Speaker by Various Artists


On the upland road

by Colin Jackson

I spent the first two weeks after the release of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics in a state of anger – how dare our elected leaders and their friends treat us like this? How dare they try to control the media, to assassinate people’s characters, to exact their utu on anyone who stood in their or their paymasters’ way?

That was before the later allegations, in emails that Hager didn’t have access to, that are said to point to real corruption of the kind I see in developing countries, the kind that New Zealand doesn’t think it has. We’ll need a shed load of luck to hang on to our “least corrupt nation” status from Transparency International now. How dare they besmirch all of our reputations for their pathetic little self-interests?

That was then, this now, halfway between the book launch and election day. The media seems finally to have awaken from its long sleep and is starting to ask hard questions about its members’ relationships with attack bloggers. People are starting to realise that their views of Opposition politicians, not to mention the fates of recent party leaders, may be entirely due to image manipulation by shadowy figures who can phone the Prime Minister. It’s time to move the conversation on to ethics, specifically how we can ensure that behaviour like this from ever tarnishing our country again.

I’m going to use a loaded word: moral.

Morality is a set of restrictions we mostly agree to with the aim of not hurting others. We are held to some kind of morality – our laws ensure that morality violations are often criminal acts. People in leadership positions are expected to be at least as moral as the rest of us, and we are all expected to obey the law and for good reason.

The Prime Minister spluttered when Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner asked him after the book launch if accessing private information on other people’s computers – something he condoned being done to the Labour Party – was the kind of moral leadership New Zealand could expect from him, but Guyon’s point was well-made. And yes, downloading that private information was a criminal act as well as being unethical. But this isn’t a party-political tirade, there are plenty of those about at the moment. It’s a call to arms to fix the underlying issue.

New Zealand needs moral leadership right now. That’s not some religion-driven statement about telling others what to do lest it offend someone’s god, rather that we need leaders who uphold the law, are seen to do themselves what they tell others to do and do not abuse third parties for their own ends.

But, while installing a new prime minster (if that were to happen) and running a sufficiently wide-ranging enquiry into what has gone on (ditto) might exorcise some of the current evil, it will not be enough to events like these happening again. We need to change aspects of the system to prevent a race to the ethical bottom.

So, how can we as citizens of our polity and country, change things so that politicians and their friends do not have the incentive or the ability to control our perceptions to fulfil their own ambition, so that they remain moral? I can think of a few things.

First of all, the Official Information Act needs to be strengthened. The Act begins:

The purposes of this Act are…to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order—

  1.                                  i.         to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and
  2.                                ii.         to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,—

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand…

That’s right, the framers of the OIA thought that information should be made increasingly available to people, and tied this to good governance and enhancing the respect for the law. Seems we have the opposite going on right now.

That Act, written during the oppressive government of Muldoon, has been sadly abused in recent years, and by governments of both stripes. Departments won’t release information without clearing through Ministers’ offices, they almost invariably leave it until the last possible minute (and often later) and they quite frequently, when the enquirer is a journalist, tip off some other media first so the journalist’s story gets told by someone else. It’s no surprise that one of the core allegations in Dirty Politics relates to the OIA. We need to strengthen the OIA and remove ministers from the ability to control the manner of their departments’ releases.

But we also have to ask how media and bloggers, (disclosure: I’m an occasional blogger) should be required to make clear their allegiances and their motivations, to prevent, or at least shine a light on, their abuse of others. Some of the core allegations of Dirty Politicsare that bloggers were presenting others’ copy as their own, often because they were being paid to. 

Political blogs don't have to be balanced, we all understand that.  But perhaps we need to find a way to make them subject to at least a basic level of transparency and fairness as the media are, as recently proposed by the Law Commission.  

I’m looking for other ideas, but most of all I’m looking for some ethical politicians who will run with the idea of fixing the system after the election. I’d like to see conversations being led by those we elect to govern us on how we remove the incentives to outdo each other in nastiness. Otherwise we run the risk of the same elected dictatorship, or a different one.

Back to the present: maybe we’ll see more despicable rage vented on our families by ministers and their friends, but I sincerely hope not. Our main task is to change the system so they can’t do that any more.

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