The "Dirty Politics" stories - where are we?

The Dirty Politics brushfire is starting to dampen down. Time to rake over the ashes and see what got left behind.

As I stated in my post on Dirty Politics, the most important question that it raises for me is what sort of politics and political behaviour are we prepared to accept in our country? That's a big issue. It involves sub-questions about how we got to where we are in respect of our current political culture; what role media changes play in facilitating that culture; what can and should the law do in terms of controlling how the "political game" is played; and the like.

These sorts of matters go far beyond the "who said what to whom and when?" questions that have dominated in the wake of the book's appearance. It's not really surprising that these latter issues have been the focus of attention - you can't release a book a few weeks out from an election containing trenchant criticisms of some of the current Government's members and expect that opposition MPs and the media will look beyond these to the "big picture". But I still think that picture matters far more than what happens in September. Which is why I and some colleagues from Otago will be looking at it in some depth next Friday in an event which I am shamelessly teasing you with now while promising a full announcement later this week. So stay tuned!

Before then, however, I want to give my take on where we have got to with the various specific accusations/allegations of wrongdoing raised in Dirty Politics. In part, that's because I get the feeling that the fierce heat of the story has burned through (although the embers will glow on for some time yet), which means that it's a good time to pause and take stock. Also, for all that I think that Dirty Politics matters far beyond September 20, it still raises some issues of accountability that need addressing. If wrong has indeed been done, then consequences should follow.

That then leaves the small matter of chewing through all the specific issues raised in the book and deciding which ones "matter". Some seem to have not cut through at all - such as the somewhat cryptic story in the footnotes about a certain blogger whom we're going back to not naming being able to influence which jail a prisoner was housed in. Others may be just starting to emerge, such as the alleged influence that various individuals had over the National Party selection process in Rodney (and perhaps further afield).

However, Tim has given his list of the "Big Three" charges contained in the book: accessing Labour's computer; releasing Simon Pleasants' details; and the SIS and other OIA requests being released for political ends. These seem to me to be the right ones to look at for now.

First of all, the accessing of Labour's computer by at least two National Party operatives. I don't think that where we've got to with this issue matters that much, and certainly it falls short of the "New Zealand's Watergate" tag originally attached to it.

For one thing, I don't get the feeling that the public see this as anything other than inter-party game-playing that has little to do with them. Sure, it may have been "sharp practice" by National, and other parties may display a more developed ethical approach, but given that we view politicians as worse than real estate agents there's nothing particularly surprising about them living down to our expectations.

Now, I take on board Tim's argument (made here) that: 

Not much shocks me in politics and I'm usually loathe to offer personal judgment on party political issues. But if a New Zealand Prime Minister is really telling me that it's "fair enough" for one of his senior staff to go unauthorised and secretly into any website, however open, and take the personal data of ordinary New Zealanders, then I am shocked. That, according to my moral compass, is certainly not OK. 

So if it transpires that Jason Ede (or the unnamed National Party IT geek) did more than poke about, then this may gain legs again.

Furthermore, if the Police decide after reviewing matters that accessing Labour's computer system involved criminal activity - a matter that has been subject to some puzzled legal headscratching - then that moves matters to whole different level. Absent such developments, however, I think that the simple reveal that Jason Ede was having a look around Labour's computer system at the same time as a blogger whom we don't name was taking data from it is one that will pass by without much of a wake.

The second matter, Judith Collins releasing Simon Pleasants' details, is a big deal. In fact, it astounds me that she still remains a Minister of the Crown - much less Minister of Justice - after having admitted that she did so.

Let's take the best case scenario for her (while noting that her (as well as a certain blogger whom we don't name) failure to provide any evidence to confirm this scenario is ... unusual, to put it mildly). Collins claims that she didn't "out" Pleasants as a suspected leaker, because the blogger whom we do not name already knew Pleasants' name from somewhere else. Therefore, she simply passed on his job title (as well as his direct dial and cellphone number, of course, but there we are). 

Even given this account, how can she stay as a Minister? Exactly what did she think was going to happen with the information she passed on? That there then would be a nuanced on-line discussion of public service ethics and the role that leaking ought to play in enhancing government accountability? Of course not - she knew that the blogger whom we do not name planned one of his "hits" on Pleasants. And as a result of that "hit", there were death threats issued against  Mr Pleasants and his family.

I accept that Collins probably didn't foresee exactly this outcome, and certainly didn't condone it. But that's not the point. She was complicit in what happened, in that she made a conscious choice to participate in events that precipitated death threats against a public servant and his family!!!!

[Quick note at this point to John Key. Yes, I agree with you that your "daughter should be off limits in any criticism of [you] as Prime Minister." I'd go further and say that it is simply not acceptable to pen lyrics to a song that fantasize about shooting you. But I'd also note that the comments in the blog post that your Minister fed information to contained threats to kill both Mr Pleasants and his family - "Ah fuck it. Shoot him, and shoot his wife and kids if they can't be bothered to pay for the bullet" - so take your feelings about having your daughter dragged into your political world and have a think about what it must have been like for Mr Pleasants and his family when judging whether Collins was simply "unwise" in her actions.]

Because here is the bare minimum acceptable response that Collins should have given to the blogger concerned: "Sorry, you know I can't help with that." A better response would have been "Sorry, you know I can't help with that, and you really should be careful before throwing these allegations around." And best of all would be to pick up the phone to tell Nathan Guy and/or the State Services Commission that a public servant from Internal Affairs was going to be publicly outed as a potential leaker.

But no. She decided she wanted to take part in the game that the blogger we don't name revels in. That action had consequences ... but not for her, apparently. That's despite the Cabinet Manual stating that:

In all [their] roles and at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour.

Yes. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour. Or not.

OK, enough on that. The third issue is the SIS and other OIA requests being released for political ends. I'll leave aside the "other OIA requests" point, because this post is getting long enough. But I will say that there is a real problem with how official information gets treated in New Zealand, which (ironically) feeds into the particular issue of the SIS information release. Put simply, journalists and others are so used to being screwed around when they ask for information that when this actually gets provided in a timely fashion, the immediate suspicion is that there's a partisan political motive for doing so.

Starting at the top, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe John Key when he says he personally didn't know that the Phil Goff briefing paper was going to be released to the blogger whom we don't name. I know there's lots of tape of him saying "I was informed", but I actually accept that in Wellington a Minister's office is interchangable with a Minister as an individual. And I simply do not believe that Key would paint himself into a corner where if it can ever be shown that he was personally informed of the release before it went out, he would have no option but to resign as PM. Because that's the place that his denials have put him in now.

That doesn't mean Key is completely off the hook. The fact that something as important as this briefing note went out without him being told speaks volumes about the hands-off way he seemed to run his department at that time. Remember back to the whole GCSB spying on New Zealanders issue and the Kitteridge Report on what went wrong? Well, back then criticisms were levelled at Key along the lines of:

it is not just the GCSB that has exhausted the public’s confidence over its illegal operations but also his irresponsible style of ministerial oversight. As such, the Prime Minister is part of the GCSB’s problem and not part of the solution.

So if Key didn't know about the release of the briefing notes, then this seems to be consistent with just those sorts of accusations. He didn't know - because he was so slack in how he oversaw what the SIS/GCSB were doing that he let important things happen without his involvement. Which gets him out of one hole by putting him into another.

Furthermore, even if Key didn't know what was happening with the OIA for Goff's briefing notes, someone (or some people) in his office did. And the evidence seems pretty incontrovertable to me that someone from that office was telling a certain blogger whom we don't name all about it.

Let's accept that this certain blogger we don't name somehow was smart enough to swiftly leap in with an OIA request to the SIS that just happened to ask for exactly the information most damaging to Goff. We'll give him that credit as an act of charity. We're then expected to believe that this person (based on his correspondence with others as the OIA was being processed):

  • Accurately predicted that the SIS would declassify the briefing notes, so as to make them available publicly;
  • Accurately predicted that the SIS was expediting his OIA request on a "public interest" basis;
  • Accurately predicted that the information that was coming would be "explosive" and extremely damaging to Goff;
  • Accurately predicted the day that the OIA information would arrive, despite this release occuring far more quickly than other OIA releases from the SIS.

Or, alternatively, we may believe that he was being informed all the way along as to what was happening with his request and what he'd be getting back from the SIS. And given the choice between a conspiracy and five random acts of luck, I'm going to go with the conspiracy in this particular case, thanks very much.

Now, whether we find out exactly what happened here depends on what the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security uncovers in her investigation into the matter. I have absolute faith and confidence in that person, Cheryl Gwyn, to act in an honourable and proper fashion. But here's my concern.

Under the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1996, s.11, the Inspector-General can make inquiries into the activities of "an intelligence and security agency". But I'll bet a large amount of money that any collusion with a blogger whom we do not name about his OIA request did not come from the SIS. It will have been someone in the PM's office that was involved. Which is not "an intelligence and security agency" under the legislation.

So, the terms of reference for the Inspector-General's inquiry then become very, very interesting. Can she actually look at the thing that needs looking at? In the press release about the inquiry, we're told that it:

will consider whether:

• the NZSIS acted properly and within the law (including its statutory obligation of political neutrality) when it considered and responded to an Official Information Act request from Mr Slater in July and August 2011;

• the documents released to Mr Slater were properly declassified; and

• other requests for similar information were treated in a manner consistent with the treatment of Mr Slater’s request.

These obviously are important issues (especially the last one). But they don't appear to cover the most important question. What did the Prime Minister's Office (which is, remember, the equivalent of the Prime Minister himself) have to do with feeding information about the SIS's briefing to Goff to a certain blogger whom we don't name?