Friday, September 22, 2006

Guest column: the new tactics of the right

By Greg Stephens

Over the past few years, New Zealand has seen a dramatic increase of politicians playing the person, rather than the ball. David Benson-Pope provides one of the most salient examples. However, the recent furore over Peter Davis’s sexuality (and then Helen Clark’s marriage) is perhaps unprecedented within New Zealand.

However, there is more to these scandals than simply nasty politicking by a political party unable to accept three defeats in a row.

The anti-government Right have a lot more to gain in attacking Clark, Benson-Pope et al. than just damaging their reputation. Indeed, there has been little immediate poll damage to Labour after each fresh attack. One would then have to ask whether or not they are actually playing the game right at all.

However, there are other reasons behind the attacks. Each smear is part of a much wider game being played, and that is a long-term game.

Each attack is about discrediting the specific MP, and much, much more. Each MP discredited is not so much about that MP, but about the public’s impression of MPs in general. One MP being involved in something dodgy is not going to have much of an impact on how the public sees MPs in total. Yet each new attack, each new smear, whether true or not, hits the confidence the public has with our politicians.

Well, what does this achieve? No sane person would place their life savings into a bank known to rip people off. Likewise, no sane person would want to pay taxes to a government which is run by dodgy, corrupt or tainted politicians. The smears against each MP are a smear against every MP. The neo-liberal Right want the public to distrust each and every MP. In doing so, they want each voter to head to the voting booth thinking "do I want my taxes to go to a pile of dirty politicians?"

Hence, Rodney Hide’s "perk-buster", or in reality "reputation-wrecker" persona is a legitimate tactic. So too is Judith Collin's “pervert” remark. I am not arguing that they are a 'good thing'. But they are, in the long term, an advantage for the Right.

The Right want to create a deep mistrust of the elites. It suits their aims in reducing the size of the government. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson achieved in creating that mistrust in the 1984-93 period. Unfortunately for them, the public was able to turn that mistrust into electoral reform. While a clever tactic, they misread how to create that mistrust. Simply lying to the public means you can vote in the other lot (or turn to a third party such as the Alliance or New Zealand First as happened in the 1993 election).

The current anti-government Right seems to have a much better strategy. Taint anyone associated with wanting "big government". Smear them, smear their husband. Whatever it takes to make the public not trust the government with their taxes.

There are methods for the Left to recourse however. For a start, they need to be clean, whiter than white clean. Over-the-top laundry powder ad clean. However, everyone has a skeleton in their closet. So they need to be honest. David Parker provides the best example. He simply stated that he has had business problems. He didn’t hide anything. And guess what? It shut down the controversy. Those that do transgress, especially Taito Philip Field-style, need to repent, and be punished. Reaffirm the public’s faith in the system, don’t dismantle it further.

Trevor Mallard's comments are probably the worst thing Labour could do. Sure there are rumours going around about National MPs, but releasing them will not be in Labour’s long-term advantage. Indeed, it means the public are more likely to see the dirt as being on all MPs, rather than just a few bad eggs.

I am not arguing that running a smear campaign is a 'good thing' to do. However, it does have tactical advantages for the anti-government Right, and they have embraced it. The Left have also taken part in long term strategic moves – numerous Right-wing bloggers would label the Working for Families package in that light.

However, I do argue that the Right is playing politics in a substantially different manner. Politics in New Zealand, and much of the world, has traditionally focused on being about policy and ideas. The Right have abandoned those focuses at the moment – they would rather use alternative factors to gain votes. The New Zealand public may, or may not, be taken with their new tactic – either way though, we are beginning to see a different era of politics.


Good post Greg
1) national is being pretty agresive on the 'election cheating" issue but actually Labour has ben beating on about the Ex B for a long time - so one might say they opened the can of worms.
2) national hasn't proposed much policy besides atacking MP's HOWEVER when the were trying to propose policy (like the orewa speach) they got attacked (not so much on the issues but more on a "youre a racist" sort of a level). One more speach later and they basically stopped proposing policy.

Helen if not the labour party as a whole does seem to have an attack first, think later strategy.

It is like an arms race I guess and labour was a key player in that arms race, as were, of course, the strategic advisors to national.

Overall I agre with your point that in the big scheme of things the arms race benefits the "perk busters" of the right. Although I exect any force can be tamed...

Posted by Genius : 9/22/2006 06:27:00 AM

It would be interesting to see what Greg and I/S have to say about this report in today's Herald.

Auditor-General Kevin Brady has contradicted the Prime Minister's claim that he backs Labour's plan to pass a backdated law validating unlawful spending in last year's election campaign.

In a rare move, Mr Brady yesterday denied Helen Clark's suggestion that he had privately told an unnamed party leader that this was the course to take.

"I would never say that," Mr Brady said when contacted by the Herald.

"That's not my decision to make, or even get involved in."

He acknowledged retrospective legislation was an option, but said he had no view on what should happen.

"I don't even have that view, let alone would say it."

Helen Clark's office last night stood by her claim, and said Mr Brady's denial was "completely contrary" to what she had been told by a party leader, whom she refused to name [emphasis mine].

Full story at

It's not very complicated: Clark (who is basing her claim on an alleged conversation with a conveniently unnamed 'party leader') and Brady (speaking on the record to the Herald on his own account) CAN'T BOTH BE TELLING THE TRUTH.

Is this the 'cleaner than clean' tactics we can expect - or is the politics of smear and innuendo not quite so bad when it's deployed against senior civil servants telling inconvenient truths or members of the public?

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 9/22/2006 07:28:00 AM

Politics has never been focused on policy and ideas. It's always been a dirty, below-the-belt fight, often involving individuals within the same party. It's more pronounced than usual at the moment because neither side can get anything done and they're reduced to slagging each other off. To pretend that one party is more to blame than the other for the current situation is just ludicrous.

If WFF is what leftist big govt is supposed to bring us, I'll end up holding my nose and voting Tory. The middle class don't belong on welfare.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 9/22/2006 07:36:00 AM

This thesis appears to be gaining ground in Left wing circles - "The Right ain't wot they used to be".

Can't see it myself. Attacks on personailties have gone on as long as there has been politics. National has focused on issues - it's just that naturally many on the Left will disgree. To start claiming that issues have been abandoned is pretty non-reality based.

The center Left would be better off countering the centre Right on an issue by issue basis rather than waste time cooking up conspiracy theories.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 07:48:00 AM

"Clark (who is basing her claim on an alleged conversation with a conveniently unnamed 'party leader') and Brady (speaking on the record to the Herald on his own account) CAN'T BOTH BE TELLING THE TRUTH"

Yes they can.

Perhaps the unnamed party leader is lying (or mistaken).

Clark states "I was told" - true.
Brady states "I didn't and wouldn't say that" - true.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 9/22/2006 08:06:00 AM


Don't take this as a personal slam, but I'm getting really tired of the idea that the 2005 election result being used as some kind of rationale for rancid politics and sleaze. (Which isn't what you're trying to do, I'm more pissed by the idea that your use of it.)

Here's a reality check for Chris Trotter et. al.: Like the result or not (and it's certainly not the one I was pulling for), the composition of this Parliament was determined by a free and fair general election. Forget the wah-wah about the campaign , I think we can all agree that the election process was run properly by politically-neutral agencies and there wasn't systemic and widespread vote fraud.

The electorate, in it's infinite wisdom, delivered a finely balanced result between what you could broadly call the center-left and center-right.

Any MP who just can't handle that - ot work construtively to advance/frustrate a legislative agenda, or participlate in passionate but civil debate on matters of genuine public interest in the House - is quite free to resign and make room for people who can.

Anyway, isn't this exactly what many proponents of MMP wanted to see: The breakdown of the old FPP 'elected dictatorship' where one party (or even ideological) could just ram through their agenda with little real scrutiny or restraint? I don't think you have to be a hardcore Randoid or anarchist to argue that it's a considerable positive that neither of the two main parties/ideological bloc can "get anything done" entirely on their own terms.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 9/22/2006 09:10:00 AM

The RIght don't want to reduce the size of government, they just want to socialise costs and privatise profits. If big government helps them achieve this goal, then they'll do it. Just look at the U.S. for the pinacle of this strategy.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 09:33:00 AM

The middle class don't belong on welfare.

Define your terms.

Welfare is were an individual receives more benefit from the state than they pay, ie their tax is nett negative. Even then a person may still pay more tax than they receive benefit over a lifetime.

Most recipients of WFF are still tax positive ... it is more in the nature of a tax discount than a benefit.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 09:58:00 AM

As one who belives that Labour are bad and rotten while Natianal ( spelling mistake on purpose ) are just plain EVIL I am realy enjoying seeing the standings of politicians and their parties plummet in the eyes of the public.

People are starting to see these vain, dishonest social climbing status craving ragbags more and more for what they really are.

For to long politicians have shat all over NZers while feathering their own nests and looking after their own special interest groups.

I say the pox on all their houses and long may they continue to sling mud at each other.

............... its about time we came up with a new more appropriate meaning for that word honorable that they like to wear.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 10:02:00 AM

The people who thought up these tactics represent a peculiarly American world view of militant, literalist and proscriptive Christianity allied with an extremely reactionary (in fact, barely distinguishable from neo-fascism) form of authoritarian capitalism. It should be born in mind that the Bolsheviks of the NCP (New Conservative Project) are every bit as ambitious, anti-democratic and revolutionary in their goals and aims as any third world armed group. They may wear pinstripes and dine in fine restaurants, but the tactics of these Bolsheviks are classically revolutionary, as noted in the post above.

I am of a view that this project is bound to fail in New Zealand.

1/ The National Party has been captured at the top by a NCP believer, and has imported the style of U.S. politics to N.Z. However (despite the Exclusive Bretheren) it has proved much more difficult to import or create the form that provides the base for NCP politics. New Zealand is not the United States, an obvious statement but one that a lot of NCP acolytes seem to forget or disregard. Our society is possibly the most secular in the English speaking world. New Zealand has a much more robust tradition of egalitarianism and inclusiveness than the United States. Our lack of numbers make us very empirical, pragmatic and impatient with disconnected political theory. All these point to the failure of the NCP here.

2/ New Zealand is a provincial society. We lack the insulated and self-serving beltway political elites who have facilitated the plutocratic capture of the political process in the United States. This allows the collective common sense and will of the electorate to erupt quickly enough to halt the embedding of any NCP in N.Z.

3/ Is really an extension of my first. Our empirical tradition means we don't hesitate to replace the machinery if it stops working. MMP has done more than anything else to stymie the NCP in this country.

Recent events indicate to me that in the 2005 election we reached the high water mark of the of the NCP in New Zealand. Despite innovative new tactics imported from offshore and oddles of cash, They did not succeed in overthrowing MMP and restarting the revolution. It is only a matter of time before Brash is replaced by more centrist leader in National. I am guardedly hopeful the NCP is now finished in N.Z.

Posted by Sanctuary : 9/22/2006 10:48:00 AM

I hope I'm not invoking Godwin's law here, but one of the factors in the Nazi party's popularity in postwar Germany was widespread cynicism towards politicians and the political process in general.
I've never felt comfortable with the way politicians are continually rated at the bottom of the list of trustworthy occupations, beneath used-car salesmen. Apathy and low voter turnout are the sorts of things which result when large numbers of people don't expect very much from politicians. Would you bother going out on a rainy day to vote if you thought they were all a bunch of "vain, dishonest social climbing status craving ragbags" as nznative describes?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 10:59:00 AM


NCP? Hell, I know professionalism is destroying rugby, but it had no idea it a was a cancerous and corrosive presence in New Zealand politics as well. Sorry for the snark, but I'm beginning to find Richard Hofstetter's famous 1964 essay 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' increasingly pertinent to political discourse in 2006 New Zealand.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 9/22/2006 12:12:00 PM

Craig, thanks for quoting the AG more fully than DPF. What I heard him saying on National radio when the draft report was first leaked (stolen goods, surely) was that retrospective legislation *might* be required and that it would be up to the house to decide on that. His concern was to clarify the rules so that the house could make that determination.

I do not see that what he is saying now or then really contradicts what Helen Clark is saying. Storm in a teacup stuff which the likes of DPF are spinning like crazy because the media is finally waking up to the fact that National's line may not be the be all and end all on this subject.

The media is also waking up to the fact that the EB's might be, you know, undemocratic. Nothing to do with their religion, much more to do with their lack of appreciation of what people like to define as NZ's "core values". Remember, the ones that immigrants are supposed to buy into, but that don't seem to apply to exclusive sects if they hide behind a "christian" church.

Unfortunately this wake-up has only occurred *after* the start of Labour's much more aggressive tactics which sends a pretty appauling message...the media will only listen of you couch everything in apocalypsal terms.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 12:32:00 PM

Craig: I am more concerned about the rampant dyslexia these days, which I put squarely back on the education system and NCAE.

Posted by Sanctuary : 9/22/2006 12:46:00 PM

Craig: actually I agree with this completely:
"Anyway, isn't this exactly what many proponents of MMP wanted to see: The breakdown of the old FPP 'elected dictatorship' where one party (or even ideological) could just ram through their agenda with little real scrutiny or restraint? I don't think you have to be a hardcore Randoid or anarchist to argue that it's a considerable positive that neither of the two main parties/ideological bloc can "get anything done" entirely on their own terms."

I hated it when they were able to "get things done" with impunity and am chuffed MMP made that a lot harder. I don't think many senior MPs in either major party are chuffed about it though.

Philip Wilkie: I'd define welfare as the govt handing out money to people it thinks don't have enough already. Doing that and calling it a "tax discount" is sophistry.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 9/22/2006 12:51:00 PM


That wasn't dyslexia, but a hint I find rugby and conspiracy theories equally dill and pointless. I'm also disinclined to take seriously people who frame political analysis with condescending descriptions of their 'enemies' in religious terms.

Psycho Milt:
Well, you have a point. I'm sure both Helen Clark vomits on the inside everytime she's reminded that she gave Winston Peters a ministerial warrant, but that's democrazy for you! :) the politicians just have to deal with it, like the rest of us.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 9/22/2006 01:10:00 PM

anonymous Did those people you mention falsify names and addresses on $1.2 millions worth of campaign material? If so, sure, they are undemocratic. Nothing to do with "weirdness".

That wasn't so hard, was it?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 01:24:00 PM

Craig, I just heard the Auditor General say he may have discussed retrospective legislation with party leaders...

It does seem as though they *can bothe be telling the truth*. See, life is not always as black and white as you seem to expect.

Fancy apologising?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 01:28:00 PM

I think Genius's post is basically right, although I think less highly of the Greg Stephens' post than he/she does.

There is a vague grain of truth to what Stephens suggests: a core strand of the right is skeptical of govt so in that sense they're not averse to seeing govt look bad. But it's the same sort of loose grain of truth there is in the characterization of the left as basically credulous about government action, i.e., so that every program has for the left an ulterior/bonus motive, to make govt look good and to increase dependence of the citizenry on the (ever-expanding) state.... Stephens *sort of* gets to this point grudgingly near the end of his note but he doesn't acknowledge how it trivializes his whole train of thought (vague grains of truth are a dime a dozen and that just leaves him with, well, not very much beyond general pissiness!).

I second Craig R's remark about Sanctuary. Paranoia and hyperbole and demonization are a way of life - not just at the level of rhetoric but at the the level of substantive views - for what poses as a center-left in New Zealand. It's depressing.

There *is* a problem of immoderation in NZ politics, I think. Some of this may in fact be due to proportional representation itself. Mathematical results are starting to emerge that suggests ideal PR systems are fundamentally anti-centripetal and tend to hollow out the center of a political landscape. Real world PR systems will diverge from this extreme-generating ideal just as the centripetal/median-voter-seeking of FPP+single-member-district systems is not often perfectly exemplified in the real world, but the underlying vectors can still be perfectly real in both cases, and the theory is starting to tell us what to look for.

See the following paper [pdf/mathematical maturity required] for an example of some of the stuff that's worrying those of us who are given to worry about such things!

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 01:34:00 PM

Craig: I'd say that its an example of the PM losing her mojo. Rule one in politics is never tell a lie when it can be so easily disproven. That said, Graeme's point stands - Clark may have been misled by the party leader she is supposedly quoting. But then she should have known better than to rely on rumour...

Your second point is more interesting. Firstly, I don't think this is being used as a rationale so much as an explanation - our politicians are only human, after all. But as you point out, they should be better than that. We voted for consensus politics and consensus policy - not hardball shit-flinging.

At this stage, I do have to point some finger squarely at National. While Labour has adapted well to the MMP-era, and has shown some skill at building legislative coalitions to get its way and getting broad support for policy (last term, 80% of bills passed with broad support - meaning more than just the single other party needed for a majority - and this pattern seems to be continuing), National remains firmly mired in the FPP mindset. They're the opposition, so they see their job as opposing - and the more mindlessly, the better. Wheras under MMP, they're not there to oppose so much as advance their own position. This term should be a godsend for them - the government has a weak majority, and so there is ample opportunity to seize the initiative, build legislative coalitions of their own, and lead on consensus policy rather than simply opposing. Unfortunately, National has been singularly bad at doing this - mainly because its idea of "coalition building" is to demand that every other party dutifully line up behind the "natural party of government", just because. They adopt absolutist positions and then try and bully other parties, rather than looking for points of agreement, and they appear generally unwilling to horse-trade. Now, consensuses are built rather than found - but their tactics don't help.

Unfortunately, National's open commitment to overthrowing MMP doesn't exactly give hope for a change in their political culture. On the plus side, their inability to craft even a legislative coalition means they may have extreme difficulty forming a government as well.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/22/2006 01:51:00 PM

I/S the AG just admitted on National Radio he has spoken about such legislation in provate to a party leader. I don't see the two positions as mutually exclusive.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 02:01:00 PM

Psycho Milt: so, tax cuts are welfare for the rich then?

(Sorry, but it had to be said)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/22/2006 02:08:00 PM

Logically, a tax cut is govt taking less of your money, not giving you some. Frankly I don't see the middle class or the rich requiring either.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 9/22/2006 02:53:00 PM

The tone is going to change very soon. I see from The Press that John Key has lost confidence in Don Brash, along it seems with most of the rest of the caucus. Not before time, but it will give both parties a chance to step back a little.,2106,3804928a6009,00.html

All beginning to unravel for Don Brash, gone by Monday?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2006 03:56:00 PM

Interesting post. Mind you, I had a vague feeling the Labour, escpecially with Helen lately, had decided to start throwing around random semi-credible dirt so it would look like National with their 'corruption' and so on were just throwing around random semi-credible dirt too.

That said, if that's the plan it seems to have worked on me.

Posted by Lyndon : 9/22/2006 05:24:00 PM


> anonymous Did those people you mention falsify names and addresses on $1.2 millions worth of campaign material?

1) you take a pretty liberal definition of “anti democratic”. I dont see how a pamphlet suddenly becomes undemocratic when you change a name at the bottom forl lets say Steve to Greg (surely one doesn't have to declare ones religion does one?).
2) Yup there are Muslim representatives and atheist ones who also do “anti democratic” things like putting up flyers and so forth all over the world (oh my god!) - some may not even have any names on them at all!
3) Did they really put false names on it? Were they prosecuted for that?


Well Maybe I have a charitable interpretation but I am prone to doing that.
I did not read it as being some "conspiracy of the right" just that I think for example - the right does indeed gain a little ground on the theory that all politicians are evil. If he meant to say it was a conspiracy I think he is wrong - the right gains from it, but it is also a natural position for the right after all they don’t trust politicians with their money!


> All beginning to unravel for Don Brash, gone by Monday?

I don't see why you are smiling. Unless you’re a masochist.

Posted by Genius : 9/22/2006 07:16:00 PM