Buying into dangerous narratives about “Dirty Politics”

Hager at the launch of Dirty Politics

I’ve been to a couple of political conferences recently. One was the NZ Political Studies Association conference in Auckland, where there was a panel of professional political operatives from National, Labour and the Greens (including Metiria Turei). The representatives of National were tellingly silent about the implications of Dirty Politics. But what most interested me was how Labour and the Greens were both talking about Dirty Politics as a difficult issue of political management. Mostly they were focussed on how the publication of the book and it’s fallout had been an unpredictable event in the campaign which hadn’t done them any favours.

The other conference I went to was Victoria’s post-election conference at Parliament. The first section involved various politicians (John Key, Steven Joyce, Andrew Little, Russel Norman, Peter Dunne, Winston Peters etc) dissecting how the election campaign had gone. Key called it an “ugly campaign”, and Joyce said people responded well to Key’s handling of the Dirty Politics controversy. Of course, they both were of the opinion that the book was a load of crap and that most New Zealanders agreed with them. Andrew Little was saying not dissimilar things, and talked about the book as a threat — not a benefit — to Labour. Norman was most stringent in his views that there were issues in Dirty Politics that matter, but also acknowledged the book’s release had done the party some harm (Peters said pretty similar stuff).

What I’m trying to get at with this talk about the conferences is that this narrative of “Dirty Politics was a distraction which most people didn’t care about and which detracted from distraction of policy issues” has been repeated by many politicians and political pundits. It was one of the National Party’s lines it pushed to try and shut down the controversy – i.e. “please stop asking us these tricky questions — New Zealanders don’t give a toss about this stuff anyway!”. But it’s not just a National Party line — the left has also jumped on board. And by also using this narrative or frame, the left has allowed the political battle to be fought on dangerous territory.

The problem for the left in New Zealand, and anyone who cares about these issues, is that the narrative that Dirty Politics represented a ‘distraction’ detracts from the seriousness of the situation. By left-wing politicians saying “New Zealanders don’t care about this”, they’re also implicitly saying “New Zealanders shouldn’t care about this”. If you accept that Dirty Politics raises issues about the NZ political system, for instance around the rise of attack politics, the politicisation of the OIA, and the partisan behaviour of the intelligence agencies, the ‘distraction’ narrative leaves you in an uncomfortable position. It means that we need to get from “Dirty Politics isn’t important to New Zealanders, and that’s partly why we lost” to “we need to do something serious about these issues”. Or put even more simply “New Zealanders don’t care about this stuff, but they should!”.

Political parties on the left are probably privately — and sometimes publicly — thinking: “this is important, but we can’t talk about it because people don’t care”. The problem is that looking into the future, National has steered this controversy onto ground where it’s very difficult for the left to get anywhere. Now that the left has said “New Zealanders don’t care”, how can they now talk about the issues without seeming out of touch? How does the left ‘bring the public with it’ on this issue?

The fundamental challenge is disentangling “people don’t care about this” from “there are issues here that do matter”. The Greens are doing this the best from my point of view, but there’s still a lot of careful improvement of the message left to do. I don’t have the answers on this, but what seems clear to me is that to continuing to buy into a narrative of Dirty Politics as a distraction isn’t getting the left in New Zealand anywhere fast, and isn’t going to resolve the outstanding issues at play.

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