The Dirty Politics brushfire is starting to dampen down. Time to rake over the ashes and see what got left behind.

As I stated in my post on Dirty Politics, the most important question that it raises for me is what sort of politics and political behaviour are we prepared to accept in our country? That's a big issue. It involves sub-questions about how we got to where we are in respect of our current political culture; what role media changes play in facilitating that culture; what can and should the law do in terms of controlling how the "political game" is played; and the like.

These sorts of matters go far beyond the "who said what to whom and when?" questions that have dominated in the wake of the book's appearance. It's not really surprising that these latter issues have been the focus of attention - you can't release a book a few weeks out from an election containing trenchant criticisms of some of the current Government's members and expect that opposition MPs and the media will look beyond these to the "big picture". But I still think that picture matters far more than what happens in September. Which is why I and some colleagues from Otago will be looking at it in some depth next Friday in an event which I am shamelessly teasing you with now while promising a full announcement later this week. So stay tuned!

Before then, however, I want to give my take on where we have got to with the various specific accusations/allegations of wrongdoing raised in Dirty Politics. In part, that's because I get the feeling that the fierce heat of the story has burned through (although the embers will glow on for some time yet), which means that it's a good time to pause and take stock. Also, for all that I think that Dirty Politics matters far beyond September 20, it still raises some issues of accountability that need addressing. If wrong has indeed been done, then consequences should follow.

That then leaves the small matter of chewing through all the specific issues raised in the book and deciding which ones "matter". Some seem to have not cut through at all - such as the somewhat cryptic story in the footnotes about a certain blogger whom we're going back to not naming being able to influence which jail a prisoner was housed in. Others may be just starting to emerge, such as the alleged influence that various individuals had over the National Party selection process in Rodney (and perhaps further afield).

However, Tim has given his list of the "Big Three" charges contained in the book: accessing Labour's computer; releasing Simon Pleasants' details; and the SIS and other OIA requests being released for political ends. These seem to me to be the right ones to look at for now.

First of all, the accessing of Labour's computer by at least two National Party operatives. I don't think that where we've got to with this issue matters that much, and certainly it falls short of the "New Zealand's Watergate" tag originally attached to it.

For one thing, I don't get the feeling that the public see this as anything other than inter-party game-playing that has little to do with them. Sure, it may have been "sharp practice" by National, and other parties may display a more developed ethical approach, but given that we view politicians as worse than real estate agents there's nothing particularly surprising about them living down to our expectations.

Now, I take on board Tim's argument (made here) that: 

Not much shocks me in politics and I'm usually loathe to offer personal judgment on party political issues. But if a New Zealand Prime Minister is really telling me that it's "fair enough" for one of his senior staff to go unauthorised and secretly into any website, however open, and take the personal data of ordinary New Zealanders, then I am shocked. That, according to my moral compass, is certainly not OK. 

So if it transpires that Jason Ede (or the unnamed National Party IT geek) did more than poke about, then this may gain legs again.

Furthermore, if the Police decide after reviewing matters that accessing Labour's computer system involved criminal activity - a matter that has been subject to some puzzled legal headscratching - then that moves matters to whole different level. Absent such developments, however, I think that the simple reveal that Jason Ede was having a look around Labour's computer system at the same time as a blogger whom we don't name was taking data from it is one that will pass by without much of a wake.

The second matter, Judith Collins releasing Simon Pleasants' details, is a big deal. In fact, it astounds me that she still remains a Minister of the Crown - much less Minister of Justice - after having admitted that she did so.

Let's take the best case scenario for her (while noting that her (as well as a certain blogger whom we don't name) failure to provide any evidence to confirm this scenario is ... unusual, to put it mildly). Collins claims that she didn't "out" Pleasants as a suspected leaker, because the blogger whom we do not name already knew Pleasants' name from somewhere else. Therefore, she simply passed on his job title (as well as his direct dial and cellphone number, of course, but there we are). 

Even given this account, how can she stay as a Minister? Exactly what did she think was going to happen with the information she passed on? That there then would be a nuanced on-line discussion of public service ethics and the role that leaking ought to play in enhancing government accountability? Of course not - she knew that the blogger whom we do not name planned one of his "hits" on Pleasants. And as a result of that "hit", there were death threats issued against  Mr Pleasants and his family.

I accept that Collins probably didn't foresee exactly this outcome, and certainly didn't condone it. But that's not the point. She was complicit in what happened, in that she made a conscious choice to participate in events that precipitated death threats against a public servant and his family!!!!

[Quick note at this point to John Key. Yes, I agree with you that your "daughter should be off limits in any criticism of [you] as Prime Minister." I'd go further and say that it is simply not acceptable to pen lyrics to a song that fantasize about shooting you. But I'd also note that the comments in the blog post that your Minister fed information to contained threats to kill both Mr Pleasants and his family - "Ah fuck it. Shoot him, and shoot his wife and kids if they can't be bothered to pay for the bullet" - so take your feelings about having your daughter dragged into your political world and have a think about what it must have been like for Mr Pleasants and his family when judging whether Collins was simply "unwise" in her actions.]

Because here is the bare minimum acceptable response that Collins should have given to the blogger concerned: "Sorry, you know I can't help with that." A better response would have been "Sorry, you know I can't help with that, and you really should be careful before throwing these allegations around." And best of all would be to pick up the phone to tell Nathan Guy and/or the State Services Commission that a public servant from Internal Affairs was going to be publicly outed as a potential leaker.

But no. She decided she wanted to take part in the game that the blogger we don't name revels in. That action had consequences ... but not for her, apparently. That's despite the Cabinet Manual stating that:

In all [their] roles and at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour.

Yes. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour. Or not.

OK, enough on that. The third issue is the SIS and other OIA requests being released for political ends. I'll leave aside the "other OIA requests" point, because this post is getting long enough. But I will say that there is a real problem with how official information gets treated in New Zealand, which (ironically) feeds into the particular issue of the SIS information release. Put simply, journalists and others are so used to being screwed around when they ask for information that when this actually gets provided in a timely fashion, the immediate suspicion is that there's a partisan political motive for doing so.

Starting at the top, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe John Key when he says he personally didn't know that the Phil Goff briefing paper was going to be released to the blogger whom we don't name. I know there's lots of tape of him saying "I was informed", but I actually accept that in Wellington a Minister's office is interchangable with a Minister as an individual. And I simply do not believe that Key would paint himself into a corner where if it can ever be shown that he was personally informed of the release before it went out, he would have no option but to resign as PM. Because that's the place that his denials have put him in now.

That doesn't mean Key is completely off the hook. The fact that something as important as this briefing note went out without him being told speaks volumes about the hands-off way he seemed to run his department at that time. Remember back to the whole GCSB spying on New Zealanders issue and the Kitteridge Report on what went wrong? Well, back then criticisms were levelled at Key along the lines of:

it is not just the GCSB that has exhausted the public’s confidence over its illegal operations but also his irresponsible style of ministerial oversight. As such, the Prime Minister is part of the GCSB’s problem and not part of the solution.

So if Key didn't know about the release of the briefing notes, then this seems to be consistent with just those sorts of accusations. He didn't know - because he was so slack in how he oversaw what the SIS/GCSB were doing that he let important things happen without his involvement. Which gets him out of one hole by putting him into another.

Furthermore, even if Key didn't know what was happening with the OIA for Goff's briefing notes, someone (or some people) in his office did. And the evidence seems pretty incontrovertable to me that someone from that office was telling a certain blogger whom we don't name all about it.

Let's accept that this certain blogger we don't name somehow was smart enough to swiftly leap in with an OIA request to the SIS that just happened to ask for exactly the information most damaging to Goff. We'll give him that credit as an act of charity. We're then expected to believe that this person (based on his correspondence with others as the OIA was being processed):

  • Accurately predicted that the SIS would declassify the briefing notes, so as to make them available publicly;
  • Accurately predicted that the SIS was expediting his OIA request on a "public interest" basis;
  • Accurately predicted that the information that was coming would be "explosive" and extremely damaging to Goff;
  • Accurately predicted the day that the OIA information would arrive, despite this release occuring far more quickly than other OIA releases from the SIS.

Or, alternatively, we may believe that he was being informed all the way along as to what was happening with his request and what he'd be getting back from the SIS. And given the choice between a conspiracy and five random acts of luck, I'm going to go with the conspiracy in this particular case, thanks very much.

Now, whether we find out exactly what happened here depends on what the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security uncovers in her investigation into the matter. I have absolute faith and confidence in that person, Cheryl Gwyn, to act in an honourable and proper fashion. But here's my concern.

Under the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1996, s.11, the Inspector-General can make inquiries into the activities of "an intelligence and security agency". But I'll bet a large amount of money that any collusion with a blogger whom we do not name about his OIA request did not come from the SIS. It will have been someone in the PM's office that was involved. Which is not "an intelligence and security agency" under the legislation.

So, the terms of reference for the Inspector-General's inquiry then become very, very interesting. Can she actually look at the thing that needs looking at? In the press release about the inquiry, we're told that it:

will consider whether:

• the NZSIS acted properly and within the law (including its statutory obligation of political neutrality) when it considered and responded to an Official Information Act request from Mr Slater in July and August 2011;

• the documents released to Mr Slater were properly declassified; and

• other requests for similar information were treated in a manner consistent with the treatment of Mr Slater’s request.

These obviously are important issues (especially the last one). But they don't appear to cover the most important question. What did the Prime Minister's Office (which is, remember, the equivalent of the Prime Minister himself) have to do with feeding information about the SIS's briefing to Goff to a certain blogger whom we don't name? 

Comments (28)

by Dave Guerin on August 27, 2014
Dave Guerin

Andrew, why is what that commenter said a "death threat"? It's unpleasant and nasty, deserves disapproval, and would be deleted by any site moderator who valued civilised debate. But, it doesnt seem to me to be a threat to kill someone. I'm making a serious comment, because it seems that we often jump to say there's a "death threat" because it's dramatic (you've repeated it in bold italics, for example), but there is little to no likelihood that such comments will make people go into hiding.

@peace's song is much closer to an actual death threat (ie I'm going to kill the PM), but again it's an unpleasant adnd nasty lyric, rather than a real death threat.

by Kat on August 27, 2014
Kat

Andrew, when a high profile right wing commentator as Matthew Hooton argues on RNZ that even if Key’s version of events is true (and he doubts it) then Key is in even more trouble. Key's trouble is dereliction of duty and that amounts to a lot more than just "ashes" remaining.

Hooton went on to say that neither Prime Minister Bolger nor Prime Minister Clark delegated any decision-making authority over SIS matters.

 

 

by Brent Jackson on August 27, 2014
Brent Jackson

Your wrote "And I simply do not believe that Key would paint himself into a corner where if it can ever be shown that he was personally informed of the release before it went out, he would have no option but to resign as PM. Because that's the place that his denials have put him in now."

Why do you think he would have to resign ?  I think there is zero chance of that.  He has been shown to be lying to the public on a number of occasions, and merely mangles English into meaning something completely different to what was actually said.  He won't even dismiss Judith Collins.  Can you honestly see him sacking himself ?

In this particular case he is already on record in 2011 as saying that he had been briefed by the SIS, and the SIS is on record as saying the matter was discussed with the PM.  The PM's office does not have the jurisdiction to make decisions with respect to the SIS.  Only the PM does.  I definitely think John Key knew about it, and he is lying to us.

by Andrew Geddis on August 27, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Dave,

I'm making a serious comment, because it seems that we often jump to say there's a "death threat" because it's dramatic (you've repeated it in bold italics, for example), but there is little to no likelihood that such comments will make people go into hiding.

Well, the Police took it seriously enough that they visited the blogger whose blog it appeared on and told him he either could remove the comment (along with another that proposed "cut[ting] the bastard's throat") or else be arrested. So, there is that.

As for whether it was really a "death threat" or just "unpleasant and nasty" seems to me to require an impossible parsing of language. If an anonymous person says "shoot him", how do we know if they really mean shoot him! or just are blowing off steam? So, I'll stick with what the person said ... they said "shoot him", and that's a death threat.

@Kat,

Sure - that's a fair comment.

by Andrew Geddis on August 27, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Brent,

It's a gut call. He's put so much of his credibility on the line that showing he lied - that he personally was briefed (as opposed to his office, which seems to me to be a credible interpretation of his previous statements) - would make it impossible for him to stay in office. I may be wrong, of course - but it's what I think.

by barry on August 27, 2014
barry

Onre thing that has been missed in all this is the unfair treatment of Phil Goff.  Now we know how the SIS treats language we are entitled to assume that he wasn't briefed, but in fact the SIS note refers to a discussion with his office cleaner.

by Katharine Moody on August 27, 2014
Katharine Moody

I appreciate these are perhaps the legal issues that remain outstanding but for me the most offensive unanswered question relates to why the PM rang Cameron Slater the day after the public outcry about Slater's "feral dies - does the world a favour" release.  Slater himself says in an email that the PM commiserated (i.e., tacitly agreed) with Slater's posting - the PM denies that he used Slater's language, but admits that he did ring him on that day and that he did say in that conversation that he recognised the woman who was the dead persons mother.

Well in my book what the PM hasn't said is why he was ringing Cameron Slater that day if not to commiserate with him regarding the bad press. In the absense of Key putting us right on that matter (that is, what the specific purpose of his phone call to Slater was) - I tend to believe Cameron Slater. Perhaps Key didn't use Cameron Slater's actual language, but the admission by Key is that he rang him about that very matter. This is about a tragedy that occurred for a private citizen, not a public figure - what kind of Prime Minister rings a vile person, after such a vile post in order to have a discussion about the life and death of a private citizen?

Certainly not someone I want representing me in the highest office of the land.

As I said on an earlier blog - when I first heard John Key state that he occasionally rang Cameron Slater - I thought yuck.  Now that I've read Dirty Politics - yuck has  turned to utter disgust.

by Andrew Geddis on August 27, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Katharine,

I've seen Key comment that he only told whatshisface that he "recognised" Judd Hall's mother. But I agree it seems quite bizarre that Key would choose to have a casual chat with him in the wake of that furore. 

by Katharine Moody on August 27, 2014
Katharine Moody

@Andrew - yes, that's what Key said he said. But my point is why is he having any discussion at all with Slater about Judd Hall's mother in the first place? What was the purpose of his phone call if not to commiserate with Slater about the negative publicity (as Slater has explained)? That's what Key needs to tell us - why did he call Cameron Slater that day? If the conversation was not about what Cameron Slater said it was about ... well then what was it about? After all - it was John Key who made the call to Cameron Slater. So, John Key obviously had a specific reason for making the call - and I think the public deserve to know what that specific reason was - after all this is our PM making a direct approach to a very vile individual.  This isn't the PM using a third-party to do some dirty work - this is the PM himself calling the guy.

It's not "bizarre" (the suggestion you make I assume is trying to suggest it was perhaps some kind of coincidence) - it's just plain disgusting. It is time I feel that we stopped using forgiving language to describe the unconscienable action of our PM - unless of course, our PM explains himself adequately.

 

by Andrew Geddis on August 27, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Katharine,

"Bizarre": markedly unusual in appearance, style, or general character and often involving incongruous or unexpected elements; outrageously or whimsically strange; odd:

Meaning, why on earth would you choose to phone up a guy who is all over the news for such terrible behaviour? So I'm not disagreeing with you.

by Kyle Matthews on August 27, 2014
Kyle Matthews

I am with you on the SIS release. There's no way Key would stand firm on that to this extent and be so confident that he wasn't briefed, if he was. Because it would be leaked if that wasn't true, because a dozen or more people would know. So just lassez faire ministerialism then. 

by Kat on August 27, 2014
Kat

Sir Edmund Thomas has just heaped praise on Nicky Hager at a public meeting this evening in Auckland. Is John Key now going to call Sir Edmund Thomas a "screaming left wing conspiracy theorist"..?

by Andrew Osborn on August 27, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Yet not a word on the admitted hacking & theft of information from the blogger's gmail account with subsequent use of stolen property to write a politically inspired hit job, for profit.

Neither mention of the ongoing vandalism of National's posters and the anti-semetic slurs painted thereon.

For have I got this wrong and this place IS another unoffical Labour website?

by Andrew Geddis on August 27, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Andrew,

There's a tab on the right side of your screen called "Send us a story". Feel free to use it.

by Thomas Beagle on August 27, 2014
Thomas Beagle

I think there's another important question that needs to be answered.

If the PM wasn't briefed by the SIS (which I still tend not to believe)... who was?

The answer might be quite illuminating.

by Gilbert on August 27, 2014
Gilbert

If Mr Key is so honourable and squeaky clean  and has been so badly maligned & aggrieved  by the hordes of left wing conspirasists, why oh why has he,refused to front up for a decent  interview on Morning Report or CheckPoint for the last fortnight?. We deserve to hear his arguments & his version of the events that Andrew Geddis has condensed so ably and succinctly. And please also tell us Mr Key why you insist  on  using only ad hominem attacks on Nicky Hager & why you dont seem able to confront the serious issues & concerns raised in the book?.

by ShanghaiSue on August 28, 2014
ShanghaiSue

The passing of details to he who shall not be named I believe was done to intimidate all public servants.  Public servants, cross this government and here is how you will be punished was the intended take-out from this action

by Keith Ng on August 28, 2014
Keith Ng

So, where to next? The normal course of affairs is: Minister found to have done bad things --> Minister gets fired. Staffer does bad things --> Staffer gets fired. But our politics seems to have failed us, so what can we do about it, Professor of Law?

The current Ombudsman investigation doesn't seem to cover... well, anything you cited above (or am I failing to read between the lines?). Both leaking of SIS info and leaking of Pleasant's info should be within the Ombudsman's remit to investigate, right?

A nerdy mutual friend of ours also suggested tonight that Corrupt Use of Official Information might be relevant. Whaddya reckon?

And finally, can Collins be disbarred? I remember when I was doing the MPs Properties story last year, I think Collins was still practicing in some kind of trustee capacity.

by Nick Gibbs on August 28, 2014
Nick Gibbs

A nerdy mutual friend of ours also suggested tonight that Corrupt Use of Official Information might be relevant. Whaddya reckon?

And finally, can Collins be disbarred? I remember when I was doing the MPs Properties story last year, I think Collins was still practicing in some kind of trustee capacity.


First we'd have to rename this site Activist instead of Pundit. Whaddya reckon?

 

 

by Andrew Geddis on August 28, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Keith,

(1) "Corrupt" use of official information turns on the phrase "corruptly" (as well as showing an advantage/pecuniary interest was obtained). I think this would be tricky to show (in a legal sense).

(2) Even if Collins has breached the lawyers code of ethics (insert joke about this being a very short document), what do you think the chances of the NZLS disbarring a Minister of the Crown - let alone the Minister of Justice?

by Stephen Judd on August 28, 2014
Stephen Judd

the anti-semetic slurs painted thereon.

I just want to pick up on this. There seems to be a concerted effort in blog comments at the moment to push the idea that there is some kind of association between the anti-semitic defacement of Key signs and one or another of NZ's political parties, either as a strategy by the left or a false flag operation by the right.

There is no evidence I know of for either of these claims. The most likely explanation in my view is that NZ's existing fringe of neo-nazis and related hangers-on are to blame. There is a steady trickle of such incidents in NZ, and often an uptick when Israel is in the news.

As an NZ Jew I find it a bit annoying that when this disturbing activity penetrates public consciousness, it's because people have clicked they can use it to smear their political opponents. You get no brownie points from me for your sudden concern.

by Lesley Ford on August 28, 2014
Lesley Ford

New Horizon poll out on the reactions to Dirty Politics. Majority of people opposed to the actions revealed, but only 12.8% of those who previously voted National expressed negative feelings about it. Looks like most of the supporters of the Key party prefer to keep their eyes and ears covered. None so blind as those who will not hear, or whose moral compass is not functioning.

by william blake on August 28, 2014
william blake

Lesley; I have seen these kind of polls on the effects of Dirty Politics and that figure goes as high as 22% of people who formerly voted national. Even at the figure of 12% it represents real trouble for the National at the ballot box. It seems that some of the disaffected voters are shifting to colin craigs conservative party and peters NZ 1st, so the National may be in power in a few weeks time but with a batshit coalition partner; I am picking Peters.

This will be marginally better than those wankers governing alone; but I quite agree that there are none so deaf as those who will not see.

 

by Katharine Moody on August 28, 2014
Katharine Moody

@Lesley I don't think it is that a moral compass is not functioning - rather, one needs to recognise that propagandist technique is a very powerful tool. As Aldolf Hitler explains in Mein Kampf;

But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unfiagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.

http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/mkv1ch06.html

This has been exactly Key's response to Dirty Tricks; repeat the same phrases over and over and over: "it's a left-wing conspiracy..", "the claims are dissolving before his eyes", ".. at the end of the day I think New Zealand's will see it for what it is.." and so forth.

 

by Richard on August 28, 2014
Richard

@Andrew

 "...what do you think the chances of the NZLS disbarring a Minister of the Crown - let alone the Minister of Justice?"

So, speaks to corruption?

by Jane Beezle on August 28, 2014
Jane Beezle

It's the right call about the Minister of Justice.  

by Stuart on August 28, 2014
Stuart

Bloggers risk being tarred with the same brush as the unnamed conniving fool you didn't name.

That child is a troll. A simple, toxic troll, ticking some of the boxes of psycopathy. Some of us can call a spade a spade ;-)

by Katharine Moody on August 29, 2014
Katharine Moody

I wonder just how many public servants were frequent contributors to Slater's blog;

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11315798

To my mind the State Services Commissioner should undertake a whole-of-government investigation of such traffic from departmental computers.

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