The politics, not the dirt is the problem.

Annette Sykes, MANA Waiariki/list candidate, bones up on Nicky Hager's election-season bestseller.

Annette Sykes, MANA Waiariki/list candidate, bones up on Nicky Hager’s election-season bestseller.

By Ben Peterson (Fightback Ōtautahi/Christchurch)

Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics just blew up the election. The material comes largely from Cameron Slater’s leaked emails, but it covers much more than his personal activity. It outlines the activities of central National Party figures, up to and including Prime Minister John Key himself.

But the real importance of the book is not revealing the dirty tactics that John Key and company will resort to. More importantly, it outlines the anti-democratic and big money interests that drive the National Party. It is not that just these are sleazy politicians. These people (John Key, Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins and more) use attack politics to hide their real agendas.

Dirty Politics is significant because it outlines the political project that the National Party believes in, but only talks about behind closed doors. John Key and the National Party have cultivated an image of themselves as the responsible moderates. The reality is that he leads a highly ideological government that is committed to furthering business interests. Part of this crusade is actively supporting the Whale Oil blog and its politics.

The politics of Whale Oil
Dirty Politics shows that members of members of Key’s staff have actively assisted Slater and Whale Oil. Key himself has admitted to being in regular personal contact with Slater. Key may claim a degree of separation from Whale Oil, but this is disingenuous. John Key is many things but he is not stupid. Key and his staff know full well what Whale Oil stands for, but have maintained links with the blog.

Hager’s book outlines the political project of Whale Oil. The Whale Oilers actively and consciously seek to undermine democracy. Slater and his mates led the campaign against MMP (proportional representation) to try and limit space in electoral politics for progressive voices. The leaked emails show the group has actively sought to create an atmosphere that discourages people from voting. If candidates that aren’t to their liking do win an election, the Whale Oil crew will attempt to blackmail or publicly shame them into resignation.

Slater and Whale Oil seek to undermine democracy so they can magnify the voices of the big businesses that bankroll their activities. Companies that pay for Slater to ‘consult’ for them get the use of his blog and also his contacts in government. Not content with undermining the democratic process and giving voice to corporations, Whale Oil is also an enthusiastic participant in attempts to ‘smash’ unions. Unions are an important institution for working people to express their interests. Working people don’t have thousands of dollars each month to sponsor their own attack blogger.

The happy marriage of John and Cam
Whale Oil and John Key’s office work together hand in glove. Whale Oil runs campaigns that National supports, but can’t be seen to do for fear of a backlash. This degree of separation has meant that John Key has been able to viciously attack his enemies and facilitate corporate interests, while maintaining a cleaner image.

John Key presents himself as a reasonable moderate, who is popular with regular people and share their interests. This is a deliberate untruth.

This National government wants to increase the power of corporate interests and undermine the position of everyone else. However, they recognise that the policies they want to implement (like further asset sales or cutbacks to health and education) are deeply unpopular. They are constrained by the potential democratic power of the public.

Thus, to implement their policies, this potential democratic power must be marginalised and silenced. Participation in elections must be undermined. MMP, which creates space for alternatives to be articulated, should be attacked where possible. Any political opponents, whether it be Len Brown, Kim Dotcom or the unions, must be destroyed. All real or potential alternatives to the neoliberal agenda must be neutralised.

The reality of this agenda is important to recognise because it also shows us how these politics can be beaten.

How to beat them
These right-wing policies are deeply unpopular – John Key knows that. That’s why he is desperate to be seen as a nice guy who likes the rugby and avoids debate. National fears a backlash if their true agenda is understood. Dirty Politics exposes that agenda.

Hager finishes the book by calling for more resources and greater ethics for journalism. This would be an important improvement for public debate, but journalism is not what scares John Key or the right-wing bloggers.

They’re terrified of democracy.

Dirty Politics shows how National have actively tried to eliminate any potential alternatives to their political project. The election on September 20 will be an important opportunity to demonstrate how they have failed to do so. In particular, they are terrified of the MANA Movement and the Internet Party and the alternative they represent.

These attacks on democracy will not end with Key out of office. Democracy can only function for ordinary people when ordinary people are actively involved. New political movements, independent media and resurgent unions are necessary to provide a counter voice to the corporate interests and their seat warmers, online and in government..


  1. Well said Ben Peterson. Now we’re getting past the clutter to the elementary problem. This well constructed summary places this sinister activity in it’s proper context I believe. It’s the USA connection which characterises this behaviour. Democratically elected governments in Central and South America and elsewhere, have been displaced in favour of, at times, cruel dictators, sympathetic to US corporate interests. John Pilger has reported extensively on this, and his award winning cinema release on South America was aptly entitled “The War on Democracy.” The agenda for New Zealand is exactly the same … the only subtle difference being this country’s status as a “soft target” which makes it harder to identify. Nevertheless … a war on democracy is exactly what it is.

  2. The stumbling block in your argument is in overlooking the anti-democratic nature of MMP itself. There is no earthly reason why political parties would oppose MMP because it enables them to manipulate the makeup of parliament based on the “popular” vote. There are many cases in which a senior MP has no electoral support but remains in parliament by virtue of a list position. When list positions are decided by a party bureau, there is no public accountability, with the result that ideological agendas, and not consensus, drive policy. Thirty years of uncontested neo – liberal policies attest to the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of this system. Privatisation of the media has resulted in a powerfully captive propaganda arm of conservative interests, which completely sidelines dissenting voices as self-evidently “fringe” and “radical”. Should the social-democratic wing of liberal interest get a majority to govern, expect no change in business as usual. It takes a dispassionate eye to see beyond the sideshow histrionics of the debating chamber and the media arm of government. What lies behind the lights and misdirections is a cross-floor cooperation level of around 90%. But don’t take my word for it: go on a public tour of treasury and ask. That is the realpolitik of New Zealand today and they are, in the words of John Key, relaxed about it. And why wouldn’t they be? There is no longer any opposition.

  3. What methods do the anti-democracy bunch use to discourage voting and political engagement?

  4. Lets not forget an example of this politicking was Slater’s attacks on the tobacco control sector by targeting key individuals hoping that pressure exerting on them would get them to simmer down their public condemnation of the tobacco industry. The posts even included what colour and type of car that an advocate drove, what trips where taken where and when and caused enough heat to eventually make MOH feel nervous enough about pulling funding with no apparent explanation. It didnt work in the end and we ended up with the Maori affairs select committee into the tobacco industry that really brought them out of their shady places.

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