Jonathan Milne

Jonathan Milne is deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday.

Politicians of all stripes welcome at Kim's place

The Internet Party hopes to team up with Hone Harawira and other electorate MPs to spend more than $1 million fighting this year's election - but as they go live this week, few people have heard of them, and nobody knows what they stand for. We do know one thing, though: founder Kim Dotcom wants to get his own back at Prime Minister John Key

Kim Dotcom's Internet Party will launch a series of mobile membership apps this week.
Kim Dotcom's Internet Party will launch a series of mobile membership apps this week.

Politics, we've been told, is about engaging with the working man. Politics in 2014 is about engaging the man or woman who's jaded with politics, the one among the 800,000 who didn't vote last election. And Kim Dotcom's new Internet party, according to advice proffered by leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury, is all about engaging "urban professional male Gen X National Party voters".

Meet Neil Riley.

Pint in hand, the salesman charges uninvited up to the leaner outside Murphys Sports Bar & TAB in Lower Hutt. "So this Indian turns up at the Pearly Gates," he declares. "Someone calls out, St Peter, your taxi's here."

Graeme Edgeler and John Mitchell wince, avoid eye contact, gaze fixedly into their beers.

"So," Riley asks, "what do you guys do?"

Edgeler, 33, blinks from behind his spectacles and looks to Mitchell somewhat despairingly. Edgeler pauses. "I work for - the Internet Party."

Neil takes a swig from his pint glass. "The what?"

Indeed, the what? The Internet Party has six months to build its brand sufficiently that 100,000 New Zealanders will vote it into Parliament. Right now, hardly anyone has heard of it.

But the work begins this week when, if all goes according to plan, the Internet Party will launch iPhone, Android and web apps enabling Kiwis to join the party. As soon as it has 500 members - it believes it could sign up that many on the first day - it will register with the Electoral Commission and it's game on.

By tomorrow, the party will have seven staff: chief executive Vikram Kumar, party secretary Anna Sutherland, PR man John Mitchell, lawyer Graeme Edgeler, social media guru Callum Valentine, brand manager Andy Pickering, and policy and media adviser Jim Tucker.

It has no party president or executive committee, yet. It has no party leader. It has no candidates. But it does have a "party visionary": its founder, Kim Dotcom.

Dotcom, for anyone who needs to be brought up to speed, is a German internet mogul who lived happily and privately enough in his rented $20 million mansion in Coatesville, North Auckland. Happily, until that morning two years ago when armed police landed in helicopters in his front yard, stormed through his home and arrested him at gunpoint in his attic safe room.

Now he faces American-laid charges of mass copyright infringement, money laundering and racketeering, relating to his file hosting and sharing website Megaupload.

He has no private life. US Department of Justice prosecutors are combing through his companies and finances. His emotions are laid bare in the lyrics on his new album, promoted on the back of commuter buses in our biggest cities. On Twitter, he has 354,000 followers.

And at a select committee hearing in Parliament, he clashed with the man he has seemingly chosen as his nemesis, Prime Minister John Key.

Dotcom announced he would be launching his new Internet Party on January 20 - the second anniversary of the police raid. But he had to cancel the big launch party at Vector Arena when the Electoral Commission advised it could be regarded as treating - trying to buy votes. He cannot run because he's not a New Zealand citizen, but he's creating a vehicle for young and disaffected New Zealanders to storm the political institutions of Wellington.

So, the question must be asked, is this a party driven by a determination to get back at John Key, or by political principle?

After all, Dotcom told the Herald on Sunday this year he would never have gone into politics had it not been for abuses he says he suffered at the hands of the Government.

Now, though, he insists that his motivation is broader: he wants to help the people of New Zealand.

"New Zealand is a beautiful country, one of the most desirable places in the world to live," he says. "If we want, we can attract and retain the best talent and businesses in the world. I'm frustrated that the Government isn't able to see how the internet can make New Zealand a world leader.

"Worse, the Government has turned the internet into a surveillance machine, undermining its security and invading everyone's privacy. No wonder young people either don't think it's worth voting or don't want anything to do with government.

"This is what motivated me to set up the Internet Party. Not for myself, but for people who want to make the future happen now. Action, not fancy words ... The Internet Party will get more than 5 per cent of the party vote. Most of this will come from new voters and those who otherwise wouldn't have voted."

The slick mobile apps and internet.org.nz website through which the Internet Party will be launched are a glossy purple-and-white facade concealing the party's simple and prosaic backroom workings.

Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater said this week that Dotcom was sinking $1 million a month into setting up the party but spokesman John Mitchell laughs that off.

"The total figure for Internet Party expenses in the pre-regulated period is expected to be substantially less than $1m," he says. The party will then spend another $1m during the election campaign.

The money is not being blown on fripperies.

The Lower Hutt HQ, across the road from the shopping mall, is a single 25sq m serviced office, with three desks pushed together in the centre, and three potted palms. No phones, no computers, no papers, no filing cabinets - the staff bring their smartphones and laptops with them each morning. Kumar says the office costs them about $300 a week.

The seven salaries are a bigger expense. Kumar, 51, acknowledges he is on a "fair" six-figure salary (pundits guess at $200,000-plus) and says that is a pay cut from his previous job as boss of Dotcom's Mega cloud-sharing web start-up. But, he is at pains to add: "We're not doing it for the money, I can tell you that.

"There's adequate resources to do a good job, but look at our office - we're running things very tightly."

So what drives these activists? Is it the party's policies? The cash? Or is it the undeniable and almost overwhelming personal charisma of Kim Dotcom? Are they political mercenaries or are they true believers?

Mitchell smiles. "You mean, have we drunk the Kool-Aid?"

The answer for Mitchell, it seems, is yes. He embraces the opportunity to be part of something "cool".

The 42-year-old father-of-two was blown away when he met Dotcom, at the Coatesville mansion. "He's literally larger than life, and a very, very smart man, and shrewd."

The former journalist is familiar with working for polarising, personality-plus moguls - for nearly four years he was the PR man for Terry Serepisos, his property firm Century City Developments, and his football club Phoenix FC. When Inland Revenue filed court action to liquidate five of Serepisos' firms, Mitchell jumped ship to work for the TAB as manager of media and government relations. He accepted the Internet Party job last month.

"It's going to be cool, and a lot of fun, and a lot of bloody hard work," Mitchell says. "It won't be dull - and for me that's really important. I'm not completely throwing caution to the wind. It ticks a lot of boxes, not just in what I want from a job, but in what I want for the country in which I live."

Graham Edgeler is different - dry, understated, geeky, he started work on Monday, introduced by leftwing strategist and fellow-blogger Bomber Bradbury, and through a Twitter exchange about an obscure legal problem with registration of the party's logo. Edgeler hasn't met Dotcom yet. For him, this is just a job. "There aren't a lot of electoral law jobs out there. To be honest, there would be a few different parties I would have worked for if they'd offered me a job."

He pauses. "I'm pleased the party isn't something I'm completely opposed to."

Anna Sutherland, 40, is different again. She is a true believer. For her, the Kool-Aid is engaging 800,000 non-voters, many young and cynical. Appointed secretary after the resignation of her brother-in-law, Scoop journalist Alistair Thompson, Sutherland's background is also in left-wing politics.

"Declining voter participation is a real problem, and it really concerns me," she says. "I really think this can do a lot to address the problem."

When she was in her 20s, Sutherland worked at Parliament in Alliance president Matt McCarten's electorate liaison unit, a hotbed of hard-left politics that was shut down after a Parliamentary Service inquiry identified the use of taxpayer funds to promote the political party. The unit's five staff lost their jobs, and director Gerard Hehir went on to run McCarten's Unite union.

Sutherland ran for Parliament as an Alliance candidate, had two children and worked at the Electoral Commission before the left pulled her back into politics this year.

Hehir says: "From my point of view and that of the left, it's in our interests if we encourage the Internet Party to the left side of the spectrum."

Surely this is all ancient history - why does it matter?

It matters because the personnel running the party provide a pointer to the party's politics, despite protestations to the contrary.

Dotcom says: "The Internet Party is neither left nor right. It is not ideologically driven. We want solutions that work based on evidence and expert analysis."

He and Kumar insist the party can work with anyone, including John Key; that the Internet Party's leadership and policies are yet to be determined.

Yet the party's 10 "guiding principles" have already been drafted by contracted staff including Kumar, Tucker and Sutherland, who will sit alongside Dotcom on the fledgling party's executive council. Those principles are to be published on Thursday as part of the Internet Party's call to arms, if Apple approves its iPhone membership app in time.

Some of the principles are so vague as to be almost meaningless: the Government should work for the people, says one. Principles emphasising personal freedom and reduced surveillance would sit comfortably in the manifesto of a classical liberal party like Act. Some, such as faster internet connections and modernising schools, are techno-centric.

But there is a distinct strand of leftwing politics coming through in core principles such as creating high-tech jobs, lower cost of living, encouraging affordable housing and supporting young families.

The faint fingerprints of longtime comrades Hehir and McCarten are on the Internet Party, a nexus linking it to Mana (for which Hehir is Parliamentary chief of staff and party secretary) and Labour (for which McCarten is chief of staff). Labour, the Greens and Mana are working to create a three-headed coalition that can topple National, and they see an ally in Dotcom.

On Monday, February 24, Mana MP Hone Harawira and Hehir invited Dotcom to a friend's house on the North Shore, where they looked out over the sea and chatted, says Harawira, about "what wonderful beaches we have in Aotearoa".

They also discussed their mutual enemy, John Key, and a structural alliance of the two parties.

This week, the Mana Party leadership and executive are expected to discuss a proposal to unite the two parties under one umbrella for the election.

Harawira is likely to win his Te Tai Tokerau electorate, and hopes Mana's Annette Sykes can also win the Waiariki electorate, knocking the Maori Party out of Parliament.

The Internet Party hopes to bring a broader nationwide party vote and, yes, money.

Until Harawira and Dotcom met over lunch, Mana could never have dreamed of a million-dollar fighting fund for the election.

Time is tight between now and nominations day, in August, so if the two parties are to merge they need to move quickly.

"There's a whole lot of things that could stop it dead in its tracks, but at this stage we're keen to look at it," says Hehir. "It's got to be in the interests of both parties."

The worry for Labour and the parties of the left is that, despite his profile, Dotcom remains to many extents an unknown quantity. What is clear is that he believes spy agencies have been watching him, and he's largely been proven right.

Kumar, too, says he has been the subject of "targeted surveillance, probably by the [US] National Security Administration".

Once, Dotcom and Kumar would have been dismissed as paranoid. But Kumar is no tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist - he previously worked for the State Services Commission, in charge of major public sector IT projects.

On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled Dotcom could not see details of the American prosecution case against him - a decision he acknowledged was a setback.

If things go badly for him, he could be extradited to face charges in the US as New Zealand goes to the polls.

Just as Mitchell and Edgeler weighed up the potential to be embarrassed by the bloke with the beer in the pub, so too will the established parties have to weigh up Dotcom's potential to embarrass them if they ally themselves too closely.

- Herald on Sunday

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