Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Defining Dirty Politics

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.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Intelligence services are just about always political/ideological, no matter what country they are in. In Western democracies, people with left-wing views wouldn't even apply for a job there, because they know they wouldn't be accepted. In Britain this seems to have been mitigated to some extent by the old boys Oxbridge network, which allowed some communists to infiltrate MI5 or 6 or whatever. :-) In New Zealand you've only got to look at the people they keep tabs on. You never ever hear about any right wing person's home being bugged or broken into by the intelligence services. It's always committed left-wingers of one sort or another. Usually harmless :-). I really would like to know a couple of things about their shenanigans. Firstly if they break into your house and damage something, who is responsible for replacing it? Secondly if they do bug your phone, something they probably don't need to do now, but if they do and you find the bug what you do with it? Are you obliged to leave it in situ? Can you destroy it? :-) Fat chance of getting any of these questions answered, even if they are asked light-heartedly. They also seem to have no sense of humour :-). The intelligence services aside however what worries me is the politicisation of the ordinary civil service, which began with Roger Douglas and co. replacing proper civil servants by people from industry on the grounds that if you can manage something you could manage anything. Something which has been shown to be bullshit, at least judging by the various disasters in the public service that we've had over the years :-). Can't see any of these captains of industry being nonpolitical.

vortexx said...

"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."

That's why the various episodes involving John Key and Ian Fletcher which we know about are deeply unsettling. Given the nature of so many of the Prime Minister's utterances and our knowledge of the way his office operates what confidence can we have that things remain utterly aloof from party, and personal politics?

Anonymous said...

A clarion call for us to write a proper constitution -- as a republic free from the archaic nonsense of monarchy -- that places effective oversight of such agencies in the hands of the people's representatives, not behind the closed doors of ego-driven prime ministers who are unable to tell when they are being duped by partisian civil servants.


Anonymous said...

They're too busy going after ordained Anglican ministers working for social justice or animal rights activists exposing cruelty to worry about genuine constitutional or social issues, Chris. 😕

jh said...

How does the sort of dirty politics Nicky Hager writes about compare with (say) advancement in the public service and attitude to the Treaty of Waitangi (which you described as the "litmus test of authentic revolutionary praxis)?
What about the Ministry of Business and innovation giving $5.5M to Massey and Waikato so they can study the "Super diversity" (a meaningless term) of Auckland and that being just a means to add legitimacy for more migration. What about the population conference where they poll the regions: "did you know we have a demographic problem?" without asking "did you know Treasury and the Australian Productivity Commission debunked the idea that immigration is a cure for an ageing population?"
And how about The NZIER study where they find NZ needs a bigger population when " the consensus
among policymakers now is that other factors are more important for per capita growth and productivity than migration and population growth. " [Treasury paper 14-10]?
What about a productivity Commision which leaves some stones unturned: [agree that the terms of enquiry] "are relatively uncontroversial given the desire to establish broad political support for the Commission".
What about media watch which ingnores the fact that #Illridewithyou was made up?
And what about the fundamental goals of the immigration act 1986 to globalise New Zealand society:
"Vancouver’s experience is probably like Canada’s on the whole. Trudeau brought in multiculturalism by federal directive in the 70s (“Although there are two founding peoples there is no founding culture…” and that mirrored Laurier before him…) Then in 1982, multiculturalism was enshrined in the Charter. Then in the mid-80s a Conservative PM enacted the “Multiculturalism Act”.
Now in Canada’s large cities it’s somewhat amusing to hear people speaking English. Fourth generation Canadians are seen as an amusing relic. Do you eat roasts? Do your parents wear sweaters to dinner and talk about classical music, ha ha ha?
The reality is that in NZ, the hegemony of Anglo Saxon culture refuses to die.


Charles E said...

Oh give up this tired and legless argument Chris. It's simply an illusion.
The left as jh points out with a few examples is just as likely to subvert our society, arguably more so as they seem perpetually unhappy with it. Or is it just unhappy?

Hager's completely partisan beat up comes down to one petty little example where some years ago the SIS head vented his dislike for Goff by helping out Key on a minor tiff about a briefing 99% of us could not give a toss about. Hardly Watergate. Not even an election issue.
It's just laughable to think this stuff is a serious issue for our democracy.
The more the left and their majority of journalists goes on about it the further the public will ignore them.
Just face it: Dotty + Commie + Hager + Aussie + TV3 lost the election for the left. Nothing Key did wrong was actually relevant.