To begin with the numbers: In the general election held in New Zealand yesterday, the National Party government was returned for a third term with a slightly increased majority. Of the 121-seat parliament, the National Party won 61 seats, enough to govern on its own if it chose to, with 48% of the vote. The Labour Party won 32, with 24% of the vote – its lowest vote share since 1922. The Green Party won 13 seats, its vote share little changed at 10%. The Maori Party won two of the Maori seats, down from four. (Maori have a separate electoral roll, with 6 seats out of the 120). The chauvinist New Zealand First Party gained 11 seats, up from 8 won in 2011. The remaining two seats go to the free-market Act party and the United Future party, both seats ‘won’ only by special arrangement with the National Party.
What conclusions are to be drawn from these results?
First, it is clear that through this election the National Party has consolidated its role as a central institution of bourgeois rule, a role it has held since its founding in 1936. It is the preferred party of big business, but it also retains a real popular base among small business people, managerial and professional layers, and capitalist farmers. It has a competent and popular leader in John Key. Key’s exceptional personal popularity, and the popularity of the National Party in general, are enhanced by the fact that Key’s government in its first two terms has avoided making frontal assaults on the working class or middle layers. This course had been made possible by the fact that, buoyed by continuing demand from China for New Zealand’s dairy exports, the capitalist economy has shown moderate growth in recent years, in contrast to much of the developed capitalist world.
Social polarisation and tensions have continued to widen during this period. Access to state-subsidised housing, a key social benefit won through the struggles of the working class in the 1930s and expanded up to the 1970s, has been restricted almost to the point of abolition. Homelessness and overcrowding have increased, while state houses sit empty and boarded up in preparation for sale. Four years after a major earthquake in Christchurch, many people are still living in unrepaired houses, their insurance claims still unresolved, unable to sell or repair their houses or even to move out. Struggles by state housing tenants fighting eviction have broken out in several places.
A similar tightening of access to social welfare benefits and accident compensation, like subsidised housing a fundamental social gain dating back to the 1930s, have been implemented by the Key government through policies of Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ). The levels of desperation this has brought about was highlighted in early September, when a man, angry at the humiliating denial of his right to housing and unemployment benefits, lashed out violently in a WINZ office in Ashburton, shooting dead two WINZ workers and gravely injuring a third. This was followed by a string of similar – although not so deadly – copy-cat attacks and threats against at least six other WINZ offices around the country.
These were just some of the more obvious signs of social polarisation. Press reports of children going to school hungry, the casualisation of work, increasing pollution of the country’s waterways as a consequence of the expansion of dairy farming, continuing job losses in both the public and private sectors, all show that the worldwide crisis of capitalism is bearing down on workers with increasing intensity amidst the economic growth.
These are the grinding consequences of the operation of a market economy, but as yet broad layers of the population have been relatively unaffected by them. To date the Key government has been content with this pace, and has avoided direct and massive attacks. In education, for example, the government has proceeded with its policy of introducing charter schools and standardised testing in primary schools. In this way it is setting the stage for future blows against teachers’ wages and conditions and the right to free education. But thus far, charter schools have been initiated only on a small scale, and organised resistance from teachers and others has successfully slowed the implementation of these ‘reforms.’
This is the secret of Key’s continuing popularity, and at the same time, of the continuing distress of the Labour Party. The consequences of this situation for the other bourgeois parties is the second aspect to consider.
In politics, consciousness often lags behind reality. The Labour Party remains the party supported by many workers because of its history as the party formed by the union movement as the political voice of the working class. It has long since cut its organisational ties with the union movement and become an ordinary capitalist party, with a membership chiefly drawn from professional and meritocratic layers (including the union officialdom) . Its pro-capitalist programme has increasingly converged with that of the National Party, and – especially since John Key steered National on its present centre course – has become virtually indistinguishable from it.
For example, Labour produced a poster opposing the National Party’s proposed sale of state assets (the few that remain!) This is the same party that in the 1980s corporatised a raft of state-owned industries in preparation for full privatisation, including post and telecommunications, the national airline, the electrical generation and distribution industry, and the railways, a process that involved cutting thousands of jobs. To the extent that there were political differences between National and Labour in this election, Labour’s positions were nationalist and to the right of National. For example, Labour promised to raise the age of eligibility for state pensions, and excoriated National for defending the present age of 65 years.
The near-total symmetry of programme between these two major parties makes it very difficult for the opposition party to score points against the incumbent on political questions, especially during times of economic growth. (It is worth recalling that a decade ago the roles were reversed, with the National Party languishing just as low in the polls, divided against itself, switching leaders in quick succession, while the Labour government of Helen Clark seemed unassailable.) The only option left to them is to attack the incumbent on issues of personal credibility and integrity – and incumbent’s only option to respond in like manner. Hence the strong impetus to the smear campaigns that marked this election campaign more than any previous one.
This brings us to the third and most surreal aspect of this election campaign to consider: the degree to which it was dominated by accusations of corruption and ‘dirty politics.’
Smear campaigns, exposes about the extra-marital affairs of politicians, allegations of lying, corruption and the like have been a growing feature of bourgeois political campaigns in New Zealand for some years now – as in many other countries – as the political distinctions between the major bourgeois parties have dwindled and disappeared.
A year ago there was a concerted campaign to force the mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, to resign days after his re-election, centred on the accusation that he had had an affair with a city council employee. Brown had been supported by the left. Accusations of filing false accounts of election donations against right-wing politician John Banks, Brown’s predecessor as Auckland mayor and later Act Member of Parliament, ended Banks’s political career. (The disputed donations were from Kim Dotcom, a billionaire internet entrepreneur.)
In 2011 the leader of the right-wing Act Party, Don Brash, was the target of rumours that he has had multiple affairs, and had fathered an unrecognised ‘love child.’ Blog-writers on both the left and right of bourgeois politics played a central role in spreading these rumours and feeding them into the mainstream media, often making use of stolen emails and other illegally-obtained computer files.
Accusations of lying, dirty tricks and National Party-orchestrated smear campaigns became the focus of the entire last few weeks of the election campaign with the publication of a book entitled “Dirty Politics” by Nicky Hager in mid-August. The book became a sensation, quickly selling almost 20,000 copies. The Guardian newspaper took a deep interest in it.
Hager’s book centres on the claim that behind the affable and ‘clean’ public persona of John Key, a clique of National Party strategists working out of the Prime Minister’s office had organised a series of smear attacks and blackmail against anyone who got in their way, including opposition politicians and civil servants. Hacking into opposition party computers to steal emails, and enjoying privileged access to the state spy agencies, they fed information to friendly journalists to advance their campaigns. “Poisoning New Zealand’s political environment” is how Hager describes it.
Cameron Slater, the author of the popular right-wing blog Whale Oil, was named as a key figure in this clique. Slater had played a central part in the smear campaign against Mayor Len Brown. Justice Minister Judith Collins, a close friend of Slater’s, was accused of actively colluding with him in some of these vendettas.
The evidence Hager produced to support these allegations was a series of emails, Facebook messages, and other communications hacked from Slater’s computer. Key initially dismissed Hager and his book as the work of “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist,” but was forced to admit the truth of at least some of the allegations, and Judith Collins was forced to resign as Justice Minister at the end of August.
The effect of the book, and Collins’s resignation, was to energise the electoral campaign against the Key government. Having seemed up to that point to have an unassailable lead in the polls, Key suddenly appeared vulnerable to the deepening scandals surrounding Slater and Collins. All Key’s opponents jumped into the fray.
A statement by the Labour Party read in part, “John Key has lost his moral compass. Other messages today that detail disgusting and revolting exchanges between National Party aligned bloggers and players are a disgrace. The absence of a condemnation from the Prime Minister about this speaks volumes…John Key might think it is okay to give his cronies and bloggers privileged access and information, Labour does not. We will clean up the system and make it fair for all New Zealanders.”
“A Labour Government will act quickly to protect and enhance New Zealand’s reputation as one of the most open and least corrupt countries in the world… New Zealanders rightly expect full accountability and Labour will make it a priority to clean up the National Government’s mess to achieve this,” Labour Leader David Cunliffe said.
Not to be outdone, Kim Dotcom, founder of the Internet Party, got in on the act. Dotcom, billionaire founder of the Megaupload file-sharing website, with convictions for computer hacking, promised more bombshells at an event he organised for the last week of the election campaign, which he dubbed the Moment of Truth. Before an overflow audience of 1500 in the Auckland Town Hall, with a live feed to a worldwide audience through the Guardian’s website, US journalist Glenn Greenwald spoke about massive government surveillance of telecommunications in New Zealand by the US National Security Agency (NSA), with the participation of the New Zealand counterpart of the NSA, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden addressed the meeting by video link, as did Julian Assange, editor of the website WikiLeaks.
These revelations had very little effect on the popularity of the Prime Minister or that of his accusers, to the surprise of Dotcom.
Following the election, virtually all the party leaders sought to distance themselves from the scandal-mongering aspect of the election campaign, referring to it as a ‘distraction’ – as if there were some ‘real politics’ other than this that they were interested in.
The political environment in New Zealand is not being ‘poisoned’ by John Key, Cameron Slater, Judith Collins or any other politician, nor can it be ‘cleaned up’ by David Cunliffe, Nicky Hager, or anyone else. This is simply the reality of capitalist rule in its age of decline, and New Zealand is no “more open and less corrupt” than any other capitalist country. The naive hope of returning to an age of democratic innocence, which underlies both Cunliffe’s statement and Hager’s book, is a reactionary lie.
Irrespective of the truth or otherwise of any particular allegations, it is vain to believe that public inquiries, exposés of the misdeeds and corruption of capitalist politicians will achieve anything by themselves. This is the vain hope which was so decisively crushed by the outcome of the election.
Workers’ organisations, unions, and political parties do need to strongly oppose and defend themselves against government spying, computer hacking, theft of private correspondence, and any government interference in their right to function freely. But their ability to politically defend themselves against these abuses is hindered, not aided, if they themselves make use of stolen correspondence when it suits them. And it is never necessary. It is possible to find all one needs to know about the political personalities of Judith Collins, Cameron Slater, and the rest from publicly-available sources, including their own public statements and writings. The details of what they say to each other in private emails are distasteful and…private.
Update: further discussion on these questions on a later posting: Conspiracies, exposes, and revolutionary morality – a discussion in 140 characters.