Permanent Interests: If the "Intelligence Community" ever came to the conclusion that an actual, or potential, prime minister is implementing, or, intends to implement, policies inimical to the general and permanent interests of the Crown, then their reaction might very well be to designate the Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition a “threat to national security” and act accordingly.
LOOKING BACK over the most tumultuous election year in our recent history, one phrase in particular stands out: “dirty politics”. Yes, it was the name of another of Nicky Hager’s journalistic interventions, but it quickly became something more than that. For close to half the voting public, “dirty politics” became shorthand for everything that’s gone wrong with New Zealand’s political life.
But what actually constitutes “dirty politics”? Are we talking about the normal cut-and-thrust of political existence? The wrong-footing of opponents? The strategic shifts of internal support that mark the rise and fall of party leaders? The calculated exploitation of one’s opponents’ personal weaknesses to demonstrate their unfitness to hold political office? The private, off-the-record and entirely unattributable briefings of journalists to effect any or all of the above? Or, are we talking about something else? And, if so – what?
I believe that Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, was written to highlight something more than the normal cut-and-thrust of political life. In my view, Mr Hager’s intention was to draw the public’s attention to the deliberate use by an incumbent Government of its institutional and bureaucratic power to thwart, mislead and, if necessary, disrupt and discredit its political opponents.
The politicisation of our supposedly neutral civil service would be a grave development under any circumstances, but the gravity of such behaviour would increase exponentially should the institutions so politicised turn out to be the armed forces, the security services and/or the police.
It is especially important that those state institutions whose fundamental remit is the maintenance and protection of “national security” remain utterly aloof from party politics. Precisely because such institutions have privileged access to extremely sensitive and confidential information, any pursuit of their own or somebody else’s private political agenda could easily result in constitutional catastrophe. Those targeted for destruction would be most unlikely to see it coming and, after the event, would have next to no chance of discovering (let alone proving) from whence it came.
The constitutional dangers notwithstanding, there is considerable historical evidence that the national security apparatus of the State is particularly prone to developing and following its own political agenda. In the United Kingdom and its former “Dominions” (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) this propensity to politicisation may be traced back to the relationship of the “Crown” to the elected government of the day. The interests of the latter are particular and transitory, while those of the Crown are general and permanent.
What’s more, because the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are “realms”, ruled (at least nominally) by the same royal family, the relationship between those pledged to maintain and protect the general and permanent interests of the Crown isn’t simply constitutional – it’s personal. Governors-general, military commanders, directors of intelligence agencies and commissioners of police all swear to “bear true allegiance” not to the Prime Minister of the day, his or her government, or even to the people of New Zealand – but “to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”.
That may appear to be a purely formal constitutional distinction, but should the protectors of national security come to the conclusion that an actual, or potential, prime minister is implementing, or, intends to implement, policies inimical to the general and permanent interests of the Crown, then their reaction might very well be to designate the Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition a “threat to national security” and act accordingly.
“Dirty politics”, in the form of a series of “dirty tricks” conceived and carried out by the security services and/or their agents and “assets” would be the result.
In practical terms, this “top-down” variety of dirty politics would entail the security services feeding their own highly disruptive and reputationally destructive material into the normal processes of party-political competition. “Politics-as-usual” is, of course, the perfect cover for such extraordinary interventions. Those who object are easily dismissed as naïve, or even hypocritical. “All politics is dirty politics”, becomes the stock reply: “Everybody’s at it.”
Ideologically speaking, such top-down interventions are, almost without exception, the work of the Right, and their principal target is almost always the Left, or those disposed to offer the Left meaningful support. These latter targets may include trade unions; a minor political party willing to enter into a coalition with the dominant left-wing party; a newspaper or broadcasting network commissioning investigative journalism to the Left’s advantage; as well, of course, as the unionists, journalists and/or whistleblowers causing all the trouble.
From the Zinoviev Letter to Watergate; from Norman Kirk’s “sinister scheme” to the former SIS Director, Warren Tucker’s, 2011 lapse of judgement; dirty tricks have a way of influencing political outcomes.
Dirty politics is more than “politics as usual”. Its true purpose is to make sure that ordinary politics is never seriously threatened by the success of extraordinary politics – or politicians.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 December 2014.