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NZ POLITICS DAILY: The democratic deficit of Dirty Politics

NZ POLITICS DAILY: November 27 2014 from Dr Bryce Edwards

Thu, 27 Nov 2014

Officially, New Zealand is the least corrupt place on the planet. So when Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index comes out next Wednesday there will be much attention paid to whether New Zealand takes a dive from its world number one ranking due to the various Dirty Politics controversies this year. 

Certainly the public's confidence in public institutions and the integrity of governance must have taken a hit over everything relating to Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics book through to other challenges to the National Government's integrity brought about by scandals relating to Oravida and Donghua Liu. Accusations of corruption and a lack of integrity in government have been a major feature of the year, reinforced by the latest official reports relating to Dirty Politics

However, this year's Corruption Perception Index will not be impacted by these corruption-related scandals due to their timing and the methodology that Transparency International uses. We may have to wait until the 2015 index to see any impact. Nonetheless, there can be a strong expectation that the public's confidence in official politics and government is diminished as a result of the scandals, as well as the official reports out this week.

New Zealand's growing democratic deficit
The official reports in response to Dirty Politics should serve as a "wake-up call" about the health of New Zealand democracy and governance - which is something I argued yesterday on TV3's Firstline- see: Key either lying or not in control - Edwards.

And, of course, plenty of politicians are making strong allegations about corruption, abuse of power, and state agencies 'interfering in general elections' - see Peter Wilson and Sarah Robson's Insults fly in parliament over SIS

Much of the public will, of course, shrug their shoulders about these warnings and complaints, especially given the length of debate that has already been had on Dirty Politics. But as Gordon Campbell argues, it's about more than just Nicky Hager's book - see: On the inquiry into one case of dirty politics.

Campbell lists the numerous recent inquiries into state institutions and government behaviour that are less than complimentary about the establishment, and he makes some important observations: "Inquiries are supposed to re-assure the public. What these inquiry outcomes share in common is a government culture of zero responsibility... There's a pattern involved here. Via a medley of wilful blindness, carefully sculptured terms of reference and a deep respect for political red lights, this current slew of inquiries has found it possible to seal off the main players from any serious consequences."

These complaints are not just from the political left. Perhaps the greatest condemnation of what's revealed by the latest security agency report comes from the NBR's Rob Hosking, who concludes that, "The plain fact is, the country's security service got caught up in the political games of election 2011. Wilfully or accidentally, It became a political arm of the party in power and not, as it should be, a neutral government agency. That is scary stuff" - see: SIS report: shocking naivety or toadying by SIS officials (paywalled).

Hosking is particularly scathing about Key and his government's integrity of operations: "Mr Key has been shown - again - to have been sloppy over matters of fact, basic accountability, and the dividing line between the rule of law and his personal rule, between the government and the National Party. Not for the first time, the current government looks like piling up precedents for the over-use of state power which will one day be seized upon and used with even greater enthusiasm, by a left-wing government. In the short term, it will probably not hurt Mr Key and National. But these are matters of principle which are critical to how we are governed - no matter who is in government."

For more condemnation of the security agencies, it's worth listening to security analyst Paul Buchanan's six-minute interview on Radio New Zealand: Security analyst says SIS and PMs office unprofessional. On his blog, Buchanan also says, "Sometimes one has to speak bluntly but honestly about unethical behaviour within the NZ intelligence community... Short of taking monetary or personal favours, this is official malfeasance of the first order and is corrosive of the professional integrity of the intelligence community. Shame on all involved" - see: The Slater/SIS/PM's Office OIA debacle.

The problem seems to go across all government agencies according to Vernon Small in his important column, Putting the spin on "neutrality". He warns that the spindoctors have essentially taken over the state apparatus and see their main job as being to protect the Government from the Opposition: "It often goes well beyond how to communicate an issue - or even what to communicate - into frankly how to spin and counterspin Opposition attacks and manage the media in the most derogatory sense of the phrase."

Small's conclusion is worth quoting at length: "What is happening is that the 'no surprises' rule - the requirement public servants warn their political masters of matters both negative and positive that they ought to know - is being stretched, distorted and subverted into something much worse that ought to worry the public and Rennie. No surprises has morphed into 'no embarrassment' and has reached the next stage of evolution - 'how can we help you avoid embarrassment'. The next tentative steps on the journey are already being taken: 'how we can help you overcome the Opposition?' It's a slippery incline that takes you from political neutrality to friend, to very good friend, to ally and onto unacceptable political partisanship."

Unfortunately it's the State Services Commission and Iain Rennie that might be expected to deal with this democratic deficit, but there may be a lack of confidence in this institution, as I pointed out in my previous political round-up, Sexual politics and state integrity. And in this regard it's worth noting that Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne has accused Rennie of being "politically beholden to the Government" - see Hamish Rutherford's Dunne calls for Iain Rennie's head

Official information suppressed
The "democratic deficit" seen in current New Zealand politics is particularly obvious in the way that government institutions seek to suppress information. As Russell Brown says in his blog post on the SIS debate, Incomplete, inaccurate and misleading, the Gwyn SIS report "turns out to be largely about a democratic problem we've discussed plenty this year: the growing contempt in which New Zealand's public agencies hold their obligations under the Official Information Act".

Blogger No Right Turn is also concerned with the fact that the PM's staff were using private forms of communication to circumvent the law: "This appears to violate the Public Records Act, putting Ede on the hook for a $5000 fine per email. Its small potatoes, but in the absence of a crime of 'crimes against democracy', it will have to do. Meanwhile, we have to wonder how many other ministerial staff are doing this in an effort to evade the OIA. Its time for the Chief Archivist to do an audit' - see: Abuse of power: The OIA / public records dimension.

Nicky Hager, himself, deals with this, saying that the Prime Minister's Office "appears to be a breach of the Public Records Act" - see his blog post, Notable sections of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security's 25 November 2014 report

Hager also highlights the interesting fact that there were attempts to stymie Cheryl Gwyn's investigations: "This raises various questions. Was Key aware of and involved in trying to limit the inquiry (i.e. was it his office that tried to stop the IG investigating Jason Ede's and Phil de Joux's actions)? And who were the lawyers she writes about and who paid them to try to stop the IG investigating the role of Key's staff."

National's 'black ops' both confirmed and denied
One of the major findings of the Gwyn report is to seemingly confirm the so-called black ops role performed by Jason Ede and, perhaps, Phil de Joux. But despite the report being clear about this, John Key essentially continues to deny this. According to Key, his office is exonerated, and no further action seems necessary. He even goes as far as saying that if Ede and de Joux were still working for him then they wouldn't be sacked as a result of the latest report.

Such denial is obviously frustrating many political commentators. Vernon Small says about the role of Ede: 'What Key should do, but has shown no sign of doing, is confirm that his office were either doing what he wanted them to do, or were acting beyond their brief. What is unarguable is that they were doing it for his benefit and for that at least he should accept responsibility' - see: John Key ignores the obvious

Andrea Vance is also amazed at his denial: 'It stretches credibility to suggest Key - and his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson - bear no responsibility for the conduct of de Joux and Ede' - see: Dirty Politics: Keeping Key's hands clean. Vance adds this is probably deliberate: 'Still, Key continues to insist his staff acted professionally at all times. Perhaps that is because Ede and de Joux were doing exactly what they were paid for: the dirty work while keeping the boss' hands clean'.

Key's approach is most strongly criticised by John Armstrong in his column, Lack of apology leaves Key defending the indefensible ( Here's the key part: 'It is all there in Gwyn's report in black and white. The Prime Minister's response yesterday was to argue black is white. John Key's performance during Parliament's question time was breathtaking. Breathtakingly silly. It involved either not answering the questions raining down on him from the Opposition or flinging red herring after red herring at his inquisitors in a vain attempt to divert debate away from what had been going on in his office. It was a display unworthy of the Prime Minister. However, Key is now obliged to maintain the pretence no matter how ridiculous it looks'

Key is heavily derided for his brazen denials by Jane Clifton: 'Key airily dismissed this account as "quite contested" - while confoundingly insisting this did not mean the inspector-general's account was wrong, or that he disagreed with it. He might have added that black could be a little bit white, and water could be somewhat dry' - see: Planet Key, where reality's 'contested'.

Newspaper editorials are mostly critical of Key as a result of the report. The Herald editorial, PM and office at heart of SIS failure to stay neutral, says that the report 'let him off too lightly' and that he 'should have shown better judgment'. 

The Otago Daily Times editorial, 'Smile and wave' not good enough, summarises the situation: 'it is difficult not to conclude the entire SIS/Goff/Slater scandal was initiated, organised and conducted by the Prime Minister's office. The inference many will draw is Mr Key's office organised a political hit against Mr Goff by priming a partisan blogger to ask particular questions of the country's spy agency which allowed itself to be so used. Mr Key's response yesterday was simply not good enough. And it will leave many voters wondering: what is still to come in the Dirty Politics saga?'

But for a more positive assessment, see The Press' editorial, SIS at fault but not partisan.

More power for anti-democratic spy agencies?
One of the major outcomes of the debate about state security agencies will be the recognition that such bodies are inevitably political and prone to anti-democratic behaviour. Brian Rudman details some history of this in his column, Spies bigger threat than terror fighters. He suggests, therefore, that it would be wrong to give the agencies even more power: 'all the evidence points to the need for greater restraints and boundaries on their activities, not less'.

And yesterday's Dominion Post editorial apparently agrees: 'This is not a good time for the SIS and its obliging government ministers to be seeking drastic new powers in the struggle against terrorism. Most of the time the SIS operates in complete secrecy. But when it and sister agency the GCSB are opened to scrutiny, they are often shown to be inept' - see: SIS actions incompetent and unwise.

Certainly the agencies are modernising, and Chris Keall points out how the modern face of spying has much better political strategic sense and ability than her old-fashioned predecessors - see: Superwoman Kitteridge persuades Little to support foreign fighters bill. Here's Keall's main point: 'While former SIS boss was Warren Tucker was cowering behind his door, and threatening a TV crew with a trespass notice, Ms Kitteridge was confidently fronting to media. Personally, I think she was a little overly breezy given the appalling behaviour of her agency in 2011. Still, it was an impressive, completely self-assured performance. And her decision to apologise not just to Phil Goff but to John Key as well was a masterstroke (the PM says he was unaware he was in for a mea culpa). It helped to de-politicise the report, and give the impression of a bungled process under the Tucker regime that resulted in all parties (Goff, the PM's office, Slater) being delivered inaccurate information'.

But the modern veener doesn't mean that the new spy boss is any more democratic or progressive - see Dita de Boni's Kitteridge: the not-so-new broom. de Boni reminds us that 'she helped Prime Minister John Key cover his butt in the leadup to the 2014 general election, just like her predecessor, Warren Tucker, did in the leadup to the 2011 election. She continues to do so, all the while presenting as reasonable, fair-minded and politically neutral as apple pie'.

Collins cleared?
Slater has taken the fall in the Judith Collins report as well. But there are concerns that the investigation carried out was not particularly robust. Andrea Vance says, 'a stench hangs around this report. It is hardly forensic. It did not seek out crucial evidence - Facebook messages from Collins deleted account (still retrievable), emails, and missing phone records. The author appears to have shrugged off Slater's withholding of emails from the inquiry' - see: Dirty Politics: Keeping Key's hands clean.

Plenty of questions remain. See Matt Nippert's Judith Collins inquiry: Four unanswered questions. And today, the Herald's editorial pronounces Collins in the clear but lack of judgment says it all.

A more positive review is given by David Farrar in his blog post, The Collins report

And a more lighthearted report on some of the protagonists can be found in David Fisher's story, Dirty Politics' 'Chaos and Mayhem', minus one, dine out on report.

Dirty Politics txtg8
The latest bizarre chapter in the Dirty Politics scandal is the revelation of the PM's continued communication with the Whaleoil blogger - see Adam Bennett (Herald): Cameron Slater's texts to Prime Minister John Key: Labour tried to kill me. This raises further questions, as dealt with in Aimee Gulliver's How did Key mislead Parliament?.

For an interesting examination of the origins of this latest controversy, see Danyl Mclauchlan's blog post, The very odd Slightly Left of Centre. See also Cameron Slater's Josh Forman and his attempt to leak information from his government job. And Slater explained himself on TV3 this morning - see: Slater speaks out over texts to PM.

It seems extraordinary that the PM would continue to talk closely with Cameron Slater. Rachel Smalley says 'I'm bamboozled by this. It's a nightmare for the Government' and suggests that John Key is 'either foolish or he is arrogant' - see: Are you OK with Key and Slater's direct line of contact?.

Finally, to view how satirists, the media and the twittersphere are dealing the recent controversies, see my blog posts, More Dirty Politics cartoons and imagesTop tweets about the SIS Dirty Politics reportTop tweets about the Judith Collins Dirty Politics report , and Top tweets about John Key's text messages with Cameron Slater.

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NZ POLITICS DAILY: The democratic deficit of Dirty Politics