Thursday, 21 August 2014

The case for clean(er) politics

New Zealand is buzzing right now about Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics. Buzzing so hard, in fact, that it’s sold out, and I can’t see myself getting hold of a copy before the election. (There have been rumours of it being bought up and destroyed by National supporters, but I haven’t seen these substantiated and they seem implausible, given the financial and political costs such actions would incur.) So I can’t quote word for word. But there are plenty of summaries and synopses and juicy tidbits being shared all over the net. For non-New-Zealanders, and New Zealanders currently living under a rock, I gather the basic gist is this:
Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, he of “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, has been covertly getting fed information, in various forms, from the very highest levels of government, which he’s been using to smear and slur and manipulate both the National Party’s political opponents and anybody nominally on their own side who they wanted rid of. Among other things, he’s been given Labour Party membership data obtained by hacking their database, and he’s been tipped off when potentially embarrassing Official Information Act requests are being processed, so that he can request the same information, get it first, and blog it himself with a pro-National spin. There’s a summary of the major allegations here.
Details that have been quoted or scanned on blogs and tweets and Facebook reveal a consistently nasty mindset, from calling Canterbury earthquake survivors “useless pricks” to a fundamental disrespect for the rights of young women. Prime Minister John Key has of course dismissed the whole thing as a left-wing conspiracy theory and put Judith Collins, the National Party minister who has worked most closely with Slater, on what I think is her third or fourth final warning by now.
Not having seen the book itself, I can’t comment on it directly. What I wanted to talk about was a much more humane blogger’s take on the situation. Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s foremost representative of what I guess you’d call the Old Left. His response is captured in the title of the piece: Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? My response to that is: There had better be.
Politics is about getting things done that need done. Community actions and grassroots campaigns can achieve amazing things but unless they engage the power of the state they face a long, hard struggle for meagre payoff. If you want to cut carbon emissions or help children out of poverty or make sure people have fair access to education or wash away a culture of racist profiling in the police, you’ll need the government behind you. Unfortunately, this is where the other thing that politics is about comes in.
Politics is about getting into power. The state is a kind of competitive human pyramid where everyone wears spiked boots. Alliances, promises, and bargaining are strategic essentials, but all trust crumbles before the iron demands of expediency. Slater himself sums it up succinctly – “Politics is a nasty despicable game and it’s played by nasty despicable people.” He seems oddly comfortable with identifying himself as nasty and despicable, but he’s right; when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
Except that of course no-one has actually literally had to die here, which is the point of democracy. Slater’s characterization of people with moral scruples as “squeamish and gutless” is the philosophy of a playground bully. This isn’t like a wilderness tour guide warning her clients that nature can be a cruel and unforgiving place. The tour guide isn’t the one making it cruel and unforgiving. Nobody has to accept Slater’s gleefully unimaginative hostility.
Yes, politics has always been dirty. But then, up until the advent of democracy, politics had always been bloody. That was not a pleasant truth, but those who stood for enlightenment would have been most unwise to ignore or dismiss it. Navigating by the starry eyes of the idealistic all too often landed democrats on the rocks. Yes, I’m quoting Chris Trotter here. You can accept that something is true, and still toil for the day when ceases to be true. Isn’t that the foundation of progressivism?
Because although you can’t get the things done that need done without first wresting at least a little power off the people who don’t want them done, the struggle itself eats into time and resources from the things that need done. Worse, when everything is a zero-sum struggle between two opposing sides, the things that needed done themselves become pawns to capture, fields to burn. China slipped behind the West in the world domination stakes (perhaps temporarily) because, during what for Europe was the Middle Ages, a party came to power whose opponents had thrived on overseas exploration and trade. So, just to spite them, the new regime closed the ports and burned the shipyards. Do I need to spell out how this kind of attitude harms the cause of progress?
The worst of it is, when both teams are covered in mud, no-one can see what colour jersey anyone’s wearing. By which I mean, this kind of thing is the reason why so many people in New Zealand now say “What’s the point? Both major parties are as bad as each other.” Labour in the last few years has hardly been a beacon of mutual trust and co-operation. The vote in this country has been falling at each election for some time. Now we know, thanks to Hager, that some people in the National camp are perfectly happy with this situation. The Left will not re-engage the public by sinking to the Right’s level. In the light of Hager’s revelations, it is more vital than ever to get this message to the whole country:
Not voting is a vote for National

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