A crazy day in dirty ol' NZ politics

Dirty Politics could have the unintended consequence of harming all New Zealand politicians... and the Prime Minister's terrible stand-up

It's been a high stakes day in New Zealand politics. Nicky Hager, an occassional contributor to this site, has put his reputation on the line by choosing to use hacked emails to write Dirty Politics and John Key has matched him as he stood by his controversial staffer and denied some of the seemingly well-made claims in the book.

Hager's book has been a bombshell and while most voters won't go near it and National's well-constructed lines about him being "left-wing conspiracy theorist" and on the wrong side of the law, it will influence this campaign. It will damage #teamkey, not least because going by Key's comments today he has chosen to brazen it out.

Key at the start of the day had the option to cut loose Jason Ede - "Dark Ops" - the man in his office who, emails in the book suggest, has worked so closely with Cameron Slater on a series of unethical and distasteful stories or blogs. Instead, Key has stood by him, presumably because letting him go would look like an admission he was not in control of his own team and in the confidence that the public's trust in him will remain hold firm. It's a gamble.

National has spent the day playing the man, not the ball in the hope that when it comes down to it voters will trust the Prime Minister they know and like over a "left wing conspiracy theorist" who received and is profiting from hacked emails. That is the attack line used by numerous National MPs today. But Key has looked uncomfortable and unconvincing. Get down to some of the specific claims and there is certainly material to harm National.

The Prime Minister has long been considered by many as a man different from a 'typical poltician'. The polls tells us that clearly. For some of them, as this story plays out he will lose that magic.

And while many on the left are whooping in joy at this development, but they should be careful about what they wish for. Because Key was the politician many trusted above others, the one who was straighter than most. The sad reality is that if voters turn against Key, they will turn against politics as a whole.

The reaction will be "they're all doing it". Some will defend him and not believe the man they trusted could know about such things; and it's fair to say that there are all sorts of things political staffers don't tell their bosses to protect them. But others will simply conclude "he's no better than the rest, then".

The challenge after all this dies down will be to ask whether our leaders are willing and able to play the game in a more decent and honorable fashion, because ultimately it's on them. 

The broad allegations about dirt in politics don't get us very far. Claims, for example, that David Farrar is less than fullsome with his public disclosures are nonsense. When we have him on The Nation we call him 'blogger and pollster for National', for example.

But the specific allegations are the ones to watch. For example, the claims Judith Collins transfered a prisoner at Slater's request. If any of that sticks, she's toast. The book however merely claims that Slater asked and a few days later the prisoner was moved. There's no positive link between the two actions; maybe the prisoner asking Slater for help was also asking guards for help and they intervened. At this stage there's no proof.

Second, National helping itself to Labour's donor data. To call it hacking is incorrect. As I understand it, Labour left its electronic back door unlocked and, allegedly, Slater and Ede just walked in. The book claims both men downloaded the data they found there, but that's not proved either. Key said today "National was nowhere near Labour's website", something his party president Peter Goodfellow has contradicted as long ago as 2011, when he admitted a National Party staffer went into the site.

There may be some debate about the legality, but you'd think if it was actionable Labour would have done something back when the story broke. Still, voters might find it distasteful that one of the PM's team would download personal credit card data that had nothing to do with him.

Then there's the story of Simon Pleasants. And Brownwyn Pullar. Did Collins leak their names to Slater, prompting attacks by him on his website? Collins says no, Hager claims yes, Key says he'll have to look into that. We'll have to wait to see if lawyers get to decide who's right.

Two observations to conclude. Politics has always had a grubby element. Journalists and politicians do deals on stories. There are grey areas where compromises are made.

But when Key says National's dealings with Slater are no different from how he and other MPs talk to other media, well, if the book is accurate that's not true. PM staffer don't write OIAs for other journalists and don't plan attacks on opponents with other journalists. Journalists filter and balance and double-check - all the things Slater doesn't do. 

Second, watch this. It's Key's stand-up today. I've never seen him look so uncomfortable and ill-prepared. He is usually very good at giving himself a way out, but in this he contradicts his own president, wildly claims Hager is "making stuff up" when challenged on the veracity of the emails, claims he has no idea about the prisoner transfer claim 20 hours after the book came out (yeah right), and categorically says National staff hanve't fed OIAs to Slater. On several fronts, either Hager has invented some emails or Key has got it wrong.

It's a remarkable bit of interviewing and kudos to Brook Sabin, Michael Parkin and Lloyd Burr.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring?