• New Zealand’s Nixon

    Many explanations are offered for the fact, as evidenced by both opinion polls and falling voter turnouts at elections, that voters in New Zealand and across the western world seem increasingly disenchanted with democracy.

    Perhaps the most obvious reason for the voters’ disaffection is their sense that politicians, having solicited popular support and got themselves elected, then seem to lose interest in the proper purposes of government. In modern times, newly elected governments seem to have just one over-riding priority from day one – to hold on to power by getting themselves re-elected.

    Rather than set about the task of achieving real progress in the country’s interests and then submitting their achievements to the electorate’s judgment, it is all too often apparent that there is just one main focus for governments, of whatever colour – to persuade the voters that such progress is being made, whether it is or not. It is the appearance rather than the reality that counts.

    Perhaps the prime exponent of this approach to government was Tony Blair in the UK. His “New Labour” government in the UK may not have invented the term “spin doctor”, but they took the concept to new heights – or perhaps lows. Huge efforts were made and energy expended on persuading the voters that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds; in the end, the voters gagged on being force-fed an air-brushed version of the facts.

    The corollary of this approach is not only the sanitising of the public debate through the deliberate suppression of bad news but also the peddling of enhanced versions of the good news – and for this, a compliant media is essential. The politicians become adept at manipulating media outlets to their advantage; supportive and compliant journalists are rewarded with breaking stories and privileged access, while the less cooperative are frozen out.

    Governments have, of course, a huge advantage in this respect. Much of the news – and particularly the political news – emanates from actions taken by ministers. Most journalists will find it necessary and valuable to develop good relations with the news-makers.

    The result is a form of internal corruption of government. The power of government is increasingly used, not to advance the public interest, but to protect and promote the party in power. Every issue is decided after a careful consideration as to how it could be made to play with the electorate; as the next election draws closer – and, with a three-year term, it is always close – the time-horizon becomes shorter and the election imperative stronger.

    At the same time, the opposition sees the need to combat the government’s ability to manipulate the news agenda by attacking the government at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, the government responds by trying to denigrate its opponents, on both political and personal grounds, so that the damage suffered from opposition attacks is minimised.

    In recent times, this latter activity has achieved the status of an art form. It has even been accorded its own special title – “attack politics”. There have always been those in politics who have special skills and derive particular enjoyment from grubbing around in the gutter; the value placed by today’s political leaders on attack politics has provided them with a golden opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

    The politicians themselves, especially those continually in the public eye, will not usually do this work themselves, though there are exceptions – a Judith Collins, for example – who will relish this kind of supposedly “political” battle.

    Increasingly, however, there is a role for those whose natural milieu is the cesspit. Politicians – especially those whose stock in trade is smiling sweetly and smelling likewise – will not wish to be contaminated by association with such activities. They find it convenient to have them undertaken discreetly and at apparent arm’s length. If the association does somehow reach the light of day, the best response – in accordance with the Collins doctrine – is to strike back with double the force and to denigrate the person responsible for the exposure.

    There is, of course, a precedent for this kind of politics. The most celebrated of all the practitioners of “attack politics” was of course one Richard M. Nixon.

    In 1972, burglars (there were of course no computers to be hacked into back then) broke into the Watergate building in Washington in search of documents that could be used to discredit the political opponents of the Republican Party and the Republican President.

    The burglars were there with the knowledge of, and on instructions, from the President. After a long campaign of obfuscation and denials, the link between the President and the burglars was established; Nixon had not, of course, himself burgled the Watergate building but his lies, the attempted cover-up and his willingness to use criminal methods to attack his opponents led to his impeachment. He left the White House in disgrace in 1974.

    Should we, in New Zealand in 2014, not expect and demand the same standards from our leaders as the Americans did forty years ago?

    Bryan Gould

    17 August 2014.

2 Comments

  1. hypocrites all says: August 21, 2014 at 3:51 amReply

    Yes quite right Bryan.

    I’m sure if there is a link to any hacking or other illegal activity that leads back to any of the political parties in NZ they should and will pay a heavy price.

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