Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: A nasty scandalmongering election campaign

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Judith Collins, Steven Joyce and Winston Peters. Photos / NZ Herald
Judith Collins, Steven Joyce and Winston Peters. Photos / NZ Herald

Get ready for a nasty election in which scandalmongering is the main campaigning weapon of politicians. The whole nature and feel of the 2014 general election campaign has abruptly changed over the last two weeks. Policy is out, and scandal is in. We might now expect that the next four months will descend into a bitter fight about the integrity of political opponents, with a large amount of mud being thrown around. The nature of electoral politics is that politicians are mostly reluctant to start throwinges directed back at them. But once the peace is broken, then a quick escalation in dirty warfare tends to occur.

For the best overview of this trend, seg around strong allegations for fear that they will then be subject to similar chare Anthony Hubbard's feature article The politics of 'sleaze'. Hubbard documents New Zealand's recent history of increasing electoral fights over scandal, detailing the downfalls and dishonour brought about by an increasing focus on politician wrongdoing. He points to the last election in which a similarly bitter fight over political finance emerged: 'The 2005 election exposed scandals on both sides: National's secretive dealings with the Exclusive Brethren, and Labour's use of taxpayer money to fund electioneering gimmicks such as its pledge card. Then National leader Don Brash accused Labour of being "the most corrupt government in New Zealand history". Labour leader Helen Clark accused Brash of being "corrosive" and "cancerous".'

For another excellent survey of the politics of scandal in New Zealand, see Josie Pagani's A taxonomy of scandal.

She sorts various scandals under categories such as the 'Bad Smell' scandal, the 'Slow Burner', and the 'Teetering' scandal. Pagani concludes by lamenting the distracting impact of scandals: 'Policy controversy is the engine of democratic politics. People are motivated to participate and support their sides because of their passionately held values and the way those values are expressed in policy. A scandal is an altogether less noble affair and belongs at the business end of politics'.

Today's Press editorial also condemns what it calls a 'manufactured' ruckus about political funding - see: Openness is the best policy. The newspaper argues that too much is being made of the recent allegations: '"Cash for access" is very far from "cash for favours", of which New Zealand is blessedly free. New Zealand politicians are undeniably the least corrupt in the world and to suggest scams where none exist is mudslinging for no useful purpose.'

Of course, although a focus on policy might seem more worthy, scandals in themselves are in fact highly political and in some cases do help the public understand important issues about how politics work and the relationship between the politically powerful and the economically powerful. Issues of political finance can be much more illuminating about politicians and their plans than policy discussions.

Expect more Opposition scandalmongering

Fights over political finance, with allegations of 'cronyism' and 'corruption', can be extremely damaging to those on the receiving end. As I pointed out in my column last week, Govt vulnerable on allegations of corruption and cronyism, National faces a significant threat to its survival in power. In the weekend, John Armstrong detailed just how much the tide is now turning: 'right now it feels as if the political gods are bored with the widely held assumption National will cruise to victory in September's general election. Someone or something has torn up National's script which was supposed to guarantee the party safe passage through to polling day' - see: Wheels falling off as National hits bumpy bits on road to election.

Labour is clearly onto a winner with this focus on scandal and it has given the party its best shot at corroding away the necessary few polling points which will ensure National is unable to govern. If questions about National's closeness to business and the wealthy drop National down to, say, 43% support, then Labour has every chance of leading the next government.

The huge potential for erosion can be seen in yesterday's Q+A opinion poll results - see TVNZ's Snap poll shows public divided over fate of Judith Collins. You can also watch Steven Joyce's response to this in his 11-minute Q+A interview: 'It wasn't a great couple of weeks' Steven Joyce. Watch also The Panel discuss the Steven Joyce interview.

Joyce's interpretation of the poll has been challenged by one pollster - see Grumpollie's Joyce gets it wrong, and all we see are the trees. And Rob Salmond explains why his party is happy with the poll in his post Q+A snap poll. It is clear why Labour has every interest in keeping these types of allegations flowing and so mud will continue to be thrown. Labour strategists will be highly cognisant of the fact that the last time Labour came to power - in 1999 - it was on the back of a campaign against the Shipley National Government 'sleaze'.

Other opposition parties, too, are asking some pointed questions and making serious allegations. Winston Peters, for example, is promising (as is his wont) that there is 'more to come'. Peters claimed during the weekend: 'Judith Collins will not survive next week, with what I know'.

The motives of parties making the 'cronyism' and 'corruption' allegations are questioned by Andrea Vance in her column, The price tag on rubbing shoulders. She points particularly at the Greens as having self-interested, ulterior motives in their campaign on political finance. Vance suggests that the Green Party stands to enrich itself from reform of political finance and that even when it comes to big money, the Greens 'might not like the donor system, but they'll sure as hell take the money'.

The latest Cabinet Club style revelation was in Phil Kitchen's Fundraising access to PM. Here's the key part: 'Some of Wellington's most recognisable names paid $3500 each to meet Prime Minister John Key at a National Party fundraising dinner also attended by his taxpayer-funded chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson'.

To see some more digging on the Cabinet Clubs, see The Standard's The politics of private dinners.

National's counter-attack

National's vulnerability on scandal means that the party is desperate to counter-attack. National is already returning the missiles relatively effectively, as explained by Tracy Watkins in her column, Does money talk in politics?. Watkins details Nationals' retaliatory allegations, essentially summarising them as 'they do it too'. Regardless of whether this logically gets National off the hook, it practice it works: 'Key's attacks are only partially driven by visceral dislike. He needs to spread the muck as far and as widely as possible to avoid the perception of National Party cronyism and corruption taking root. Since most punters adopt the plague-on-all-their-houses approach to politicians and money, he may have some success'.

Watkins also says: 'The average punter has no trouble believing money talks. They will have even less trouble believing it talks loudest to their elected representatives after the amount of muck sprayed around this week, plenty of which will stick. It is a poisonous perception that could have a corrosive effect on public confidence in both the institution of Parliament and elected government'.

The mutually assured destruction that will arise out of an all-out fight over political finance and corruption often leads politicians to want to pull back from hostilities is there's a chance that their opponent might also. This can be read in Gerry Brownlee's warning last week that the donations issue was getting 'out of hand' - see TVNZ's Govt tackled over dealings with wealthy Chinese businessman. Brownlee explains: 'I mean I think we could all get into sort of tit-for-tat discussions about who attended what for fundraising purposes. That's easily done'.

The reality is that just as there are questions about the fundraising of the National Government, there are plenty to be asked about fundraising by the opposition parties. This is well illustrated by Rodney Hide: 'Labour, too, has its problems. In chasing down Collins it has failed to confront the elephant in its caucus. We know who donated to National. We can spot the possible conflict. We can't say the same about Labour. That's because its leader resolutely refuses to name the donors to his leadership campaign. He has kept his donors secret. What has Cunliffe got to hide? What favours has he promised? Labour keeps insisting that money taints politics. Well, who has tainted Cunliffe? Will he ever tell us?' - see: Week of horror for National.

One of the latest National Cabinet Ministers in the firing line over political fundraising and lobbying, Michael Woodhouse, explained to me on Friday what he thought about the mud-throwing. You can watch my 45-minute interview from Friday: Vote Chat with Michael Woodhouse.

Return of electoral finance reform

A common theme in much of the commentary is the need for further electoral finance reform, with the possibility of taxpayer state funding of political parties raised often. But as Tracy Watkins points out, 'An environment in which allegations of corruption and cronyism are flying around with abandon seems similarly unlikely to foster a groundswell of support for boosting party coffers with taxpayer largesse'.

'Public funding' of parties is also mentioned in Anthony Hubbard's The politics of 'sleaze'. But perhaps more importantly, the suggestion is made that 'if the Official Information Act applied to Parliament, the public would be able to find out exactly what MPs spent their allowances on'.

Expect more focus on trying to work out where the money is coming from, with special attention to anonymous donations - such as in Danyl McLauchlan's Chart of the day, Everybody does it edition.

Further dissatisfaction with the current rules is also expressed in a Dominion Post editorial: 'Despite two rewrites of electoral finance law in the past decade, the rules are still too secretive' - see: Electoral finance rules shady.

More nastiness expected online

Much of the electoral nastiness will occur online over the next four month -some of it, no doubt, on Twitter. With this in mind, politicians should read Toby Manhire's Advice for tweeting MPs.

And of course much of it will be in the blogosphere, which can be a very nasty place, with dirt thrown around from all sides. With this in mind, it's worth reflecting on Cameron Slater's being given the best blog award on Friday night, as well as some of the reaction to this - see my own blost post, Top tweets about Cameron Slater's Whaleoil winning best blog at Canon Media Awards.

Finally, for another perspective on the person at the centre of most of the recent scandal, see Steve Braunias' The secret diary of Judith Collins.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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