The political earthquake shaking New Zealand

Having arrived in Christchurch in the small hours of the morning, I have to wait till my alarm call comes through at 8am for my first proper view of it. It’s a disconcerting experience. It is now four years since the Canterbury earthquake caused widespread damage to ‘the Garden City’ and three and a half since a second earthquake, much closer to the city-centre, resulted in the deaths of 185 people. But the recovery still has a long way to go. Squares of rubble are everywhere, as are cranes and diggers and chain-link fences and ‘Danger: Do Not Enter’ signs. Half-collapsed buildings are held up with steel frames, and my view of the lush volcanic hills beyond the city is eerily unobstructed.

Over my two days at the Christchurch Word Festival much frustration is evinced about the slow pace of the recovery. But the dominant emotions are cheerfulness and gratitude. The cheerfulness would appear to be a native trait, while the gratitude is directed at the festival itself, and especially at its organisers. Set largely in the new Rydges Latimer Hotel – the second floor of which affords those views of the hills – this festival is clearly conceived, and taken, as part of Christchurch’s cultural reconstruction.

To this extent, the political earthquake currently shaking New Zealand to its foundations has come as something of a bonus to the organisers. A new book – Dirty Politics – has set the political class abuzz, selling 15,000 copies in its first week, and prompting a number of commentators to draw parallels with the Watergate break-in. Based largely on the email correspondence of an Auckland-based blogger called Cameron Slater – a reactionary thug with an unnerving resemblance to ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero from the Sopranos TV series – it threatens to derail Prime Minister John Key’s bid for re-election on 20 September. It came out about two weeks ago, and its author, Nicky Hager, was booked for the festival long before anyone knew of it.

I find Hager (rhymes with lager) eating breakfast downstairs. He is chatting with a British journalist, Luke Harding, the author of a book on Edward Snowden. The three of us are appearing on a panel together – ‘Secrets, Spies and Freedom of Speech’ – on which they, I imagine, will do most of the talking and I will chip in with a few generalities of the kind that real journalists despise. Notwithstanding a narrow and polite disagreement between Hager and Harding on Julian Assange – an issue that will recur on the panel – the bonhomie is conspicuous.

Certainly Hager is an unlikely muckraker. Quiet and almost ostentatiously gentle, he seems taken aback by his book’s success. But his reputation as an investigative journalist, and for stirring the pot, is widely appreciated. His previous books have dished the dirt on the world-wide electronic surveillance system (Secret Power, 1996), the machinations of PR consultants brought in to affect political decisions (Secrets and Lies, 1999), the New Zealand government’s cover-up of a crisis involving genetically-engineered crops (Seeds of Distrust, 2002), the cynical manipulation of racial sentiment in the National Party’s 2005 general election campaign (The Hollow Men, 2006) and the ways in which military and political bureaucracies used the ‘war on terror’ to pursue private agendas (Other People’s Wars, 2011). Provoking admiration and loathing in equal measure, Hager has the kind of profile of which most journalists can only dream.

Subtitled How Attack Politics is Poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment, Dirty Politics is his most explosive book yet. Its source is a hacker known only as ‘Rawshark’, who in January of this year mounted a smash-and-grab raid on a popular conservative blog called Whale Oil (full name Whale Oil Beef Hooked: say it fast and in an Irish accent). The blog’s publisher, Slater, had outraged the hacker by describing a recent car-crash victim as a ‘feral’ whose death had ‘done the world a favour’. But Rawshark’s haul revealed rather more than a propensity for vicious slurs. It revealed that Slater, a one-time editor and the son of a former National Party President, had been liaising with figures within John Key’s government in an effort to destabilise and discredit the opposition. Hager managed to convince the hacker not to go public himself with the material but to allow him to make a book of it. The result is Dirty Politics.

The book’s main allegation is that a staffer in Key’s office, working in conjunction with Slater, hacked into a Labour Party computer, stealing credit card details, membership lists and circa 18,000 emails, and that he and Slater then discussed how best to use the purloined information to embarrass, discredit and otherwise distract the Nationals’ main political opposition in the lead-up to the 2011 election. The staffer in question was Jason Ede, a senior advisor to Key at the time, and Hager’s belief is that it is highly improbable that the PM would not have known about his actions and about the subsequent leaks of information on Whale Oil and other right-wing blogs. Indeed, the source material reveals what amounts to a campaign of dirty tactics: a campaign at odds – conspicuously so – with Key’s vigilantly cultivated nice-guy image. It is, I sense, this political dissonance, as much as the theft of private information, that has caught the public’s imagination.

Of the other allegations in Dirty Politics, two are especially damaging. The first is that the PM’s office expedited the release of a Security Intelligence Service document confirming that the SIS had briefed the former Labour leader Phil Goff on a sensitive security matter shortly after the Christchurch earthquake. The request for this information came from Slater, and there is little doubt that the decision to grant it, or to grant it so quickly, was a political one aimed at embarrassing the Labour leader (who had denied being briefed by the SIS) and deflecting attention from what was widely regarded as Key’s own mishandling of the issue. The second allegation involves Judith Collins, a notoriously abrasive government minister, who, suspecting that a public servant was leaking damaging information to Labour, passed his name to Slater, a personal friend, who proceeded to attack him on his Whale Oil blog. This all reflects badly on the man who hopes to be re-elected as New Zealand’s PM on 20 September.

Key’s attempts at damage-limitation haven’t always helped his cause. Suggesting that the Labour Party only had itself to blame for Ede and Slater’s digital heist (the security on its website was flawed), he put the matter in the form of a metaphor: ‘It’s a bit like the Wallabies posting their line up online and the All Blacks going along for a peek.’ (Rugby analogies are all the rage in the land of the long white cloud at the moment. ‘I play politics like Fijians play rugby,’ Slater told the New Zealand Herald; ‘My role is smashing your face into the ground. Politics is a nasty despicable game and it’s played by nasty despicable people. Where’s the surprise in this?’) At other times, Key has gone on the attack, dismissing Hager as a ‘left-wing conspiracy theorist’ and attempting to paint the release of his book as a conscious attempt to derail his campaign. Meanwhile, Slater is sticking to his line that Rawshark is the plaything of Kim Dotcom, the New Zealand-based internet entrepreneur (and founder of the Internet Party) who is being sought for extradition by the US to face copyright and money laundering charges. Slater has frequently attacked the German, who, he alleges, is now out for revenge.

Hager is dismissive of any such connection, and dismissive, too, of the various journalists who have affected to draw a moral equivalence between the actions of Ede and Slater on the one hand and those of Rawshark and himself on the other. This is a depressingly common line. In a long piece in the New Zealand Listener, Jane Clifton paints Hager as a hypocrite; noting his ‘beatific, martyred air’, and referring to him, sarcastically, as ‘Saint Nicholas of the Perpetual NeoLiberal Sorrows’, she offers the following sketch of the scandal:

So in summary, someone is anonymously conniving to damage politicians by selective leaking of stolen data in order to pot Slater and the Government for anonymously conniving to damage politicians by selective leaking of stolen data. Makes you giddy, doesn’t it?

It does indeed, when you put it like that! But the parallel syntax is disingenuous, not to say slightly sinister. According to this logic Edward Snowden is no more innocent than the agency on which he blew the whistle. Suffice it to say that the journalist who believes that is the kind of journalist of which governments dream.

This point is made – and made well – on the panel, in respect of which, and as per my predictions, I am largely surplus to requirements. After the event, I sit at a trestle table and watch Harding and Hager sign copies of their books, while copies of mine sit unmolested. Then we move into the hotel bar for coffee with Joanna Norris, our chair and the editor of the Christchurch Press. Hager is the first to leave. As he does so, a young man announces to the room that Judith Collins has called a press conference and is expected to resign later that day. Another Slater email has come to light suggesting that the Justice Minister (a personal friend of Slater, remember) was ‘gunning’ for the head of the Serious Fraud Office. That the head of the SFO, Adam Feeley, happened to be ‘gunning’ himself for a number of Slater’s business mates, including one in big tobacco, is a connection too far, even for John Key. Collins goes down protesting her innocence; but she is guilty by association. Like so many others, she has been sunk by the whale.

And so, with Hager on the flight back to Wellington, the political speculation persists: what effect will Dirty Politics have on the election? All the evidence is that Key will still get up. But cracks are beginning to appear in the edifice. And the aftershocks are sure to continue.