‘You say that you hate Max Key, but I think you mean you hate most 20 year olds’
I can’t help but think that Max Key would be far less despised if he was gay. At least we’d see him as an unthreatening, liberated party boy rather than the son of a popular, skilful, trickster Prime Minister. Twitter becomes angry any time he does anything public, so his recent Remix Magazine photo shoot justifies our Freudian hatecrush, whose exposure of exposed muscular chest has ruined our libidos.
This is desperation and helplessness under a popular National Government in action: unable to influence politics, we target our frustration at political leaders and their children’s appearances, bodies and accents in a way we would normally scream body/ fat/ slut/ class shaming.
I’ve always found it ironic in how my political and generational contemporaries react to Max Key’s vanity. There’s arguably little difference between Max Key’s Instagram account and photoshoot with our exotic holidayed, bikini bod and sunbathed leg shot, locally-sourced prosecco potluck, LP-playing, cycling weekend-infested Instagram and Twitter accounts. The digital generation and anyone digitally savvy enough readily indulges in promoting their political, musical, fashion, cooking, sport and sexual tastes, but at the same time are equally motivated to simply share and live publicly, even if they’re occasionally overbearing.
Yet, perhaps we too easily rely on promoting our personal political brand values in direct opposition to those we despise, like the Ya Ya Club or Max Key. They have become lightning rods for everything we despise – privilege, wealth, inequality and even lung cancer. There’s a degree to where I can understand why progressive values often fail to gain public traction. Often the loudest supporters appear to be just as shallow and mean as those they claim to oppose. If Max Key is truly an awful garbage person, then we all are; we just do it with less money and promote different political and consumer lifestyle choices.
His faults can far more easily be blamed on media culture. A social media personality with dreams of stardom is behaving just like we would expect him to and his name is viral on social media and news outlets thanks to politically-motivated rage, while Remix Magazine and George FM are commercial media outlets motivated to increase their audience share and profits. If the arts and media are driven by infotainment and networking, then find solace in the Radio NZ/ Guardian bubble or learn to live with all forms of media. Oppose the system that gave X Factor NZ on Air funding and keep this in mind when the inevitable Max Key reality TV series gets commissioned. The heart of this matter is that fanatical fury and condescension against a socialite son of a Prime Minister will not defeat the National Government and usher in a new age of equality and justice, nor would any of us appreciate being in the position where we are an extension of our parents’ actions.
“This game is not a game for sooks and panty waists. It involved hard and fast rucking, a few nut sack grabs, hard tackles and more than a bit of eye gouging. To pretend otherwise is just plain dishonest… Fijians play like they are enjoying, with smiles from ear to ear as they run and grind your face into the ground. So, yes I play politics hard, I play politics like Fiji plays rugby.”
After an election campaign lacking in policy substance, I looked forward to the Key vs Cunliffe leaders debates. During last night’s 3 News debate though, I was reminded of my thoughts of a few weeks ago of a political class “engaged in the theatre of politics as sport.” Paul Henry’s post-debate analysis consisted entirely of play by play and performance highlights. I’ve spent three debates not learning anything new and simply analysing performance, nor am I alone. I observed on social media many politically-engaged people live Tweeting the debates in the form of dispensing commentary, similarly enthralled with the gimmickry of modern politics rather than public discourse.
The mainstream media approach of politics as sport to reporting is central to modern political discourse. Reporting of politics is defined not by competing philosophies but performance: game strategy, delivery, and style, hence debate analysis with titles like ‘Probably a Points Victory to Cunliffe’ or ‘John ‘Bantam’ Key Takes Debate’. Political correspondents define policies, debates, and events by ‘winners and losers’. Rotating post-debate panels of pundits on the Nation and Q&A offer theatre: political scientists offering play by play analysis of facial expressions and how ‘Middle New Zealand’ might respond to a red scarf, and journalists, pundits, and lobbyists with obvious political biases shout talking points at each other. A telling moment during last night’s debate was when Paul Henry panel reduced Cunliffe’s passionate appeal on poverty from the importance of poverty to a cynical game tactic. This format isn’t politics but an ESPN Sport Centre-style show featuring aspects of politics.
Politics as a sport serves the enthusiasm of the fans of politics. Fans are often those highly engaged in policy debates and have thoughtful ideological and philosophical thoughts, though often are simply tribal supporters of parties. Social media has seen the rise of many exceptionally thoughtful fans of politics as bloggers, Twitter users, writers, and journalists. Many of us love the game and that’s the problem. Those of us formerly opposed to mainstream media reporting of politics have surrendered to it, perhaps accepting the idea that this is the future. We who live tweet the Nation and Q&A comment on the performance of politicians now find solace both in channeling ideology and policy into ‘rooting for our team’ and becoming the pundits of our social media sphere.
Politics as sport has enabled the broader political establishment and political culture to justify unethical behaviour as “part of the game.” Politicians, staffers, and politically affiliated bloggers, journalists, and lobbyists might view themselves as heroes fighting to win the game. Politics being judged by battling current affairs pundit panels and scripted televised debates camouflages for the politically involved how politics works, most obvious in Cameron Slater’s quote likening himself to Fijian rugby. Dirty Politics revealed the collaboration between party advisors, and sympathetic journalists, bloggers, and economic interests and lobbyists to drive a stealth narrative under veneer of independence – a truer reflection of politics. If modern politics is indeed a sport, surely Dirty Politics is akin to a Lance Armstrong doping operation: a conspiracy of silence based on unethical actions and dirty plays. The public generally opposes dirty behaviour in sport, but opinion polling after Dirty Politics reveals the public is more likely to judge Hager and Key based on their political leanings. In other words, the public knows the difference between sport and politics, with the latter seen as unethical and damaged.
The ruthlessness and triviality of politics as sport from media, politics fans, and politically involved disengages the public from politics – surely a collective failure. This may be a significant factor for gradually declining voter turnout since the 1980s. While efforts like the Rock Enroll certainly help, they fall short of the full solution. Certainly, better political engagement and voter turnout help, but it must be equally balanced through addressing the root causes in media and political establishment for an often unpalatable discourse.
Some in the media would defend politics as sports as a perfect appeal to the masses through an analogy they understand. In that case, there are numerous television dramas which address politics in an appealing and understandable way. HBO’s The Wire is a perfect example of the infiniteness of what politics is: something on all levels. The cycle of poverty and crime, the plight of industrial workers, and teachers in underachieving schools teaching to the test and watching poor children repeat the cycle. Above them are the under-resourced, overworked police with often questionable practices made worse by politicised targets for crime reduction – eerily similar to falsification of Counties Manukau crime stats. At the top are slick politicians winning office through often contradictory alliances and false promises; Cunliffe and Key are likely little different. If we can understand the Wire, we can understand real politics.
To see politics as a whole, one must see the limits of what analysis, spin, and performance by political correspondents, politicians, pundits, bloggers, and politics fans provides. Public discourse on the issues that matter must extend to the wider public, and this demands politicians, the public, and economic and social interests engage on competing solutions based on coherent philosophies.
Lisa: “Dad, for the last time, please don’t lower yourself to the level of the mob”.
Homer: “Lisa, maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions. Now where’s my giant foam cowboy hat and airhorn?”
-The Simpsons, ‘Whacking Day’
There’s an irony lost on New Zealanders relishing in the slaughter of a beached whale. For over a week, many of us have been consumed both by shock at the degree of unethical practices of Judith Collins, Cameron Slater, and potentially John Key and belated joy of comeuppance and revenge – clutching our metaphorical harpoons.
This is the venting of anger and frustration of six years of powerlessness on the left. Two terms of political opposition, an ineffective and often incompetent Labour Party, and a highly organised, generally popular government in alliance with well-followed, effective, sympathetic bloggers. With Labour opponents falling again and again to untraceable leaks, for many it became akin being at the mercy of a cruel set of schoolyard bullies who also happen to be the prefects. Though many in the political realm had suspected a darker ethical depths of Slater and connection to the Beehive there was little concrete proof, so many felt powerless to stop this and resorted to squabbling amongst themselves instead.
After the release of Dirty Politics, a renewed confidence has developed solely from the felling of the indestructible image of Slater and Key. Slater has been unable to defend his actions and attempts to pin the blame on Kim Dotcom have fallen entirely flat. More importantly, we relish in the fall of Key. Guyon Espiner’s brutal interview with Key on Radio NZ on Monday will be remembered as his worst yet: the evolution from charming and disarming to a clearly rattled robot repeating contradictory talking points regardless of the question. The newly empowered, baying mob demanding everything from the rolling of prized heads to the settling of petty scores such as the revocation of Slater’s Cannon Media Award – demanded by the runner-up.
The downside of this monumental turn of events is that this has nothing to do with a resurgence of left wing ideals or an effective grassroots political movement but entirely reliant on the revelations of Dirty Politics. That the root cause of dirty politics is the culture embedded within the parliamentary system should be cause for concern and unification on the left to do better. Duncan Garner confirmed from Press Gallery experiences the use of dark tactics by left wing parties including leaking personal or political information to the media by Helen Clark, Pete Hodgson, and former Alliance President and current Labour Chief of Staff Matt McCarten. One of Clark’s Minister of Immigration Lianne Dalziel resigned after leaking information about an asylum seeker deportation case. In fairness, left parties haven’t visibly plumbed to the depths of the revelations of Dirty Politics, but that hardly excuses past actions. Clark’s government existed prior to the realised power of the blogosphere, nor can collusion between the left blogosphere and left party organisations be ruled out in the past, present, or future. The only real difference of principle is that Labour politicians tended to leak straight to journalists, whereas National outsources traditional functions to private contractors – rather fitting for the government who started charter schools.
While Dirty Politics has been an incredibly important milestone in revealing the sinister nature of NZ politics, it can’t only be addressed in retribution, which will beget more retribution and rob the public of political debate. Without real debate on the legitimate issue of ethics in politics – which so far politicians on neither side appear to address at depth – real political power will continue to be concentrated in a self-interested political class of politicians and professional staffers on all sides, professional pundits, and politically obsessive social media types engaging in the theatre that is politics as sport – every event and policy reduced to winners and losers or, in this, case the hunters and the hunted.
Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics confirmed what many involved in politics already knew – that Cameron Slater is a garbage person with little compunction about undermining enemies in unethical ways – and alleges what people had suspected – that he was part of well-organised network of political staffers, affiliated bloggers, and sympathetic journalists intent on reinforcing a pro-National Party narrative. In my earlier post ‘Subcontracting Morality’, I argued that Cameron Slater was an adept blogger who understood both media motivations for popular, scandalous stories and knew how to leak information, with his history and connections as a political operator being crucial to his success. Hager alleges a far greater degree of unethical behaviour and coordination including the Prime Minister himself. Certainly, the blogging narrative of Slater, Kiwiblog’s David Farrar, and Matthew Hooton generally bears a striking resemblance to the core National Party narrative of a stable, moderate centre-right government led by a strong, likeable leader, in contrast with a divided left led by an unpopular, gaffe and scandal-prone leader despised by his own caucus and aided by the radical, beholden Internet Mana. It would be hardly surprising that there wasn’t been at least an informal cooperation between the Beehive, bloggers, and journalists – either ideologically sympathetic or those driven by profit demands who simply want a scoop – towards mutually beneficial outcomes.
As I argued in ‘Subcontracting Morality’, the media have essentially removed themselves from ethical debates on issues like private morality – like the Len Brown affair leaked by Slater – for the sake of profitable news. This indirectly empowers politically-connected bloggers like Slater to create/ leak/ release news rather than news organisations themselves, who can remain untainted from tabloid approaches while promoting Slater’s work. Allegations involving Key, if true, would indicate a similar approach to subcontracting amorality, where dirty tricks operations could be laundered through a third party – with Slater resembling something akin to a Cayman Islands money laundering operation. In this sense, it would indicate that the reach of professional political operations into social media and sympathetic journalism are deeper and more widespread than previously thought.
The fact that New Zealand’s most popular political blogs are those with political affiliations raises a question of the degree to which the public can trust information disseminated from these sources. In the latest stats from July, Slater’s Whale Oil was the most read blog followed by Farrar’s Kiwiblog. Third place was the Daily Blog edited by Martyn Bradbury, who wrote the Internet Party draft strategy, worked as a consultant for Mana, openly supported Cunliffe during the Labour leadership election, and backing IMP, Cunliffe, and a Labour-Green-IMP coalition to the hilt. In fourth place is the Standard, a collective of left-leaning bloggers with mainly pro-Labour sympathies, including prominent poster and Cunliffe confidant Greg Presland aka Mickey Savage. If Hager’s allegations are true, it would not be a significant stretch of the imagination for some cooperation and joint strategy among many on the left. The left simply hasn’t developed the breadth, depth, and strategic nous of Slater-Farrar-Hooton and journalistic allies, nor put aside egos and halted infighting as well as the right.
The political connections of these top four political blogs suggests a hypothesis that truly popular, influential political blogs with high readership may rely heavily on the access to insider political information and patronage from any political affiliations. This would be an alarming but not entirely surprising development that political interests have successfully entrenched themselves in the blogosphere while posing as nominally independent. Not so much reacting to or reporting the news but creating coordinated PR.
If the book is wrong, current trends in politics would indicate that greater informal networks between political organisations, bloggers, and media are inevitable. With a need for politicians to remain untainted, disavow ‘dirty tricks’, and call for people to #votepositive, there is huge incentive to engage in mutually beneficial relationships to promote an agenda.
“For a quarter of a million pounds, that had better be one fucking hell of a dinner! If it’s not unicorn, you’d better be eating roast swan that’s been wrestled to death in a pit in front of you by the Queen herself.”
-John Oliver, on the ‘Downing Street Dinners’ scandal.
Both receiving conditional donations beforehand – like the donation-only anonymous dinners at Antoine’s Restaurant in Parnell or a Cabinet Club event – or after like with Oravida are two sides of the same coin. Both technically legal but raise significant ethical concerns over the role of money and access in politics.
The revelations over National Party practices are part of a global trend in political party funding networks. This week, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey was revealed to be involved with the North Sydney Forum, a Hockey supporters network which includes a $22,000 per head special membership rate that includes private lunches and audiences with Hockey. The membership includes corporate board members, lobbyists, and long time Liberal Party donor/ operatives. This week, the Liberal Party is hosting a budget breakfast fundraiser in the Parliament building, to be attended by Tony Abbott and senior cabinet members for the price of $11,000 per head entry – just below the $12,000 limit for anonymous donors. This isn’t limited to the Liberals: the Labor Party in New South Wales has begun offering fundraising options between $5,000 to $15,000 to attend lunches, briefings and drinks with senior shadow cabinet ministers and leader Bill Shorten.
The worst case was in 2012, when the UK Conservative Party were revealed to have the Leaders Group program, where for £50,000, “Members are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches.” The website also makes mention of other annual club memberships ranging from £2,000 local association networks and upwards.
These developments are rooted in the needs of modern political machines in a state of perpetual election campaign mode. A modern party is a professional one: head office staffers, external consultants and services including opinion polling, focus groups and advertising, events, and regional party organisations and networks. Not to mention the pressures of a political reporting approach more tailored towards ‘winners and losers’ and ‘who won the week.’ Political parties need to be at a war room footing to plan for the day, the week, and the next three years.
Despite that New Zealand parties are dependent on Parliamentary Services for the majority of their finances, perhaps we’ve passed the threshold of this balance being financially sustainable.
The needs of the political party machine and the media cycle incentivise political parties to actively pursue more and larger donations. Given that political party membership bases in Western democracies have fallen dramatically and insufficient to fund modern political machines, this means pursuing larger donors. Labour under Presidents Jim Anderton in the 1970’s and 80’s, Bob Harvey in the late 1990s, and Mike Williams in roles from chief fundraiser in the early 80’s to President under Helen Clark pioneered soliciting corporate donations. Williams especially acted a conduit between corporates and cabinet using more subtle methods such as arranging meetings between Clark cabinet ministers and then calling up for donations, as well as engaging corporates to communicate policy concerns to cabinet.
The events at Antoine’s Restaurant and existence of Cabinet Club reflect that National has institutionalised what Labour did informally. As a conservative party more open to a free market business model that implicitly and explicitly favours larger corporate interests, as well as being the incumbents, this has been a natural transition. National politicians could justify mutual interest between business and party philosophy, which is to an extent true. Yet given the financial weight of those donors representing corporates, those on corporate boards, or simply wealthy individuals, they would be more likely favoured over small business or regional business donors. This is likely to favour a free market environment dominated by monopoly and oligopoly corporate concerns: lower top income tax and corporate tax, less regulation especially on consumer regulation and the environment, and weak labour laws.
Consider the registered list of combined donations over $30,000 since January 2011, which certainly in favour of National, but with Labour also receiving corporate donors. National’s list is far larger, and containing notables including Bruce Plested of Mainfreight, the argriculture company Gallagher Group, Oravida, City Financial, Susan Chou (linked to Crafar Farms), and ‘Antoine’s Restaurant’ as the combined total of the infamous fundraising dinner. Labour has received little but since the 1980s has regularly received donations from corporates donating to both major parties.
The ethical question posed by the challenges to both National and Labour is the extent of influence private access can gain. This topic has been covered in an excellent NPR report for Planet Money, ‘Take the Money and Run for Office’, on the impact of money in American politics. From former Rep Barney Frank:
“People say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have any effect on me,'” he says. “Well if that were the case, we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.”
Yet, Frank also says money isn’t evening, claiming “If the voters have a position, the voters will kick money’s rear end every time.”
To an extent, this is true: politicians claim strong personal principles and philosophy on politics and governance. But politicians are ultimately at the mercy of their parties for electorate selections, list rankings, so would tow the line if asked.
The NPR concludes that this type of fundraising is about access. According to the report, a least ¾ of all money fundraised is at breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and receptions, where access is paid and space for credit card numbers are commonly included on forms.
“Fundraisers and campaign contributions don’t buy votes, for the most part. But they buy access — they get contributors in the door to make their case in front of the lawmaker or his staff. And that can make all the difference.”
Certainly, New Zealand politics is not as dependent on lobbyist and third party money as America, but paid access to Government Ministers brings a candidness and direct influence is far beyond that of the ordinary citizen – even in a country where you can easily spot a cabinet minister in the supermarket. We don’t know what goes on, but the results of such financial benefits are obvious. Think Owen Glenn and Labour or the relationship between Maurice Williamson and Donghua Liu. Interestingly, Labour has the potential to gain power in this year’s election, and Oravida and Cabinet club allegations will no doubt play a significant part in this. But to gain and sustain power, they will need more fundraising revenue and there will be more willing donors open to an incumbent government. This isn’t simply a problem of one or two political parties, but one of the needs of professional political machines. The institutionalisation of privileged access reinforces the division between colluding elites and the public.
Homer: I always wondered if there was a god. And now I know there is. And it’s me.
Marge: You’re not a god, Homer.
Lisa: Remember Dad, all glory is fleeting.
Lisa: Beware the Ides of March.
-The Simpsons, Homer the Great.
In October 2003, as a member of Young Labour I attended the annual Labour Conference in Christchurch. The mood was full of jubilation: an incumbent government elected against a National Party who achieved 21% of the vote, major social reforms passed, and glee at the fortunes of Bill English featuring an over-saturation of “Kill Bill” jokes and condescension about the idea of Don Brash’s likely ascension to the National Party leadership. Four months later, Don Brash was level pegging or besting Labour at the polls and with Labour’s substandard response to the Orewa Speech as a final nail in the coffin, I stopped attending Labour meetings.
The dominant narrative of the New Zealand public, media, and political punditry is that of an inevitable National Party win. While not really direct from the party itself, this is more of a media-punditry narrative based mainly on comparative leadership.
National is aided by the most popular political leader who is personally likable, has excellent political instinct, is an excellent debater both on television and quick witted in the house, and knows how to manage caucus and employs good communications staff. Moreover, he’s been able to shepherd through controversial and often unpopular policies such as partial asset sales, banning offshore protests at deep sea drilling, overseeing cuts of thousands of public sector jobs, and maintaining unemployment rates above 6% and often above 7%. As a politician, he is clearly the equal to Helen Clark. Comparatively, media has concluded already that David Cunliffe has bad personal judgement, is corrupt, and gaffe prone – all over one issue.
This narrative is effectively supported by the efforts of allies, especially popular bloggers in their ability to gain traction in the media. Cameron Slater and David Farrar, whether purposefully or by accident, provide a highly effective “good cop, bad cop” routine: the tribal attack dog who relishes the fight against left wing corruption and knows how to create news, and the principled classical liberal insider who focuses on alleged Labour-Greens illogic and hypocrisy and Government “good news”. Both rooted in the National Party so they know networks and inside gossip. Slater especially has been a source of leaks from Labour and National sources, and Farrar especially appears to have good relationships with journalists and the Press Gallery. Labour and the left do not yet have any equivalents as capable, strategic, or well placed.
However, certainly there exists the likelihood for National Party overconfidence and complacency. National’s success relies on the continuation of the narrative of inevitability, the over-reliance on the leadership of John Key, and an ineffective opposition. If two or all of these change, the political dynamics change.
Helen Clark paid the price for the overconfidence of media narrative and expectations in the 2002 general elections. Despite consistently polling above 50%, this fell to the low 40s due to a combination of factors including the late tarnishing of her image due to Corngate. Similarly during the 2011 general elections, despite polling consistently over 50%, National gained 47% of the party vote. Similarly, John Key’s actions over the ‘Teapot Tapes’ distracted from the election. Judith Collins’ conflict of interest over Ovida could be one of a number of contentious conflicts of interest.
While John Key rates consistently high for preferred Prime Minister, it’s entirely possible for a less popular leader to provide a challenge. Key has relied on an ineffective opposition led by a series of ineffective leaders, which might change. Labour had five years led by the ineffective Phil Goff and David Shearer in which is was unable to develop a coherent post-Helen policy narrative to appeal and mobilise both party base and appeal to practical public needs, captive to internal politics that prevented authentic rejuvenation, and divided between pro-Cunliffe and the so-called Anyone But Cunliffe faction of the Labour old guard and allies. Cunliffe has been only in the job for four months and failed to make headway – so far. As a politician, the Nation interview last Saturday clearly showed Cunliffe as an improving communicator who mastered refined talking points and who’s obviously learned from the John Key school of talking over journalists. If Cunliffe can learn to best Paddy like Key bested Campbell, he’ll be a good politician. In that case, debates probably won’t be a major problem.
To address a series of gaffes and an arguably ineffective opposition, there’s signs that Cunliffe is attempting to run a tighter ship. Hiring Matt McCarten as Chief of Staff clearly indicates the intention of uniting party organisation, grassroots members, union allies, and caucus as a unified force. Perhaps McCarten is an indication that Cunliffe will either placate rivals with plum jobs like Clark did with Goff and Cullen or punish dissenters with lower list placings. Key and National have not faced an effective opposition, but this changes if Cunliffe and Labour can improve leadership, network, and cohesiveness.
A tighter ship then makes it possible for Cunliffe to launch coherent policies to potentially undermine Key’s popularity. Once Don Brash ascended the National Party leadership in 2003, despite initial guffaws from the left he and his staffers proved adept at fashioning an alternative narrative around Maori and affirmative action, the economy, and welfare to almost win the election in 2005. Brash never obtained the personal popularity levels of Clark, the policy and narrative were politically appealing. This was similar to Margaret Thatcher in the UK general election in 1979, who won despite being 19 points behind Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the final preferred PM opinion poll. Though the heralded State of the Nation speech’s Best Start policy of $60 per week for parents of newborns wasn’t a game changer, Labour still has the chance to announce more substantive left-leaning policies, especially on employment, regional development, housing, education, and child poverty that will make a noticeable difference in peoples’ lives. Could be announcing the creation of specialist colleges and polytechs in regional cities, could be Medicare funding for health like in Australia. If it can run a convincing campaign on policy alone, it could provide the challenge to National that is not that far ahead in the polls and previously trailing earlier under Cunliffe’s leadership.
As a politics graduate, I generally don’t make long-term predictions. I’m reluctant to make short term ones. Getting drunk on 2005 election night at the Otago Uni Clubs and Socs building and conceding loudly and despondently at 9:30pm taught me that. The media has nothing seriously invested in these narratives and can change course in order to justify events within a new narrative. Same with pundits. Politicians have everything to lose through overconfidence. If these dynamics change, the election becomes competitive again. It was always going to be competitive, that’s why it’s called an election.