• No One’s Fault But Ours

    Nothing so clearly demonstrates John Key’s contempt for the New Zealand voter as his confidence that we will believe whatever he tells us. He has had ample experience to back up that confidence.

    The course taken by the dirty politics saga is perhaps the most obvious case in point. If the polls are to be believed, the electorate do not want to believe that we have allowed a Watergate – differing from its more notorious predecessor only in that it is just a little more hi-tech than the crude burglary of the Watergate building – to spread its tentacles throughout our public life. They are happy to accept assurances from John Key, accompanied by facial expressions of concern and sincerity appropriate to the moment, that there is nothing to worry about, rather than face the facts that are virtually incontrovertible.

    By the time the various inquiries have reported and the truth is finally established, Mr Key knows that memories will have faded, interest in politics will have subsided, and most people will happily return to what they see as normality – a normality where it is then regarded as acceptable that our political leaders should lie and cheat, and abuse power in order to keep it. They have, after all, been assured that this is just the nature of modern politics and “everyone does it”. Better not to ask awkward questions.

    The most recent instance of Mr Key’s confidence in his ability to manipulate opinion to his advantage is quite different. It is his indication, against the advice of his own Finance Minister, that a re-elected National government might cut taxes. This was surely the most cynical of all the election “promises” we have heard so far.

    Mr Key, on this occasion, has shown himself to be an adept practitioner of what the Australians call “dog whistle” politics – the conveying of a message that is interpreted by the listener (or voter) as meaning more than what is actually said.

    The calculation on this occasion is that the mere words “tax cuts” will convince the voter that a bonanza is in store and that the way to bring it about is to vote National. But this is not a case where the fine print fails to bear out the supposed meaning; there is no fine print.

    All we have is a thought floated by the National leader. The most cursory examination of what that thought is based on shows how insubstantial it is.

    We are invited to believe that the prospect of tax cuts is a consequence of the “return to surplus”. But that surplus has yet to materialise. It has – after a six-year delay – been celebrated in advance, by virtue of some very clever and somewhat misleading public sector accounting, but looks less and less likely with each passing day.

    The brief consumer boom we have enjoyed off the back of record dairy prices is already dissipating; as that balloon deflates, so too do government tax revenues. The forecast surplus, tiny as it is forecast to be, may well not materialise at all in any immediately foreseeable future.

    That has not dissuaded Mr Key from promising to spend it in advance. But it almost certainly explains why – as Bill English no doubt insisted – we will see nothing of any proposed tax cuts, if at all, until the 2017 budget. It might be thought that, if they do materialise at that point, that should be a matter for the 2017 election three years away rather than for one in 2014.

    Nor can we have any assurance that any cuts would mean much. Raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour would provide four times as much help to a hard-pressed family as the vaguely indicated sum produced by the tax cut apparently contemplated three years hence.

    Mr Key’s much-heralded announcement, in other words, has little substance and no detail – its flakiness compounded by the alacrity with which he upped its supposed value when the initial reaction was less than ecstatic. It is a classic example of smoke and mirrors, a piece of expert legerdemain, a construction deliberately built on shifting sands.

    Can we blame John Key for so blatantly trying to mislead us? Yes, but only up to a point. The real culprits are us; we care so little about our democracy that we simply do not make an effort to sort out the wheat from the chaff. We quite literally do not want to be bothered; we would rather be invited to believe than to think.

    Sadly, there is a price to be paid for our indifference – and we will all pay it. We will have acquiesced in a further and damaging debasement of standards in our public life. We will have exchanged at least the goal of decent government in the interests of the whole community for the standards of the snake-oil salesman.

    Bryan Gould

    9 September 2014

  • John Key – The End Game

    It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the democracy that past generations fought and died for is regarded as of little consequence by those who currently enjoy its benefits.

    While many parts of the world are still struggling – and suffering – under forms of government that fall short of the democratic ideal, we take it for granted at best and at worst do nothing to sustain it.

    Yet sustain it we must. Democracy is a fragile flower. Without proper sustenance, it will easily wither and die. We cannot simply assume that it will always be there, whether or not we bother to give it any attention.

    It was Francis Fukuyama who observed that even the most repressive regimes could not survive without the support – perhaps passive and tacit – of a large part of the population. Democratic government, treated with similar passivity, can just as easily be supplanted by something that falls far short of genuine democracy.

    That is why the current crisis about dirty politics is so important. It is not, as so many commentators seem to assume and assert, a distraction from the real issues that should decide the forthcoming election result; it raises exactly the kind of fundamental issue that the election should be, must be, about.

    The whole point of democracy is that we should put in place a government that properly represents our interests and that we can trust with that power. Democracy is not just about elections; it is about being able to make the elected government accountable for what it does in office.

    It is essential, if democracy is to be a reality, that our elected representatives should tell us the truth and should not use the power of government to serve their own ends rather than the country’s. We should be vigilant in ensuring that this is so – and we should act swiftly if it is not.

    The charges that are now accumulating against the John Key government could not, in this context, be more serious. Put briefly, there are now unavoidable questions that must be answered.

    Did John Key and his ministers pervert the country’s security intelligence services so as to serve their own party’s interests rather than to protect those of New Zealand? Did they use that power to discredit their political opponents in a concealed, underhand and partisan way? And, having done so, did they then consistently lie to the New Zealand public in an attempt to conceal the truth?

    These questions arise, not because of some “left-wing conspiracy”, but because the evidence is now overwhelming that something has gone seriously wrong. It wasn’t a left-wing conspiracy that arranged for Cameron Slater to get unprecedentedly quick and preferential access to a security report prepared by the SIS – access that had already been denied to other more mainstream media.

    It wasn’t a left-wing conspiracy that induced John Key to deny that he knew anything about that arrangement, in the face of the growing evidence that he had been specifically briefed on it by the SIS Director. Does anyone really believe that the Prime Minister (and the leader of TeamKey), who is also the Minister for the SIS, was left in ignorance of a surprising SIS decision to release at short notice a hitherto protected report about the Leader of the Opposition to a notorious right-wing blogger in the middle of an election campaign?

    And it wasn’t a left-wing conspiracy that induced the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, concerned as she no doubt is to maintain the integrity of the SIS, to begin an official inquiry into the whole sorry saga. Her decision is powerful evidence that these issues must be treated seriously, even if the time taken to complete a review could conveniently defer an outcome until after the election.

    So far, the reaction of the voters to this unfolding drama has been one of bemusement. Early opinion polls suggest that those who have grown accustomed to trusting John Key are reluctant to have their faith shaken.

    But, in a democracy, it is important that we demand high standards from our government and are ready to act when the evidence shows that those standards have not been met. A government that abused its power and that lied – in the most deliberate and formal way – to those who voted them in would not be fit to stay in office.

    The questions that have now been raised in all seriousness now demand answers. When we get those answers, and that cannot now be far away, the ball will then be in our court.

    If we are not prepared to bestir ourselves, but prefer to turn a blind eye, we would not only be acquiescing in the perversion of democracy in the here and now. We would also be betraying the legacy bequeathed to us by those who fought and sacrificed to guarantee the freedoms we now enjoy.

    Bryan Gould

    21 August 2014


  • New Zealand’s Nixon

    Many explanations are offered for the fact, as evidenced by both opinion polls and falling voter turnouts at elections, that voters in New Zealand and across the western world seem increasingly disenchanted with democracy.

    Perhaps the most obvious reason for the voters’ disaffection is their sense that politicians, having solicited popular support and got themselves elected, then seem to lose interest in the proper purposes of government. In modern times, newly elected governments seem to have just one over-riding priority from day one – to hold on to power by getting themselves re-elected.

    Rather than set about the task of achieving real progress in the country’s interests and then submitting their achievements to the electorate’s judgment, it is all too often apparent that there is just one main focus for governments, of whatever colour – to persuade the voters that such progress is being made, whether it is or not. It is the appearance rather than the reality that counts.

    Perhaps the prime exponent of this approach to government was Tony Blair in the UK. His “New Labour” government in the UK may not have invented the term “spin doctor”, but they took the concept to new heights – or perhaps lows. Huge efforts were made and energy expended on persuading the voters that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds; in the end, the voters gagged on being force-fed an air-brushed version of the facts.

    The corollary of this approach is not only the sanitising of the public debate through the deliberate suppression of bad news but also the peddling of enhanced versions of the good news – and for this, a compliant media is essential. The politicians become adept at manipulating media outlets to their advantage; supportive and compliant journalists are rewarded with breaking stories and privileged access, while the less cooperative are frozen out.

    Governments have, of course, a huge advantage in this respect. Much of the news – and particularly the political news – emanates from actions taken by ministers. Most journalists will find it necessary and valuable to develop good relations with the news-makers.

    The result is a form of internal corruption of government. The power of government is increasingly used, not to advance the public interest, but to protect and promote the party in power. Every issue is decided after a careful consideration as to how it could be made to play with the electorate; as the next election draws closer – and, with a three-year term, it is always close – the time-horizon becomes shorter and the election imperative stronger.

    At the same time, the opposition sees the need to combat the government’s ability to manipulate the news agenda by attacking the government at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, the government responds by trying to denigrate its opponents, on both political and personal grounds, so that the damage suffered from opposition attacks is minimised.

    In recent times, this latter activity has achieved the status of an art form. It has even been accorded its own special title – “attack politics”. There have always been those in politics who have special skills and derive particular enjoyment from grubbing around in the gutter; the value placed by today’s political leaders on attack politics has provided them with a golden opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

    The politicians themselves, especially those continually in the public eye, will not usually do this work themselves, though there are exceptions – a Judith Collins, for example – who will relish this kind of supposedly “political” battle.

    Increasingly, however, there is a role for those whose natural milieu is the cesspit. Politicians – especially those whose stock in trade is smiling sweetly and smelling likewise – will not wish to be contaminated by association with such activities. They find it convenient to have them undertaken discreetly and at apparent arm’s length. If the association does somehow reach the light of day, the best response – in accordance with the Collins doctrine – is to strike back with double the force and to denigrate the person responsible for the exposure.

    There is, of course, a precedent for this kind of politics. The most celebrated of all the practitioners of “attack politics” was of course one Richard M. Nixon.

    In 1972, burglars (there were of course no computers to be hacked into back then) broke into the Watergate building in Washington in search of documents that could be used to discredit the political opponents of the Republican Party and the Republican President.

    The burglars were there with the knowledge of, and on instructions, from the President. After a long campaign of obfuscation and denials, the link between the President and the burglars was established; Nixon had not, of course, himself burgled the Watergate building but his lies, the attempted cover-up and his willingness to use criminal methods to attack his opponents led to his impeachment. He left the White House in disgrace in 1974.

    Should we, in New Zealand in 2014, not expect and demand the same standards from our leaders as the Americans did forty years ago?

    Bryan Gould

    17 August 2014.