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Chris Ford: Dirty Politics: Like Watergate a slow burning issue

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Today, National MP Jamie-Lee Ross (a member of the Collins/Slater faction) came out on TV3 and said that New Zealanders weren't interested in John Key's and Cameron Slater's text message exchanges this week.

Well, that excuse maybe getting a bit harder to stomach. During the election campaign, many New Zealanders were simply stunned and disbelieving of the allegations made in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics. The allegations, coming as they did in the middle of an election campaign, were simply not believed by many New Zealanders or couldn't be digested too quickly. National ran, as it turned out, a very successful counter-campaign saying that all parties did it, including Labour.

Besides, sadly, many New Zealanders despise Hager and all that he believes and stands for, even some who don't read Cameron Slater's little attack blogs.

Now I sense that the tide is turning. The media weren't impressed by Key's media denials and then retraction before parliament. Andrew Little, by contrast, has been given some great opportunities to hit out at the Government in his first week as Labour leader - and he's taken them with both hands. On the Dirty Politics issue, Little along with Russel Norman and Metiria Turei have well and truly made the running.

However, I believe that the tide will only turn slowly. The next round of polls may not register the full impact of this new round of allegations as they would have been taken while Key was overseas. Strangely enough, voters like prime ministers who travel overseas. Conversely, they don't like leaders who lie outright. Helen Clark did that over 'Paintergate' - a 'scandal' which now seems trivial compared to the allegations made in Hager's book. What Paintergate did do to Clark, though, was begin the slow process of undermining her image as a straight, honest, effective leader - something which contributed to Labour almost losing the 2005 election.

That's why Dirty Politics will, in my view, eventually erode Key's popularity and that of National's - with the operative word here being eventually.

I say this because Dirty Politics is often cited as New Zealand's Watergate. Indeed, there are many comparisons with the main one being the undermining of political opponents and internal rivals by governing conservative administrations.

Watergate, in fact, started out slowly. After the infamous burglary of the Democratic Party offices inside the Watergate Hotel complex in June 1972, the Washington Post was the only newspaper to devote screeds of column inches to the story. Other media either downplayed or ignored it. After all, then US President Richard Nixon had an election to win and on the back of a combination of dirty tricks, a stable economy and Cold War foreign policy triumphs (not least of which were the openings to China and detente with the Soviet Union), he won the election in a landslide.

Nixon managed to scrape through the first six or so months of his second term of office before hitting the rocks. Only when Congressional hearings started featuring Nixon aides - all extensively covered on live television - did Middle America come to see the truth behind Watergate. After this, the great hero of detente with the Soviets and peace in Vietnam became viewed as a sinister and manipulative leader who sought to bring down American democracy. No longer were the good folks of Peoria fooled by appearances.

Will this scenario play out here?

In saying this, I acknowledge that our political system is unlike the American one. While the American congressional system has its drawbacks, it also has its strengths. One of these is the ability for congressional committees to be formed to independently investigate government wrongdoing. While select committees (such as the Privileges Committee) have that power in New Zealand, they rarely exercise it given that governments maintain majorities on them. Our party system also doesn't contain the same fluidity as the American party system does in that, for example, members of Congress can vote against their own party from time-to-time without fear of reprecussions. That's why, in the New Zealand context, a select committee inquiry wouldn't be held unless either  Act, United Future or the Maori Party rebelled against National or even one or some of National's MPs (unthinkable at the moment but not impossible) did so.

That leaves the Royal Commission option, as called for by the Green Party, and one which I favour (naturally). However, there is the practical political issue of getting National to agree to holding one - and as with turkeys at Christmas, I don't see Key and his Cabinet voting to appoint one.

The Government could be persuaded, though, if the good people of Middle New Zealand started telling pollsters in increasing numbers that they realise that Key is no longer the 'nice guy' of Kiwi politics and nor is he 'Mr Clean'. Perhaps National, in that scenario, might agree a wider inquiry in order to take the heat off them for the moment. There was a smidgeon of that anti-Key sentiment during the campaign but it soon evaporated, especially after Kim Dotcom failed with his promise to bring down the PM at his 'Moment of Truth' meeting.

Short of that, the Opposition parties have only one option - to keep on at National about Dirty Politics. After all, the longer that National don't provide good or clear answers, the longer their agony will go on for - as it did with Richard M. Nixon who finally fell after 18 months of political agony in August 1974. It may take this same amount of time in the case of John Key and Dirty Politics - but if that's what it takes, then I call upon the Greens, Labour and New Zealand First to continue to expose Key and National and Collins/Slater and their cronies for what they are every day until they crack. The future health of our democracy demands nothing less.




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