17 November 2011

A Comedy of Errors

Act I

The year after Don Brash lost the 2005 election for National, Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men was published. That book was based on a large quantity of documents, including emails, that had been passed on to Hager, apparently by insiders. The evidence revealed the back-room activities of politicians, including their relations with strategic communications firm Crosby/Textor.

Brash tried to divert attention from the contents of the book by accusing someone of having ‘stolen’ the emails, and a complaint was laid with the Police.

But Brash resigned as leader of the National Party very soon after the publication of The Hollow Men, probably because the evidence presented in it was accurate and damning.

And after three years of investigations, no charges were ever laid, probably because there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.

Nicky Hager later revealed on Radio NZ that, under Key, the National Party had rehired Crosby/Textor. Crosby then sued Hager for defamation, but the case was unsuccessful. So Hager’s evidence has been tested against the law and found to be robust.

Act II

Don Brash and John Banks have recently staged a take-over coup of the ACT Party, presumably so that they can run it as a right-of-centre off-shoot of the National Party and help the government push through some more policies that will favour the rich.

Brash and Banks have both proven to be, in their different ways, political liabilities due to their propensity to make embarrassing comments.

The present tea-party taping scandal continues this whole tradition. The PM has tried to suppress the contents of the tapes by referring the matter to the Police, and to distract attention by making it look like reporters are the bad guys here because they allegedly use tabloid tactics and won’t back off.

Suddenly Key wants the 2011 campaign to be about ‘the issues that matter to New Zealanders’, and no longer about what a nice guy and a good leader he is.

To some extent this shutting-down approach is working for a good portion of Key’s support base, as they see the taping as an illegal invasion of his privacy. The fact that (in my opinion) the conversation was neither illegally taped nor inherently private seems not to have sunk in yet. But I would be willing to bet that no criminal charges will ever be laid for this.

Hager’s book, in 2006, revealed a lot about the behind-the-scenes real world of politics. It is highly likely that the tea-party tape also gives us a peek into that Machiavellian world. That would explain the desperate efforts to suppress it.

But Winston Peters tried the blame-the-media approach in 2008, and it didn’t work for him. It will soon wear thin for Key too. Sooner or later, he has to face the facts.

The winners in the present scandal may be NZ First and United Future, as voters unhappy with a one-party National government under a now-tarnished Key look to alternative centrist parties. The loser could of course be ACT, whose future in Parliament now looks very perilous.

Surely National must lose some votes from the events of the last few days. And they only have their leader to blame, as he helped orchestrate the tea-break. Many potential supporters will be so confused and disgusted that they may not turn out to vote at all. A majority in the House for National looks increasingly less likely.

I don’t see Labour or the Greens gaining much out of this electorally. The Greens had their own scandal to deal with – and they dealt with it swiftly and honestly. Labour wanted to debate the merits of different policies, and this week has distracted from all that. Goff may gain some political capital from this week, but I doubt that it will amount to much.

The manipulation of the Epsom voters and the cup-of-tea meeting have turned out to be bad news all round. In the end, democracy is the loser.


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