Early in 2014 Nicky Hager was leaked a large number of email and online conversations from Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil blog.
Many of these were between Slater and his personal allies on the hard right, revealing an ugly and destructive style of politics. But there were also many communications with the prime minister’s office and other Cabinet ministers in the National Government.
They show us a side of Prime Minister John Key and his government of which most New Zealanders are completely unaware. Key has constructed an easy-going and relaxed public image, declaring to the public that ‘there’s no room for negative campaigning in New Zealand.’
The reality is very different. His government has worked hand in hand with Slater and his collaborators in a sustained campaign of personal attacks against their political enemies, a deliberate but hidden strategy to avoid being held responsible for negative campaigning.
Dirty Politics continues the story that began in Hager’s best-selling book The Hollow Men, investigating the way that underhand and deceptive politics poisons the political environment for everyone. If you care about integrity and ethics in politics, then this book will be disturbing but essential reading.
New Zealand prime minister John Key had constructed an easy-going and relaxed public image. He began the 2014 election year by appearing at university orientation weeks, not to give speeches or debate policy, but to pose in ‘selfies’ with a crowd of students, more celebrity than politician. In rural Te Kuiti, he smiled for a beautifully composed photograph ‘having a beer and a good yarn’ with locals in a country pub, a photograph that would feature that night on his Facebook page. To the public, he was a man who stayed above the name calling and personal attacks of politics. He had declared during the 2011 election campaign ‘there’s no room for negative campaigning in New Zealand’.[i] The reality was very different.
Key had overseen a government involved in more personal attacks and negative politics than any in living memory. Robert Muldoon, National leader in the 1970s and 1980s, is remembered for his abrasive, attacking style, but the Key government had outstripped it in the frequency and breadth of attacks, while still managing to maintain the leader’s genial image. It had done this in part by using others – political allies, bloggers and the news media – to deliver the blows. The result was a new kind of attack politics that was rapidly changing the political environment in New Zealand. That is the subject of this book.
Dirty Politics follows my earlier book, The Hollow Men, which told the story of the National Party from 2003 to 2006 under the former leader Don Brash. This sequel describes the years of John Key’s leadership between 2008 and 2014.
The Hollow Men was based on a leak of leader’s office documents that revealed the internal discussions, strategy plans and secret donors behind an astonishingly cynical and manipulative plan to win the 2005 election. Brash resigned when the book was released and his successor, John Key, promised a different sort of leadership. He said he would not be using Brash’s advisers and pledged to ‘rise above the politics of personal attack’, saying that was not his style.[ii]
In fact Key immediately rehired the controversial political strategists, Crosby Textor, and the politics of personal attack intensified. The difference from earlier leaders such as Muldoon was that the government ministers did not usually front the tactics themselves. Their actions and motives could remain hidden. Thus the National government had the political advantages both of the friendly face and the attack machine. Naturally this would not work if people could see both, so considerable effort went into hiding and denying these activities.
The 2006 change in National’s leadership coincided with major changes occurring in politics, the Internet and the news media. Political bloggers were moving from the margins into prominence just as news organisations were further cutting back on staff. New tactics were being imported from US politics.
The origins of this book can be traced to a political event in October 2013, when extremely personal details of Auckland mayor Len Brown’s sexual affairs were published on the right-wing blog site, Whale Oil. Putting aside the rights and wrongs of Brown’s personal actions, it became clear that the exposé had been arranged by his political enemies to try to push him out of office and replace him with their own mayoral candidate. It was a dirty type of politics that is not normal in this country. He was actually being attacked because of his political beliefs.
In January of the following year I travelled to Dunedin for a conference, where I met a series of people who raised their concern about Cameron Slater, the Whale Oil blogger and son of a former National Party president. One woman who had left a critical comment on the Whale Oil blog site had then faced threatening approaches to her employer about why she had made the comment from her work computer. A university academic who spoke on a panel with a visiting left-leaning MP was sent a series of heavy e-mails and had messages left on his phone advising him not to associate with the politician. He believed the messages led back to Slater. These sorts of stories were being repeated all around the country: an unpleasant experience for the individuals, which risked putting them off being involved in politics.
The third experience that persuaded me to investigate Whale Oil and the growth of attack politics was an account I heard of a meeting in a major news organisation. The point of the meeting had been to discuss Cameron Slater and whether news resources should be allocated to scrutinising his activities. According to one of the people present, however, senior staff began expressing their fears about attracting attacks from Slater on themselves and their organisation. By the end of the meeting they had decided to do nothing.
Finally, in this same period, Slater hit the news after making yet another personal attack. A young West Coast man named Judd Hall had died when the car in which he was a passenger crashed off the road. Slater copied a newspaper article onto his blog and casually headed it ‘Feral dies in Greymouth, did world a favour’.[iii] He was a friendly-faced young man, training for an IT diploma, and, tragically, the fourth son in the family to die in an accident. (One had been killed by a drunken driver, another had died in a fall and the third had been a victim of the 2010 Pike River mining disaster). More than any single thing Slater had written, it provoked a furious public reaction.
Slater had made a specialty of collecting personal information on other people, including with the help of those he called his ‘hacker pals’.[iv] In April 2012 he boasted to a friend that he had received ’28 Gb of emails plus a filing cabinet of documents’ about a businessman, which had been passed to him by a third party.[v] This time, apparently as part of the angry backlash to his West Coast comments, hackers targeted him. A ‘denial of service’ attack was launched against his blog site, overloading his server and shutting down the website for three days. It appears the online attackers also gained access to his computer. Thus an insensitive comment about a car accident victim may have led to long-held secrets being revealed about Slater and his political collaborators: right up to the level of senior government ministers.
Some weeks later, out of the blue, I received a package: an 8-gigabyte USB digital storage device, the contents of which appeared to have originated from the attack on Slater’s website. On the USB were thousands of documents that revealed different parts of the National Party attack politics, a subject that until then had largely been a matter of speculation and denial. This was very different from my usual sources and investigations – I have not used this type of source before – but I believe not a single major news organisation in the country would turn down such fascinating and important material. Supplemented by some National Party sources, it has allowed stories to be told that the public has a right to know. I had no part in obtaining the material and I cannot say anything else about its origins.
The information that arrived on the USB consisted of thousands of pages of conversations on Facebook and by e-mail between Slater and his closest political associates: Jason Ede from the prime minister’s office, close friend and Cabinet minister Judith Collins, strategy consultant to National MPs Simon Lusk, Slater and Lusk’s apprentice Jordan Williams, their close collaborator David Farrar and a network of right-wing bloggers. There were also PR people such as Carrick Graham. It was clear that these materials were only a fraction of Slater’s documents, but they give a vivid picture of his and his colleagues’ activities. The project was suddenly much wider and more important than just the Whale Oil blog.
Important issues surround the use of leaked communications. First, everyone has the right to keep their communications private and there must be a very high public interest to justify publishing them. In this case, I believe most readers will agree that the materials raise very serious matters of political accountability, relating directly to the prime minister and other senior government ministers. They show a continuous collaboration between the prime minister’s office, bloggers and sympathetic media to arrange attacks on National’s opponents and to influence elections. This differs from the story and face presented by the National Party to the public and helps to explain much about what is wrong with contemporary politics. On the other hand, there was also a considerable amount of very personal information about relationships and other subjects, where the right to privacy outweighs any public interest. This material has not been included in the book and will not be passed to others. The fact that Slater and his associates have made a career of exposing the very private details of other people’s lives does not make it right to do that to them.
The chapters that follow will describe the origins and then the many facets of the covert attack machine run by the National Party and its allies. They include persistent attacks on Labour Party politicians, attacks that consciously set out to distract, wear down or demoralise them rather than trying to debate issues or win a political argument; orchestrated attacks on potential coalition partners; repeated searches for sexual scandal and other ‘dirt’ to use for political purposes; and supposedly independent ‘issue’ campaigns actually run by National Party figures to advance the party’s interests. Within the party there was concerted manipulation of National’s candidate selection processes.
The attacks are heightened by the routine use of extreme and mocking language. Environmentalists are green Taliban. Almost everyone on the left of politics is a liar and a hypocrite. An environment is created and encouraged where anonymous commenters on blogs and news sites join in the attacks, competing with each other in abuse and ugly personal insults. It is more like political warfare than a debate of ideas and beliefs.
The book begins by setting the scene and introducing the bloggers who became a political force only after the period covered by The Hollow Men. Then the serious material begins: the continuous close ties between the prime minister’s office and the attack dogs, the role of Judith Collins and the inside story of the political issues and campaigns that they manipulated – layer upon layer of hidden activities and dirty politics.
The main beneficiaries of the political attacks are the National Party and its senior politicians. This does not mean, as has been speculated, that Slater and the others were all secretly on the National Party payroll. The reality is more complicated. There are factions and tensions. John Key is very close to Farrar but does not and cannot control Slater. But when it comes to smears against Labour and other political opponents, the government and the attack bloggers do work together, with Ede as the primary conduit. When I write about National Party attack politics, readers will see that some attacks are collaborations with the prime minister’s office and the National Party, and some are with different parts of the Beehive, reflecting National’s deep factions. Sometimes political allies such as Slater and Farrar understand perfectly well what is in the party’s interests and do not need to be asked. But overall these activities systematically promote the interests of the party leadership, who are aware of and closely involved in many of the operations.
The prime minister appears in the early chapters mainly through the work of his senior staffer, Jason Ede. But by 2014, later in the book, it is clear there are regular communications between John Key and Slater.
It should not be a surprise that the negative politics documented in this book occurred under a government run by John Key, Steven Joyce and other colleagues, many of whom featured in The Hollow Men. With Key, the relaxed and smiling image had always been artifice, as anyone who had seen his face when he was displeased knew. But the image had worked well through his eight years as leader. For them, the systematic use of attack politics has been a dangerous secret, something National knew would look bad to the public and thus a political risk. But the short-term political gains were too tempting and it has continued year after year.
I wrote in the preface to The Hollow Men:
The underlying theme of the book is the conduct of politicians and others in politics – how their strategies, expediencies and the games they play to advance themselves can harm the whole political system. Short-term political necessities get in the way of the long-term good of the country. The [book] shows how easy it is to spin and manipulate and how our defences as a society (news media, electoral laws and so on) are inadequate to protect the public. This in turn creates the situation where many people ‘don’t like politics’ and leave it to the politicians – and if anything is clear from this story it is that politics should not be left to the politicians. The story is, in essence, about democracy – that ideal everyone in politics applauds and few respect.
These are the underlying ideas of this book too. Like the cynical advisers seen in The Hollow Men, the people described in these pages have helped to create a type of politics that disappoints and repels many ordinary people. But the book is not about the inevitability of expedient and unprincipled politics. Understanding what is wrong means things do not have to remain that way, and exposing dirty politics is an essential step in allowing reasonable people to understand and to choose other approaches. There is no need to follow those who are least principled down into the pit.
[i] Amelia Romanos, ‘Greens billboard vandal quits’,
[ii] Tracy Watkins, Dominion Post, ‘Key: I believe in an inclusive New Zealand’, 28 November 2006.
[iii] Cameron Slater, Whale Oil blog, ‘Feral dies in Greymouth, did world a favour’, 25 January 2014.
[iv] Cameron Slater, Facebook private messaging to Aaron Bhatnagar, 5 October 2011.
[v] Jonathan Marshall, Facebook private messaging to Cameron Slater, 30 April 2012. Slater wrote to his journalist friend, Jonathan Marshall, ‘I have a massive story this week, gonna run for days.’ ‘What is it?’ Marshall asked. ‘Three journos will be casualties,’ Slater said, ‘fraud, sfo [Serious Fraud Office], fma [Financial Markets Authority] … rat fink directors, dodgy transactions, I’ve got 28Gb of emails, plus a filing cabinet of documents.’ Marshall said, ‘niccce.’ Slater said he had ‘three journos putting their names to articles written by the fraudster…. 2 ex NBR and one Herald…. [and] two lawyers who will go down plus a liquidator.’ Slater was subsequently sued by the man concerned, Matthew Blomfield.