.

It's unfortunate for National that the hacker decided to have a go at Cameron Slater because the private emails of a Left blogger or activist might have revealed the same sort of rabid discourse and underhand tactics.

Much of the comment about the book is along the lines of, "What did you expect? Politics is a dirty business". I can do cynicism with the best of them but I don't see this as a good reason for dismissing the book as the work of some unworldly activist.

Whether we should be surprised is not the issue. The book is a painful reminder of the low standards we accept from politicians by our acquiescence. It sheets home that, if these are the politicians we deserve, then maybe we need to adjust our expectations and get more involved ourselves.

The exposure of dirty tricks in the book rubs our faces in the cesspit politics can descend to.

Standards are important and they should be set high. Why should we expect a lesser standard of behaviour from MPs than we expect from lawyers, doctors and other professionals? Since people always fail to live up to standards, the bar needs to be set high in the first place.

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Although no-one has emerged from the fire of Dirty Politics unscathed, it's sometimes forgotten that Slater and the power of blogs in general have perished in it.

Many will wonder how the progeny of the National Party's moneyed elite ended up as such a bunch of nasty, toxic, hate-filled brats bent on a vindictive, class-ridden agenda.

I don't have a big problem with Slater's shock-jock patois - you have to admit he is clever - and the obscene blather in the emails could well be the sort of private stupidities many of us get up to.

Slater's lowest trick, for me, was maintaining he was independent when, it seems, he was prepared to publish material provided by both political and commercial interests, almost verbatim, for money.

A blog is indeed a "jerk with a laptop" but, if you're also a mouthpiece for anyone who sends you a cheque, you shouldn't pretend otherwise.

For instance, from Slater's emails, it appears he worked closely with hard Right, professional political strategist Simon Lusk. One of Lusk's clients was former police dog handler Mark Mitchell who in 2011 wanted to be selected as the National candidate for Rodney. In collusion with Lusk, Slater used his blog to carefully undermine Mitchell's opposition. Mitchell was selected.

In another example, Slater's blog carried for 18 months angry posts about the Building Service Contractors of New Zealand, which had agreed to minimum training and conditions for cleaners. Under an accord with the Labour government, only contractors belonging to the group were eligible for contracts for state buildings. In a campaign orchestrated by lobbyist Carrick Graham (son of former Treaty minister Doug Graham), Slater published posts Graham had penned and then cheering comments Graham made about the posts under a pseudonym.

Another prolific commentator on the stories was the head of a major cleaning company who also posted under a false name. Result? Accord scrapped.

Mainstream media are often the subject of scorn in social media but the Dirty Politics saga shows the value of having a trusted institution to disseminate news, opinion and information.

Hager is a figure of rare integrity but, in a way, he is no better than a one-man blog. That he was the breathless publisher of the leaked emails was a major distraction to the story and gave National the ability to dismiss claims as a Left-wing conspiracy.

It would be nice to think Dirty Politics will help clean up politics but the lesson politicians will probably take from the saga is less uplifting: Don't get caught.

- Canterbury

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