The point of Dirty Politics isn't (just) about what happens in September. Or, what Danyl Mclauchlan said, with more quotes.
I've made my way through Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics over the weekend. Danyl Mclauchlan's already pretty much expressed what it made me feel:
Whatever the wider implications, the book has had a profound effect on me, personally. Something that doesn’t come across in the news coverage about Dirty Politics, and Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, Jordan Williams, Simon Lusk et al is just how fucking awful these people are. They spend their lives trying to poison and contaminate our politics. They enjoy seeing people suffer. They get excited by the idea of breaking up the marriages of their political enemies and ruining their lives.
If you haven't read the book, that sounds a bit over the top. But it isn't. It really isn't. Because it is hard to identify what is the worst, most awful example of plain dispicable conduct in the text.
I'm not going to take you through the cast of this tragedy in any detail, or explain exactly how they all fit together. The book does that for you. All I want to do here is give those of you who haven't managed (or won't be bothered) to read it some indication of why it matters beyond the specific questions of whether accessing a left-open computer system is a crime, or if Judith Collins was "just helping" when she gave a public servants name up for public humiliation, or if John Key's office expedited the release of some SIS information to someone ahead of someone else. Because I want to talk about the sorts of people who this book reveals for who they are, and what their participation in our politics means.
Doing so first requires that I show you just how bad things are. So, is the worst moment in the book when Simon Lusk is discussing with Cameron Slater how they want to use some alleged texts sent by Rodney Hide to "some girl" to pressure Hide to resign as ACT leader:
[Tell Hide we have the texts] and will leak them if he doesn't resign by friday, and how will the new mrs hide react to that. [This is] straight out of my personal playbook, upset the missus, cause strife at home. (p. 69)
Or is it when this same Simon Lusk states:
I'm just motivated to cut throats. Unfortunately the biggest buzz I get is when I wreck someone, only done it three times, but I was on a massive high. (p. 65-6)
Or is it when Jordan Williams, the Executive Director of the "Taxpayers' Union" – a role he holds while also still ghost-writing posts on Whale Oil using Taxpayers' Union material to attack the Labour Party (p. 104, f/n 30) – and an admitted barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand, enquires of Cameron Slater:
Any convicted child rapists among that labour party membership list [that Slater had taken from Labour's website, knowing it to be private material]? Let's start googling. (p. 72)
Or is it when this same Jordan Williams responds to the news in July 2011 (less than six months after some 185 people died in Christchurch) that one of the members of his anti-MMP group has resigned by stating:
[A]n earthquake right now would be good. (p. 72)
Or is it when Cathy Odgers, also an admitted barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and so subject to the New Zealand Law Society's ethical obligations, ghostwrites a post on Slater's blogsite that attacks Nicky Hager for writing an article on the use of tax havens, and then contacts her friends:
It would be a disaster if [Chinese people who use these havens] knew where he lived. He may even need police protection. I've spent all day telling clients it is not our company but have asked a few how they would react if they knew a bit about the people publishing the material. I was delighted to assist with the full details for Mr Hager. Those Chinese can be very vicious when they lose face. ... Chop chop for Nicky. Shame Russians don't seem affected but our Chinese friends need a helping hand. (p. 92)
[She is then provided Nicky Hager's address by both Matthew Hooten and Cameron Slater.]
Or is it when Cameron Slater asks an ex-prostitute friend:
Boscawen. Any dirt on what, who, when and how would be good before 10am ... especially how he likes it and where he buys it from. (pp. 113-114)
Or when he asks the same person:
[D]o you have any sleaze on Duncan Garner. ... Scratch around please ... he is being a cock ... and it is never wise to piss off the whale. (p. 114)
Or is it when Cameron Slater tells a friend in the wake of the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake:
What i can't believe ... is how we have to bail out those useless pricks in the sth island, again. ... Those [Christchurch] suburbs are hard core Labour ... the owners will be Nat voters though and the voters tenants, so the houses are gone and the scum are gone too, and so they should get nothing. (p. 27)
Or is it when Slater discusses a friend's (seriously – this is a friend he's talking about) failure to win selection as a National candidate:
What a loser, he couldn't even win WITH daddy's money, you think Zac Goldsmith would have ever stood in a seat he couldn't win. Rich people don't lose selections unless they are fucking hopeless or fucking stupid. He lost to a maori and that is even funnier. (p. 57)
Or is it when Slater is talking with another blogger, "Barnsley Bill", about the response to a post Slater wrote describing the death of a West Coast man in a car accident as that of a "feral" who had "done the world a favour".
Why would I apologise to that slut [the dead man's mother]? ... J[ohn] K[ey] rang me ... [and said she] was the same feral fucking bitch that screams at him when he goes to pike river meetings. (p. 133)
Terrible as all this is, for me the very worst bit lies in an exchange Slater has with a woman who sought his help to have a prisoner (the father of her daughter) moved to another city. Slater apparently was able to do so, whereupon the woman informs him that the prisoner has attempted suicide. To which Slater replies:
Send him a message to tell him to try harder next time. What a loser, can't even kill himself properly. He is a c**t. Hopefully his move to a Sth Island prison might teach him who is [in] control of his life. (p.145)
Now, I've beaten you over the head with this detail for a reason, not simply as an exercise in eliciting vicarious shock at how terrible some human beings can be. There are two possible responses to it that I want to dispute.
The first is that this behaviour and language is somehow "just what politics is". No. It isn't. Politics can be bruising. It can be hurtful. But it's the way that we manage our differences, deal with our conflicts, and work out ways to live together (and, just perhaps, do so in a way that makes everything a little bit better). That is a noble and honourable thing, one that attracts a lot of people to want to take part in it. I see it in a lot of the students I teach – they are inspired to try and make a difference in lots of different ways, to lots of different ends.
What the people in Dirty Politics are trying to do is kill the good in politics and turn it into something completely toxic that destroys any hope of meaningful debate, discussion and conciliation, all so that their side can "win". If that sounds melodramatic and over the top, it isn't. You can read them saying that this is what they want in their own words. And that is a terrible, terrible thing to seek to do. Because if they win – if the way we conduct our politics and manage our differences and decide our common path becomes their vision of how "the game" should be played – then we all lose something very valuable. Basically, we lose our future.
The second is that this post isn't simply an attack on "the Right". It's not even an attack on "the National Party". There's plenty of good people involved on the right side of politics who are worthy of respect and engagement. You even see some of them in the book's pages – Hamish Price (p. 112-113), for example, who defended Bevan Chuang when she fell out of favour with those involved in the Len Brown "hit". And there's in all likelihood some people on the left side of politics who are just as nasty and sociopathic as the ones in this book (the difference being, they don't have anything like the influence or public profile of the folks we're seeing here).
Rather, my post is about a choice. John Key was on Radio NZ tonight saying:
Cameron Slater is a force unto himself, there's no question that people talk to him, we talk to lots of bloggers and actually that's the social media world that we live in.
That's just rubbish. Cameron Slater isn't a hurricane or flood that you can't avoid. He's a thoroughly nasty human being who thrives on being seen in a particular way and being enabled by attention. So he's set up a way of getting that attention, worked with a bunch of other like-minded people to build a network of influence, and tried to use this to his own ends.
Now John Key, or any other politician, is free to decide whether or not he wants to play this game. Those choices then partly define them. So, for instance, you can't credibly claim to have high ethical standards for your administration if you take advantage of Cameron Slater's complete absence of any in order to release information you want spread out into the world. You just can't – as Slater himself loves to say, if you roll around with pigs, you will get muddy.
By the same token, you can't be outraged at the alleged "News of the World tactics" of a newspaper taping your conversation when you're using a form of information distribution that does things that make the UK tabloid industry look like the New York Times. Either you think journalistic ethics mean something and ought to be a filter on how public discourse occurs, or else you're fair game for anything (as long as it wins the fight).
So that's all I really want to say. Nicky Hager actually says it better (and more pithily) than me:
[T]he book is not about the inevitability of expedient and unprincipled politics. Understanding what is wrong means things do not have to remain that way. 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. (p. 15)