It is easy to be distracted by the gossip swirling around the new book, Dirty Politics and the allegations of smears and hacking. It would be equally easy, but also wrong to just shrug and assume well, “that’s all politics, it is just all dirty really”.
In fact one of the worst outcomes of the current fierce debate would be if citizens feel even more alienated by the increasing dominance of political party elites in New Zealand or if they don't vote because they are so appalled by "the lot of them". Or, if they brush it off, as not really "relevant to me". Or if our democracy becomes hijacked in tit for tat party leaks and campaign derailments.
But the issues raised by the book Dirty Politics are not separate from the NZ election, they are central to it. The issues and events to date are well summarized by Toby Manhire writing for the Guardian. Despite the serious issues raised by the book, I argue the New Zealand political system is not completely broken, it does however need some serious rebuilding. Elsewhere in a contribution to a forthcoming book, Once in a Life Time I talk about how we might engage in this democratic rebuild, starting here in Canterbury with institutional ‘reform’, a procedural ‘retrofit’ and a foundation 'rebuild' of our democracy so it is fit for the future
But in this post I want to highlight three additional questions which have been raised by publication of Dirty Politics, and by the responses, and media reporting after the event.
- The first are questions about our trust and confidence in the institutions of New Zealand government.
- The second are questions about our trust and confidence in the institutions of New Zealand media.
- The third is a question about what sort of democracy do we as citizens want New Zealand to become?
First, let's consider trust and confidence in the institutions of New Zealand government.
The problem is succinctly summed up by journalist Duncan Garner in relation to allegations in the book about interference including inappropriate political use of access to Secret Intelligence Service files,
"...(PM) Key says he was out of the country on holiday when these documents, which embarrassed (then Opposition Leader) Phil Goff, were released to National Party hitman WhaleOil (a political blogger). If that’s the case and we believe Key, then who on earth allowed the PM’s office and the lead spy agency, for which the prime minister is responsible, to act like this? Who do we hold accountable?"
These questions of political accountability go to the core of the concept of Westminster parliamentary responsibility. I confess I've never read a NZ Labour Party's political blog until today, but I agree entirely with the former UK Labour politician, and Kiwi, Brian Gould, when he writes here in the Standard that New Zealand’s democracy is precious and needs to be defended. A creeping tendency to blur lines of accountability has also been noted recently with concern by Justice Wiley when sentencing of former Minister John Banks. Questions of accountability in the use of the SIS documents are now the subject of an official inquiry. We should be asking why a New Zealand Prime Minister was advised to initially try to brush off these serious allegations rather than refer them for investigation. There may be political reasons for his response, but all leaders also have democratic responsibilities even in election periods. We should expect a Prime Minister to ensure serious allegations (such as the actions by a Minister of Justice in releasing personal information about a civil servant that resulted in death threats) are dealt with appropriately and justice is seen to be done to restore public confidence in the integrity of government.
A second set of questions surround trust and confidence in New Zealand's media.
Good democracies need great journalism, or at least a free, independent media. There is much debate about the extent to which concentrated, foreign ownership of a small New Zealand media is compromising the media's watch dog role. However in a small commercial market dominated by a few companies, one key issue seems to be that fewer journalists are required to write and research more and more, faster and faster. Careers in this small competitive environment require generating attention (and followers) through e-traffic and viewer numbers. In this context, an outrageous comment could generate a more immediate viewer response that a thoughtful, (but often more expensive and slower), long form investigation. Interviews such as Radio New Zealand's Espiner's effective probing of the Prime Minister are also more difficult given politicians are now highly trained in media techniques of deflection and modern news rooms struggle for research time and support. As a consequence, too often journalists are forced to ask easy or wrong questions, as Gould argues. If this sounds like an academic pleading for footnotes, read the thoughtful comments by UC head of journalism, Tara Ross and UC media Law Specialist Prof Ursula Cheer about the role played by media and the problems of accepting bloggers as journalists or relying on bloggers' leaks for news sources. It is also hard not to conclude that in New Zealand the small circle of media, public service, business groups and lobbyists has simply become a little too close for comfort. While some may argue this has always been the case, we need to ask, what is the role of editors in ensuring that our journalists are resourced and supported to be able to adequately critique (rather than merely reinforce) the dominant narratives or stories that shape what we as citizens pay attention to?
Finally Dirty Politics (and our responses) raise questions about what kind of democracy we want?
One quick defense has been that "all politics is dirty". Certainly as Raymond Miller from Auckland has noted, political parties in New Zealand have become increasingly dominated by small cartels. In this process the grass roots memberships have atrophied, and the role of spin doctors, market strategies and managerialism has increased. This shift has come at the expense of local party engagement with everyday political issues in communities and reduced opportunity for wider scrutiny of what happens in political parties. More than this, a vicious language of elite attack politics, associated with some campaign strategies particularly in English speaking countries, has come to dominate political debate and has the effect of eroding our empathy for the position of others who have different life experiences from our own, silencing our democratic imagination, causing good people to hesitate before stepping into the glare of gottcha-politics and undermining our tolerance and respect for deeply held and very real political differences in our small, yet rapidly diversifying country.
But dirty politics, and the techniques of targeted political marketing and/or attack politics is not the only way we can practice politics and re-engage in shared public discussion. Recent research by UC Masters student Elizabeth Plew in Norway, for example looked at the way young Norwegian citizens are socialized into their democracy. From very young ages, children can be encouraged in class discussion and real community interactions to speak with integrity and to really listen, and to pay close attention to the concerns and views of others. In small countries like New Zealand, communities can easily be whipped up into online rage (consider for a moment how even small numbers of political party members can be orchestrated for example to crowd onto news websites to post online anonymous comments in the hope of derailing or at least, muting critical public news stories). Great democracies not only need good journalists, they also need great citizens.
But change brings change. And as citizens and students of politics we can make a difference. Some of the most important changes we can take right now may seem quite small. They include becoming informed, listening carefully, and replying to others only when we can accurately and fairly summarize their argument. These steps sound so trite, but they are good practices of democratic citizenship. Healthy democracies need citizens with empathy, critical reasoning skills, as well as passion and the ability to demonstrate tolerance and integrity.
In other words, New Zealand needs citizens like you.
So in closing I'd like to thank UC students of all political persuasions, for inspiring me, as future journalists, and community leaders you not only deserve to know another, more open and transparent democratic and compassionate NZ politics is possible, you are part of the change that will make this possible.