When he announced in March that New Zealanders would go to the polls on September 20, Prime Minister John Key could have confidently anticipated a cruisy ride. Economic growth was running at a healthy 3 per cent-plus, unemployment was dropping and his National Party government was comfortably ahead in the polls. Key’s personal ratings were almost preternaturally high, showing that even after two terms in office he remained one of the most popular leaders in the country’s history.
Better still, from Key’s point of view, Labour, the main opposition party, was in disarray, saddled with a new leader who lacked the support of his own caucus and was rating even lower in the polls than the man he replaced. Much of that remains true, yet Key now looks a rattled man. The election is shaping up as the strangest and most toxic in memory. Two rogue factors have thrown it wide open and cranked up the acrimony to levels not seen since the era of the great demagogue, Robert Muldoon, more than three decades ago.
What’s changed? First, an outlandish figure by the name of Kim Dotcom crash-landed in the political landscape.
A German-Finnish fugitive from American justice, Dotcom (original name Kim Schmitz) could have stepped from the script of a Batman or Austin Powers movie. He’s very large – two metres tall, with bulk to match – and dresses entirely in black.
He’s preposterously rich, having made vast sums of money from the Internet file-sharing service Megaupload. He’s also extremely angry, because his previously agreeable life in a $30 million-plus mansion near Auckland was rudely disturbed by a dawn police raid in January 2012. Accustomed to sleeping in a custom-made $100,000 bed, he suffered the indignity of bunking down in 19th-century Mt Eden Prison, where he claims he wasn’t even given blankets or toilet paper.
There’s no doubt the police raid, involving more than 70 officers and two helicopters, was over the top. All that was missing was Ride of the Valkyries as the choppers closed in. New Zealanders watching it on the evening news assumed the target must have been, if not a dangerous terrorist, then at least an international drug runner. In fact the operation was carried out at the behest of the FBI because Dotcom was wanted in America for copyright piracy.
Previously unheard of by most Kiwis, Dotcom became an overnight celebrity. He cleverly cultivated an image as a harmless, fun-loving public benefactor, eager to spread his wealth around. The public thought he had been wronged and so did the courts, where he won a series of victories against his American pursuers. But while public support for Dotcom has since abated, his anger has not.
What seems to have riled him most was that a government security agency had illegally kept him under surveillance on behalf of the Americans. And since Key is the minister in charge of the agency, Dotcom has decided the prime minister is to blame for his torment and must be made to pay.
Not being a citizen, Dotcom can’t stand for Parliament; but his grudge against Key is so all-consuming that he set up a political party, the Internet Party, to contest the election. Stranger still, he recruited a line-up of old-school, hard-left candidates whose desire to see the National government thrown out clearly outweighed their natural aversion to rich capitalists. No doubt the $NZ3.5 million Dotcom put into the party helped to overcome their qualms.
The Internet Party’s main strategy is to target the apathetic young who don’t normally vote, and it could work. Dotcom’s outlaw status and love of playful publicity stunts appeals to immature audiences, as demonstrated by a YouTube video showing Dotcom, looking like a cross between a gangsta rapper and the Führer at Nuremberg, inciting a youthful crowd chanting “F–k John Key” at a Christchurch rally. This is not politics as New Zealanders know it.
Can Dotcom’s party win any seats? Well, yes, because it has forged an improbable alliance with a radical Maori party, the Mana Party. Mana has only one MP in Parliament, a firebrand named Hone Harawira; but under New Zealand’s convoluted proportional representation system, Harawira needs only to win his exclusively Maori electorate again to take two or three other “list” MPs into Parliament with him under what are known as the coat-tail provisions.
In normal circumstances, Key could probably live with the noxious presence of the Internet-Mana alliance. But there’s another rogue factor unsettling him in this election, and it has dominated the campaign so far.
It came in the form of an incendiary book, Dirty Politics, purporting to reveal a conspiracy of sleaze involving a widely read right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater. Based on material obtained by hacking Slater’s emails, Dirty Politics implicates government figures – notably justice minister Judith Collins – in a series of leaks intended to discredit the party’s opponents. In the most damaging allegation, Collins is accused of leaking the identity of a public servant she suspected of feeding information to the Labour party. The man was subsequently named in Slater’s blog and subjected to death threats.
That the book’s author, Nicky Hager, is a veteran left-wing propagandist – a Pilger-style crusader with a record of making shock-horror disclosures immediately before elections – didn’t stop the media from indulging in a feeding frenzy of unprecedented intensity. Few reporters paused to consider the ethics of Hager using stolen emails, a technique he has used before, nor to question his hypocrisy in doing so when he has stridently campaigned against electronic monitoring by Western intelligence agencies.
What’s difficult to gauge, at the time of writing, is the likely impact on uncommitted voters. Key’s best hope is that they will dismiss Hager’s allegations as just another media firestorm. But under the vagaries of New Zealand’s electoral system, the election is finely balanced even with the National’s apparent commanding lead in the polls. If enough voters are troubled by claims about dirty tricks, there remains a chance that an angry, rag-tag coalition from the Left – including Dotcom’s grudge-driven party – could get the numbers.
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