TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 27th August, 7.30pm, at the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, Auckland, New Zealand
SUMMARY: Nicky Hager talks about his new book “Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment”, focusing on the techniques used such as negative politics, the two track policy, fear of reputation attacks, and the tactic of influencing the left-wing electorate not to vote. Nicky also touches on solutions.
DURATION: 25:47 (NB this link starts at 13:00 when Nicky Hager starts speaking, after intro by Sir Edmund Thomas. NB a question and answers session follows but has not been included here)
BIOGRAPHY of Nicky Hager: http://www.nickyhager.info/biography-of-nicky-hager/
[13:00 Nicky Hager starts speaking]
Kia ora kato. Good evening. I’ve never had a welcome like that before. Today is the first day that I have talked – like not through media. Talked in public to people and thank you very much for coming. I’m going to talk about reaction to the book. I’m going to talk about some of what’s in it, for the people that haven’t read it. I’m going to talk about what I think needs to be done about it. And then, most important, most interesting, I’m happy to front up and answer any questions or challenges, or anything that anyone wants to ask about the book. And we’ll try to spend plenty of good time on that.
So this is my 6th book that I’ve written, and they have all done reasonably well. But there has never been a book that has had a reaction like this before, and I don’t think that’s about my writing style. I think that’s something about the content of this, that has struck a nerve in New Zealand s political being; that its actually resonated with something that was going on for people who are living and thinking about politics in New Zealand. That’s what I want to talk about today.
It could seem, if you haven’t read the book. It might seem, if you’ve heard about it through news media, as if the book is a kind of compendium of nastiness and dirty things and deception. But as far as I’m concerned, its really a book about ethics. Its about who we want to be in this country and the choices that political people need to make. And so that’s why in a little while, I’m going to talk about the things which I think are how we deal with the stuff which is in the book, rather than just wallowing around in the nastiness of it.
The thing is that what I wrote about, mostly wasn’t new news. I think that the important part of it. I think there are people all over the country – I know there are people all of the country who have been feeling attacked or frightened or intimidated or got at by the scale of attack politics that have been going on. I personally know people in science and academia and other areas who have been threatened and pressured through their jobs not to speak out in the public interest.
So that we’ve the political environment in recent years where the people who you’d most like to be speaking [word/s not understood by transcriber] have often felt constrained or frightened of doing that – vulnerable when they do that. At the same time the political parties have been experiencing the opposition political parties, have been experiencing repeated minor scandals, smears, attacks, seemingly coming from no-where. Controversies, many of which, from my research and the papers I’ve found, have been orchestrated in the benign and easy way, using the same tricks over and over again, by this attack machine which has been set up over the last 8 years within the National Party.
So I think lots of people have already been feeling that, and have been uncomfortable with it. And that’s one of the reasons why there has been such a strong reaction to the book. And I think the other thing people have been feeling is something that there wasn’t a name for, but its what the U.S. Republican Party calls a 2 track approach to public – wooing public opinion or winning opinion. And before I go over some details in the book, I want to talk about the 2 track approach because its kind of – is, in a way its a central idea of the book. And I think its a central idea of about how politics isn’t working in New Zealand. I should say where this idea came from [to Nicky Hager].
[16:53 Nicky's discovery of Negative Politics, and the Two Track policy]
When I finished my book “The Hollow Men” which I worked on much longer than the current one I’m proud of, I got an email from one of the people that is in the book – He was in – He had been involved in the meeting with the Exclusive Brethren in Hawkes Bay when Don Brash was there, and wrote to me about it. Then New Zealand – I know his uncle – of course where all related, and he said – my mate said to me “could you get hold of one of my nephews. He’s in your book he wants to talk about it with you” .
And it was a man called Simon Lusk. And he wanted to tell me – he was actually interested in the book and the ideas in it. He wanted to tell me his views and his findings on negative politics, which he has been finding from studying the American politics, Republican Party. And so this is – some of you will know this from the book but its central to it which is why I want to say it for any other people – for people here that have not read it. And that is that this is the idea that “negative politics” is a very powerful kind of politics – you can trip up, you can smear, you can damage your opponents, and the United States is the place where this has been practised the most, developed the most – in their political system. But the problem with negative politics is that it can backlash on the candidate that’s doing it. You can look bad – you can look like a person that does really horrible things dirty politics – in doing it. And so what a 2 track policy was – was that divide and develop within U.S. Republican politics – was that the leaders or the leader would be held above the dirty politics – the smears, the personal attacks, the nastiness and be [unintelligible to transcriber] and relaxed, while they would contract out at arms length to people who were producing the negative attack ad’s [advertising] and digging out the dirt, and the smears and so on. Now I believe that is more or less the story that has gone on in New Zealand, and I think it has created a sense of confusion about the political system because people have been experiencing in the last 6 years a government that has done quite a few policies which polls would say the majority of people don’t support, and at the same time there has been this heightened level of personal attack and negative politics going on and yet the National Party stands up and it continues to ride high in the polls because people think that the leader is has adopted the persona of being friendly and relaxed and nothing really touching him, and rising above negative politics. And I think that’s been a great confusion in the country about what is even happening in politics because there wasn’t a proper explanation of how things were working. And when I walk down the street which I – over the last few weeks I walk down the street and literally cant get more that 20 metres before the next person stops to talk to me about the book. Something about it means that these ideas and worries which have been around it, and vague awareness which has crystallized – its got through to people. And its the reason why their feeling the way the are.
[20:10 The role of blogs]
I want to run through some of the ideas of the book – reasonably quickly so we have time for questions. First of is the role of blogs. Some blogs – the blogs have petition – the potential to have fine thinking and to go places where – you know – to do new and wonderful things. But the same Republican Party literature which I was using as my source in the book – Blogs have another role and they has stated quite explicitly in their materials – Blogs are a way to run campaigns for a political party which is slightly separate from the party and can do the dirty work that the party doesn’t get held responsible for but still attacks its opponents. In the U.S. literature what it says is – Blogs can be used – blogs aren’t constrained like the news media is by having to be accurate or having to be fair. Or even having any more than a rumour which is what their going to use to attack their opponents. And that is seen as the power of Political blog which was linked to a political party. It could do the dirty work – you are never held accountable if your the leader or the leadership of that party if anything went [wrong and exposed deceitful slander]. Because it is this new unregulated zone which looked like, which mimicked and pretended to be kind of news media, or new media, but was actually and outlet for the party to do its dirty work. So that’s the first concept – there are fantastic blogs, and there are disgusting blogs. And only 10 years or something into the internet age we still haven’t learned the difference properly, and we have to learn the difference language of it , so we can tell the difference. So we can decide which one we want and which ones we push justifiably to the margins.
[21:56 Hidden negative politics – Scope and co-ordination]
The next thing which is a key thing in the book is that in New Zealand the politics in the last while – its looked more and more things consist of little scandals. Scandals which they’re nothing much to do with the future of the country or with the policies that matter, but constantly seeing politics as being tripped up, insulted, bad news coming out about them , and this is about the linkage between the Prime Ministers Department, and the Blogs, the Beehive, and the Blogs and the News Media. Where stories have been pouring out continuously about [?free courtney world time?], the Internet Party is going to be announced, bad news comes out. They have their launch, bad news comes out. There’s a kind of nice co-ordinated system. Same with the Labour Party, tripping them up at every turn. Which is fine, if your like in the Mouldoon days and you stand up as the leader and you stab people in the front. At least people can judge you for what you did. The problem with this system is that its sneaky – its underhand – no one knows whose hand is at work in scandal after smear after personal attack. So that’s the second phenomena, is that we have been experiencing without analysing more constant little attacks and scandals and trip ups and “got ya’s” than is usual in our politics and its taken over and we don’t want to start to think that’s what politics consists of. And that’s what there are parts of the book about. Most of you know these these bits but the ones that are highlighted in the news when the book came out was a picture of the man who works in the office 2 doors down the corridor from John Keys office on the 9th floor of the Beehive who is inside the Labour Party computers downloading material, digging around looking for dirt and then when he’s downloaded the dirt – to-ing and frowing with Cameron Slater deciding which bits that Cameron Slater will use to attack, and which bits will hurt the most. Now we should never use the gate word in New Zealand because it has been used so often – you know – its a crime. But digging inside your political opponents [?organ?] invasion and taking out information and using it in targeted political attacks is very [short statement not understood] is what I’m saying. This is off the scale of what we are used to in this country. And I know that the Prime Minister has still not in any way advanced or taken responsibility for it. But then we move onto a new stage of this which I did not expect to find and I don’t think anyone was particularly expecting and that is that the same machine that has been set up for attacking people who stuck their heads up in politics and political parties, which were the opponents of the National Party is being used for commercial clients as well . And this is an insidious thing that has being going on. There have been whole political issues, and whole controversies which have been run with the use of the “Whale Oil” blog and it echoed in its [?sister blog KiwiBlog?] with stuff written by unseen people and paid for by large New Zealand corporates who should be deeply embarrassed for having done something so scummy. And that’s an issue which will not be resolved by between now and the election. In fact I would suggest that over the next few years we should be picking and talking about those politics because its extremely disreputable and it will take a while to hold people for it to account and to produce change about that. There’s also – jumping through the last things – there’s also the chapters about phoney political campaigns which is really about the news media and all the rest of us not being so susceptible to the next person who jumps up and says I’m an independent group whose campaigning for – you know – against MMP or whatever, when in fact its the same few National Party activists running campaigns to suit their party.
[26:14 How fear of being attacked by negative politics, is influencing society]
And then the final area of course which is kind of the grubbiest of all and is very serious – its the use of personal sexual kind of scandals which we have already seen in the Len Brown case, organized by the Auckland National party, but there were many other examples and actually there not just a means of attacking people, but what became clear was Cameron Slater and talking about it was a way of getting control over people because they were in fear.
And while I travelled in the last 2 weeks talking to people about the book and doing a lot of media interviews, I’ve been taken aside by various journalists – senior and otherwise – this is an important story and it will not ju – its only because I’ve I’ve seen journalists – who have said to me “um Nicky, was there anything about me in that thing?”, which is funny. But its not funny. Its actually terrible because all over the country all of us, everyone has got things that they are embarrassed about – everything does things that are stupid and not proud of. Lets not be high and mighty about it. And if you think that there is an industry out there – a maliciously directed industry of people digging it up and saving it to use against you – this is a very very destructive influence to have happen in a little society like ours. And I can say in a short time I can say in have met quite a few people who have been nervous about that phenomenon. Its really really grubby.
[27:53 Learning to understand the psychology of people employing 2 track negative politics, and the tactic of actively influencing left-wing opposition not to vote.]
So I want to say one final thing about the principles which I think you will understand. but we need to get new ideas in our head for understanding these kind of people. And the thing that I – at the end – when I finish the whole meeting – it struck me – the tactics I had been writing about – when you win over people. Who are naturally your supporters. How do you kind of trick people to support you when actually they might be voting against your own interests? But what I saw in this book, and actually heard from the people concerned and saw in the literature that they believe in and quote, was a new kind of way of doing politics. And that’s not the kind of political campaigners or political management people who are trying to win voters over to their party, this is the politics of trying to stop people from voting. Of people giving up and pushing people out of politics and I think that is actually the uniting theme of what this book is about. The book is about all the people that have been silenced or scared or bullied into being less vocal members of our society and its also about the people who have been encouraged to see politics as a dirty grubby selfish game – where all to politicians are as bad as each other, and the whole thing is useless, just turn up your music and don’t take any notice, and don’t vote, which is a really dangerous and terrible thing, and its also horribly expedient thing, because they know whose going to stop voting first and its not their people – they think. So these are serious policies for us. We don’t understand what their thinking and where they are coming from – we don’t know what the answers are.
[29:36 Privacy rights vs Whistle blowers right to leak in order to expose criminal behaviour and to protect the public interest]
I want to talk about now – just a min [a couple of words not understood]. I just want to say something about the issue of privacy, because I have been quite reasonably – I think also quite – you know – I’m just trying to find an argument to divert of the issue. I have been challenged about why me – who often talks about privacy, and peoples right to privacy – think its all right to take leaked information? Good question. Reasonable challenge. First thing I’d say is that leaking – just understanding what a leak is. A leak is a safety valve in society. A leak means which is unauthorized, illegal or is regarded a wrong – its not the normal process. You don’t get leaks under the official information act. Leaking is what you do when something important is going on that is not going to be found out about otherwise. So I believe in leaks, but I believe in they have to have a very good reason. Ed’s talked about that. But there’s privacy in it, so when someone leaks me – when someone comes to me, and lets me use this pile of information about the weird world of Cameron Slater and all his associates – I feel a very strong obligation to just compartmentalize my mind and not use most of that – and what I’m saying is, I believe that even in the act of dealing with a leak like this, privacy is just as important. I went to huge lengths to take peoples names out, cut out the dirty bits, to use little bits of quotes and other bits, so I didn’t humiliate people – not causing problems with their families and the rest of It. And I think that – I just want to say this because I don’t want to this thing – to have been a hypocrite, by my stand in one area, and my stand in another. [audience applause]
And I want to illustrate this by making reference to a mistake that happened which is that I was challenged to release some of the information in the book by our – the Prime Minister – saying that I had made it up, and I would have to front up or people wouldn’t believe me. So I spoke to my source, who is a decent and ethical person, and said “would you release some of the documents that you gave to me – that I used for the book. And in one of those cases he released information without taking out the personal information – which really hurt and upset somebody – whose name I wont repeat here to increase the crime. But I just want to say I’m sorry and that man had every right and reason to be angry and upset, and we just all have to be more careful, because privacy matters hugely in society – for peoples rights and I’m sorry that happened.
[32:20 What can be done? - Long term strategy]
The final thing I want to talk about which is maybe the most important part, is what can be done? I start from the point of view that I don’t believe for a moment that politics is inevitably awful and shabby and bad and selfish and all those things – that we sometimes hear. But it will be if we leave it to people that featured in my book. What can we do? The first thing is to accept the inevitability, you cant stop politicians being tricky or telling lies. You cant stop PR [public relations] people trying to manipulate things. You cant stop – you cant legislate against dirty tricks basically in most ways.
So what you have to do if you don’t what the kind of stuff which I document in the book, is to build up societies defences. And empower other people to participate in politics so its different. Its not a wussy answer – this is the strongest answer there is. This is why in the final part of the book, in the Afterward, I list all the things that I think will improve the public interest and strong democratic kind of politics in this country. And these issues wont be sorted out between now and the next election, but they are actually much more important than the next election. These are things that I urge you to read and think about and help to bring into being in the next coming years. Otherwise we leave the field to the nastiest and the most unscrupulous to determine how the politics are done in the country. The second thing is [audience applauses].
The second thing I want to say is everyone can help. If I write a book and It causes a stir in the news media and then the stir dies down, then frankly that was just like another bit of political entertainment, as the years roll by. And I want to talk about what everyone can do. I believe that involvement in politics – that even when there are people who have been unscrupulous in politics, politics is the sum of the actions of everyone involved. And the more people that try to do good things, the better it is for the whole country. So what do we do? So first of all please try to help up our news media and resources and transparency and those defences that we can have.
[34:36 Avoid spreading the disease of negative politics]
But the next thing I would say is don’t imitate the attack bloggers. If you have a left wing blog, don’t make it like a right wing [negative politics attacking tactics] blog. Don’t think that because they have been effective, that its the way to do politics. In fact look at what their doing and reject it, is what I would argue. Strongly. [Audience applause]. But what I’m saying [is] the answer to dirty politics is for every person that possibly can to act in the way that they think that politics should be. I also want to say that I believe in books. I actually think there is a difference between books and news media. There’s something about people reading from one end of the book to the other which can actually change things. And so I’m asking you quite specifically if you think that the book was worth while, tell people about it. Lend them a copy. Encourage about there. Because books – I know from my experience from years of writing them – that books have an effect far beyond the relatively small numbers that get printed. Please help that process. This is the fastest selling book my publishers have every had. Its going to go a long way – I’d like it to go further.
[35:50 Encouraging people to exercise their voting power]
And of course the final thing is, understand this is for individuals. Understand what the politics are that we are fighting. We’re fighting the politics of encouraging people not to participate. And the answer to that is to participate. Participate in writing, and in thinking and talking and being involved in elections. That’s actually the antidote, that’s the answer. That’s the flip-side of what we are talking about. Participation. Participation in the national party. I don’t mind participation in the labour party. I don’t mind participation in the other parties. Participation is the answer to the politics we are talking about. And if you don’t belong to anything that at least [, its] the least you can do. And its not very little. Its not just small. Its, have a big party at your place on election day and invite all your strange relatives who say they cant be bothered voting, and by inviting everybody and taking them all down to the polling booth, and you’ll be feeling good about it and you’ll be going to greater things. [Audience applause].
[36:48 Cynicism and pessimism, and the enemies of good politics]
And forget Cameron Slater. Cameron Slater has been used and he is a tool in these politics, but the story is not really about him. I want to name the 2 enemies which I see of clean and good politics in this country. And one of them is cynicism, and the other one is pessimism. Cynicism is where we believe and say everyone does it, all politicians are the same – they are [all] self serving, they’ve got their snouts in the trough and the rest of it. I don’t believe that. I just don’t think its true. The other thing. Pessimism, is feeling that its all hopeless and everything gets worse. Which is what it looks like when
you look at all the bad things that happen in society, and forget to look at all the good ones. I don’t feel cynical. I think that most people have really good values can care about these things. That’s why I can write a book like this and it resonates so strongly and I don’t feel pessimistic. Because my whole life has shown me that things re better when we bother to speak up about what we believe in. [Audience applause] And the main thing I want to say is – I said it at the beginning – I’ve just about finished on this. The main thing I want to say is – what I said at the beginning is I don’t want – I did not want to write a book about sleaze and slim. I believe its a book about ethics. And what a book about ethics means is that if you read it, and if we talk about the issues and we look at expediency verses principle and how do we treat each other – what its worth to be fair verses what its like to be pragmatic and playing dirty tricks and things we can decide what values we wants to build up our society on. And what I’m really saying is – what I would hope when people read this – is that they look at it and they see the choices in there and the choose what side they want to be on. The good politics or the dirty politics. And what we are going to do about it, to change it. Thank-you
[38:47 applause and standing ovation.
NB that a 20min public questions and answers session followed this talk by Nicky Hager which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-5mDzPbclo ]
Negative Politics (definition).: A tactic developed by the U.S. Republican party, which focuses on damaging the reputation of political opponents by use of conventional and non-conventional news media. The attack is not done with the intention of protecting society from crime. Rather, negative politics is done with the goal that by using such attacks to lower the reputation of an opposing person or party, this will result in ones own political party or candidate appearing to be more popular by comparison in the eyes of the public.
Two Track Policy (definition): A two track negative politics policy means that a division is made within a group between 1) the leader/s who promote the themselves and their party in an inspiring positive light, and 2) those that focus on the negative politics of damaging the reputation of their opponents. The division is made so that if people detect and react adversely to the slander of negative politics, then the separation between the 2 “tracks” will protect the leader/s from any risk of backlash.