NZ: the limits of scandal-mongering

New Zealand’s opposition parties need to offer more than Wikileaked conspiracy theories.

Theresa Clifford

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Topics Politics

The New Zealand General Election is over, and the governing party, the National Party, has held on for a third term with just over 48 per cent of the vote. This is despite the fact that over the course of the six-week-long campaign, allegations of dirty politics (which resulted in the resignation of justice minister, Judith Collins), and the attempted exposure of a mass state-surveillance programme, have dominated political discussion and dogged the National Party’s re-election efforts.

After Labour received its lowest vote since 1922, with less than 25 per cent of the vote, and most of the left suffered bad defeats, the leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, blamed Internet Party founder and one-time internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom for making a spectacle of his state-surveillance allegations during the campaign, depriving opposition parties of airtime and splitting the left vote. Cunliffe called Dotcom’s actions ‘reprehensible’. Dotcom also blamed himself, describing his ‘brand’ as ‘poisoned’ and announcing his withdrawal from the political fray.

Dotcom made his state-surveillance claims with help from ex-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and fellow fugitive Julian Assange. Described as an international all-star line-up of the White House’s most-loathed by the Guardian, Greenwald, Snowden and Assange alleged mass surveillance had been taking place in New Zealand with the explicit knowledge of the prime minister, John Key. Coming six days before the election, this was meant to deliver a body blow to the National Party campaign. However, the opposite seems to have occurred. The National Party experienced an unprecedented victory, while the left have been virtually wiped out.

Why did this happen? Firstly, people believed Key when he said mass state surveillance was not taking place. And secondly, and more importantly, people would not really have been surprised if mass state surveillance was being carried in New Zealand. The majority of people tend to accept that the putative international terrorist threat is sufficient justification for surveillance.

Additionally, while Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, with its allegations of smear tactics by senior National Party officials, might have resulted in the resignation of Collins, the justice minister, she actually held on to her parliamentary seat with an overwhelming majority. It seems that whatever the left and Labour try to throw at the National Party, it just doesn’t stick.

The real weakness of Labour and the left in New Zealand is not the surveillance-revelations spectacle, or the moralistic conclusions of Dirty Politics (politicians sometimes scheme – who knew!); rather, it is the left’s lack of ideas and principles that might connect with the New Zealand electorate. New Zealanders deserve more than conspiracy theories and shrill moralism. What any opposition force needs is ideas that inspire people and give them a real choice. This absence of inspiring ideas is what the left and Labour must address if they harbour any hope of success at the next election.

Theresa Clifford is a digital strategist based in New Zealand.

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Topics Politics