The current battle between Colin Craig and Russel Norman could be just the first round in an ongoing conflict that will feature this election year. The two minor party leaders look set to become the lightning rods for a liberal-conservative ideological conflict. Both protagonists in the current defamation battle are characterising the dispute as a moral crusade. On Craig’s side, this is a battle for higher standards in political debate, in which honesty and accuracy are important parts of the discourse. He’s positioning himself as the opponent of overly-aggressive and dirty politics. On the other side, Norman says this is a free speech issue, that political debate needs to be colourful, and democracy would be a poorer place if politicians had to take care to be accurate. But what else is at stake? And what else does this battle say about where this election campaign is headed?
Colin Craig needs to harden up and play the aggressive game
There has been widespread condemnation of Colin Craig’s defamation actions against Russel Norman. Virtually every commentator has berated or mocked the Conservative Party leader for his use of legal mechanisms to fight back against Norman’s slight against him. Duncan Garner says Colin Craig needs to harden up. His advice is: ‘He’ll need a tougher hide if he makes it to Parliament later this year. It may not be right, but it’s a brutal place where the vulnerable and weak are crushed, and the tough survive. He is now a player; he may help get National back – the Greens and Labour sense that – and they are going to play tough with him from here on in’.
Barry Soper says that Conservative Craig will need a thick skin: ‘if he wants to play with the big boys and girls he's going to have to harden up rather than running to his well paid lawyers' offices every time someone delivers a brickbat’. And similarly, John Armstrong argues that Running to mum no way to play politics.
Even Prime Minister John Key has come out against Craig on this – Claire Trevett reports that ‘Key said he had never bothered suing in his political career and observed Mr Craig would need a phalanx of lawyers to deal with the flak if he made it into Parliament. "What a waste of time. It's a matter for him but if I took legal action every time I thought somebody had wronged me, my lawyers would be busy too"’ – see: Craig calls in lawyers again.
The Labour Party, too, has come out on Norman’s side, with its deputy leader even offering legal help – see Michael Fox and Stacey Kirk’s Parker offers Norman aid.
Such is the weight of opinion against Craig, Brian Rudman points out that ‘cry-baby Colin Craig has achieved the seeming impossible. He has managed to unite a grand alliance of National, Labour and the Greens against him’ – see: Woop woop, pull up before it's too late Colin. Rudman is also of the opinion that Craig ‘should grow a thicker skin’.
The Herald has published a very good editorial, which makes a strong case for Craig dropping the threats – see: Hollow threats won't elicit unwarranted apology. The newspaper – like others – says that Craig’s actions are ‘totally at odds with the rough and tumble of politics’, and that ‘Unless Mr Craig is, indeed, completely naive, this is surely a threat that will go no further’.
It’s hard to find any public support for Colin Craig’s actions. Blogger Pete George does have a dissenting view and asserts that, although Colin Craig’s legal action is somewhat petty, there are larger issues at stake and the essence of Craig’s complaint is a fair one. In his blogpost The rough and tumble of politics George argues against an acceptance that politics is inherently aggressive and simply accepting the aggression and dishonest political rhetoric that goes along with it. He asks: ‘Lying, making false or unsupported accusations, making personal attacks that are excessive or are irrelevant to the issue, shouldn’t these be frowned on rather than toxic just accepted as part of our politics?’
Furthermore, George asks: ‘should the “rough and tumble” just be accepted as part of the political game? Is a toxic political environment ok or should the excesses of our parliamentary representatives be challenged? Lying, falsely representing the views of others, making false or unsupported accusations, these are things that turn many people off politics and politicians. Many people – and more than a few MPs – think the rough and tumble is often too rough’.
The transformation of the Greens into a more hard-headed party
Regardless of the rights or wrongs of Colin Craig’s legal action, this controversy highlights the ongoing transformation of the Green Party into a more serious political player that is now willing to throw dirt around much like more established and conventional politicians. This is, of course, something of a departure from the earlier days of the Green Party led by Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, which put an emphasis on ‘clean politics’.
Under Norman, the Greens have been sharpened into a more conventional political party that is ready to play politics like the old-fashioned parties. As David Farrar argues, the whole Craig vs Norman episode ‘doesn’t reflect well on either man. Russel Norman is the co-leader of the Green Party that claims a core value is “Engage respectfully, without personal attacks”. Norman tramples over that Green value all the time’ – see: Craig v Norman.
Pete George has elaborated on this transformation in posts such as Russel Norman’s clash of principles. George says that the ‘Greens were supposed to be above this sort of character attack but Norman seems to be moving more towards the same old petty politics Greens once stayed away from’. Furthermore he alleges that ‘I know that some Green Party members are very disappointed that their leaders have chosen to go down the “rough and tumble” path, destroying a good behaviour ethos that was a point of pride for many Greens’.
Of course, Norman objects to the notion that he has delved into gutter politics with his attacks on Craig. Norman has been quoted, for example, saying ‘I don't support the idea that we should be able to criticise each other personally, and I didn't attack Colin personally; what I criticised were his views, and his political views’. But this comes across as somewhat disingenuous. Elsewhere Norman has said that he is merely challenging Craig’s ‘politics of hatred’, and that what the Conservative leaders statements on the issue are ‘disgusting’ – see TVNZ’s Craig, Norman continue battle over 'gays in the closet' comments.
Should politicians have ‘free speech’ to ‘sledge’ their opponents?
If politicians cannot exaggerate their opponents positions, then we would have a very dull and limited version of democracy according to Norman and his lawyer. Norman has said that ‘Colin Craig's approach to politics of using expensive lawyers to try to tell other politicians what they can and cannot say, is not the best way that we should do politics in New Zealand’ and that ‘It has a chilling effect on free speech if you have to pass everything in front of a defamation lawyer before you can say it’ – see Stacey Kirk’s Colin Craig sets deadline for Russel Norman's apology.
In her column, Litigious flurries have no place in robust debate, Claire Trevett elaborates: ‘Norman argued that in trying to do that, he was actually stifling political debate. If politicians had to run every word past the lawyers for even relatively mild political sledging, it would have a chilling effect on what should be healthy and robust political debate, he said. The reason defamation laws are more relaxed when it comes to the political context is because of the strong public interest in allowing robust analysis and debate. This is not to say politicians and political commentators should have carte blanche. But there is a difference between an MP making serious allegations about a person's conduct or actions and simple political hyperbole or exaggeration of an opponents' political views. Excessive litigiousness has thankfully not been a significant feature in New Zealand politics. Craig is apparently determined to change that’.
Does Colin Craig have any chance of winning?
For the best investigation into this question, see Isaac Davison’s article Legal experts doubt Craig can win. Davison cites a number of experts and the complexities of the case are made clear.
Possibly the key question is: Has Colin Craig been damaged by Russel Norman’s statements? That was obviously the intention of the Green Party leaders’ statement at the Big Gay Out. But it’s unclear whether the desired effect has been achieved. Norman implied to the public that Craig’s policies and intentions are based on highly misogynist and homophobic beliefs. It would be interesting to see this tested in court.
Craig argues that, yes, opinions are well covered by the Defamation Act, and that politicians are welcome to express opinions that are right or wrong, but in this case ‘Norman had couched his comments as statements of fact rather than opinion’ – see Claire Trevett’s Colin Craig sets lawyers on Green co-leader. See also, Barry Soper and Juliette Sivertsen’s The fact it's election year could protect Russel Norman. The Herald’s editorial, Hollow threats won't elicit unwarranted apology, also makes some key points.
Much of Norman’s defence appears to rely on - not just Craig’s various statements - but his opposition to gay marriage. But, of course, plenty of politicians have opposed gay marriage recently. And, in fact, when the Civil Union debate was on, Helen Clark and the Labour Party were clear that they did not support marriage equality.
Understanding Colin Craig
The latest Metro magazine is out, and has a profile/interview with Craig by Steve Braunias. As usual, Braunias attempts to understand the essence of the politician, and this can probably be boiled down to one quote from the article: ‘He can be so boring. I loved it. Household drudgery is one of my favourite topics of conversation, and here was a leader of a political party who could speak knowledgeably and intimately about plastic food tubs with proper sealing lids. He also talked about the joys of household budgeting sessions around the dinner table with an Excel spreadsheet’.
An even better quote about Craig – albeit devoid of context here – comes from one of his best friends, who says, ‘Well, I’d liken Colin to John Key in a sense. I don’t follow politics, so I’m not sure about this one, but have I got it right that John Key used to be known as the smiling assassin? I have? Okay. Well, then, with Colin, you wouldn’t know you’ve been stabbed in the back and had your country decimated by invading troops until it practically happens’.
5pm today is the deadline imposed on Russel Norman to apologise and retract his sledge against Colin Craig. There’s no doubt that the Greens won’t back down on this. But will Colin Craig? For a discussion of this question and the whole issue from Craig’s perspective, you can watch Paul Henry’s 6-minute interview with Craig: 'Old-fashioned and out of touch'. From this, and other items, Norman looks to be the winner of this particular controversy, but there will be continuing concerns if sledging and dirty politics become a defining feature of this year’s election campaign.
Finally, for some light-hearted – yet still meaningful – approaches to the Craig vs Norman issue, see Scott Yorke’s I’m sorry, Colin. Really sorry, Andrew Geddis’ Neknominate: the Colin Craig version, and my blogpost, Cartoons about Colin Craig vs Russel Norman.
Colin Craig vs Russel Norman
Claire Trevett (Herald): Litigious flurries have no place in robust debate
Dan Satherley (TV3): Colin Craig wavers on legal threat
Paul Henry Show (TV3): 'Old-fashioned and out of touch': Colin Craig on the PHS
Law Fuel: The Lawyer Firing Colin Craig's Bullets
Newswire: Craig to decide on legal action
Newstalk ZB Staff (Newstalk ZB): D-Day for Norman and Craig
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The ABCs are back
Pete George (Your NZ): Garner – Labour MPs to lose the election then roll Cunliffe
Pete George (Your NZ): Is Grant Robertson playing the long game?
Brian Rudman (Herald): Labour puts us on the road to chaos
Claire Trevett (Herald): Labour refuses to reveal leadership contest donations
No Right Turn: Labour's unacceptable secrecy
Radio NZ: Labour announces Ohariu candidate
Dan Satherley (TV3): Cunliffe 'not ashamed' of Herne Bay address
Mike Smith (The Standard): Home thoughts from abroad
Greg Presland (The Standard): David Cunliffe’s home
RadioLive: Go on, Google search 'David Cunliffe'. He's Labour's top cat and his bio is perfect (purrfect)
Kieran Gainsford (Left Estate): You’re Making Us Look Bad
Grumpollie: I want in on this bet!
Pete George (Your NZ): Labour spin team listening?
Ele Ludemann (Homepaddock): Does Labour want to win?
Keeping Stock: Garner and Labour's "go-slow"
Pete George (Your NZ): Labour may be facing a crisis
Pete George (Your NZ): Labour standing another party insider for Ohariu
Corazon Miller (Newstalk ZB): Taurima could still be a future Labour MP
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Jones back Taurima
Chris Trotter (Bowalley Road): A Labour Cell In TVNZ's Vast Castle
Nelson Mail: Editorial – Sticking by the code
Jane Clifton (Listener): Beware the isles of March (paywalled)
Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): Jones claims victory
Adam Bennett and Steve Deane (Herald): Suppliers tell of tough tactics
Claire Trevett (Herald): Shane Jones: I'm vindicated
Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): Commerce probe limited to Countdown
Simon Wong (TV3): Foss: Supermarket investigation launched
Radio NZ: Jones makes fresh claims of extortion
Radio NZ: Investigation into supermarket chain
Vernon Small (Stuff): National continues poll lead
Pete George (Your NZ): Roy Morgan – grim for Labour
Rob Salmond (Polity): Rough estimates of poll bias
Radio NZ: Strip fraudster of JP title – minister
Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): GCSB need to Get Smart
Audrey Young (Herald): Spy agency errors embarrass PM, give fuel to Labour and Greens
Greg Presland (The Standard): The GCSB can’t count
Radio NZ: Spy agency admits bungling figures
Stuff: Spy boss apologises to Key
TV3/Newswire: GCSB gets its figures wrong
No Right Turn: The GCSB lied to Parliament
Newswire/3 News: Dotcom's extradition hearing faces delay
Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): If Kim Dotcom has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear
Ben Heather (Stuff): Privacy breaches 'milked for own gain'
Stuff: Privacy standards slammed
Newswire: Commissioner 'disturbed' by responses
Isaac Davison (Herald): Power switch efforts fail to rein in price
Newswire: Genesis sale details expected soon
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Labour/Green policy would lead to less renewables
Radio NZ: Iwi could earn $13m a year – Jones
Radio NZ: MP reports racism over Treaty package
State sector reform
Radio NZ: 'Total overhaul' of state sector sought
Vernon Small (Stuff): No public service inguiry: English
NZ Fabian Society: Rethinking the State Sector - Book Launch
Radio NZ: Staff cost doubles under Dalziel
Rebecca Macfie (Listener): Collapse of accountability
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Parker v Dalziel
Russell Brown (Hard News): The Mayor's marginal enemies
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The pariah Mayor
Inequality and poverty
Gordon Campbell (Stuff): Framing the equal opportunity message
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The trickle down straw man
Mike Butler (Breaking Views): Mind the facts when debating the gap
No Right Turn: National's environmental secrecy bill
Jo Moir (Stuff): Students cry poor but minister unmoved
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Senior public servant who spoke out still on leave
Matthew Beveridge: Young Nats vs Young Labour on twitter.
Claire Trevett (Herald): Whaleoil's flowers 'miserable' – MP
Rachel Smalley (Newsalk ZB): Time to talk about special needs in mainstream education
Guyon Espiner (Listener): Deal or no deal?
Bill Ralston (Listener): Sweet nothings
Listener: Editorial: a free country
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): MSD using data
Dominion Post: Election circus already under way
Daily Blog: The Daily Blog Watch – 20/21 February 2014
Jerram Watts (TV3): Next generation on older voters' minds
Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): Peters tips backing for reform
Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): Speech by John Key to the Papakura Rotary Club
Rob Hosking (NBR): 'Would you believe...?' Russel Norman 'Gets Smart'
Simon Wilson (Metro): Colin & Bob & Len & friends
Thomas Lumley (Listener): Closing the gap
Pete George (Your NZ): Write like Trotter