Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: The Morality of the Dotcom-Harawira-Harré deal

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Mana Party's Hone Harawira, Internet Party Laila Harre, Kim Dotcom and Vikram Kumar, during the official announcement of Laila Harre leadership of the fledgling Internet Party. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Mana Party's Hone Harawira, Internet Party Laila Harre, Kim Dotcom and Vikram Kumar, during the official announcement of Laila Harre leadership of the fledgling Internet Party. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Is the Internet Mana alliance a con job on the New Zealand electorate, or is it a fair and smart use of the MMP system? This is a debate we can expect to have over the short term while we get used the idea that the new alliance might have a big impact on this year's election. It is certainly clear that the Internet Mana alliance is about finding an exemption to the 5 percent MMP threshold that applies to minor parties. By entering into a short-term alliance, Hone Harawira's party is helping Kim Dotcom's fledgling party bypass the 5 percent threshold. In return, the Mana party gets to benefit from any buzz around the new party and growing the vote, and also receives resources to help in its campaign. This mutually beneficial arrangement is being very loudly condemned by many today. The most vociferous is Patrick Gower's must-read opinion piece, Hone and Dotcom's grubby deal. He says it 'is one of the dirtiest deals in New Zealand political history', and he's angry and upset about it.

Today's Press newspaper editorial is equally scathing about the 'sordid' alliance, painting it as being extremely 'cynical and crassly opportunistic' - see: Politics deserves better than this. Likewise, Prime Minister John Key is labelling the deal 'a bit of a rort' - see Adam Bennett's Free uni top of Harre's list.

For a humorous take on the theme of hypocrisy and cynicism, see Toby Manhire's brilliantly funny Over the threshold: the Internet-Mana wedding.

(Manhire is also the first in the media to use the new portmanteau 'Harrewiras' - but it should be noted, it was first used on twitter - see my blog post, Top tweets about Laila Harre as Leader of the Internet Party).

New Internet Party leader Laila Harre is also fronting up on the issue, declaring 'It's time for the people to take MMP back for ourselves', and saying she makes no apologies for strategically using MMP. She seems to have support from some on the left. For the best account, see Danyl Mclauchlan's blog post, All in the game.

Mclauchlan says that 'The beauty of the Internet/Mana deal is that it turns National's strategic undermining of the electoral system against them'. But here's his main point: 'I'm not sure what Gower thinks the left is supposed to do here. Sit back and lose election after election because National and its allies are allowed to scam the electoral system by running fake parties in Epsom and Ohariu but the left aren't allowed to do the same thing in Te Tai Tokerau? This is the system. This is how John Key and Judith Collins decided our elections should work. Why should the left cripple itself by refusing to maximise their chances in a rigged system just because they argued against it and got ignored?'. See also, Mclauchlan's earlier post, Thoughts on Laila Harre and the Internet Party.

Gordon Campbell makes a similar argument in his column, On the rise of Laila Harré. He says 'National can hardly bitch and moan about this outcome either. For nearly 15 years, it campaigned loud and long against the evils of MMP and railed for a review of its shortcomings. Yet then Justice Minister Judith Collins promptly and cynically shelved the MMP review findings, once National realised that the review's main recommendation - that the electorate seat coat-tails now being used by Harawira and Dotcom should be abolished - would hurt its own chances of getting Colin Craig and his Conservatives and the Act Party's latest minion in Epsom onside, and into Parliament. If the Mana/Dotcom arrangement looks like cynical pragmatism, it is merely par for the course'.

On the right, the NBR's Rob Hosking also admits it should all be fair game, using the parallel of sporting teams simply having to play by the rules: 'For now, though, these are the rules all the players have to abide by. Lifting is now legal in rugby lineouts - to the detriment, one might think of the game - but it would be a foolish team which took the field and refused to match its opponents because of some point of principle. In any case, voters sort of expect politicians to be hypocritical: accusations of the same do not have much political impact' - see: Harre, Dotcom and hypocrisy (paywalled).

The Dominion Post editorial today agrees with this stance: 'nobody can expect politicians to leave an available weapon unused' - see: Harre breathes life into contest. The newspaper says that Harre is essentially saying 'If the Right can use the coat-tailing clause for their ends, so can the Left'.

Furthermore, National only has itself to blame for this whole situation says Scott Yorke - see: And we give thanks to... Part One. According to Yorke, Judith Collins might end up being responsible for the 'own goal' that leads to National losing government.

Of course, at the bottom of the whole 'coat-tailing' unhappiness is actually another more serious MMP problem - the unnecessary existence of a threshold that purposefully acts to keep some minor parties out of Parliament. As I've argued often, especially back in 2011, this whole 'coat-tailing' situation can be very easily fixed by abolishing the 5% MMP threshold - see: Undemocratic 5pc threshold at fault, not MMP.

More electoral deals or defeats?

All eyes are now on where else 'electorate deals' might be done. Certainly the National Party will now feel much more comfortable in 'gifting' a seat like East Coast Bays to Colin Craig's Conservatives. In fact, as Cameron Slater says, surely the Conservatives and Act could do a similar alliance - see: A Few thoughts on the new alliance.

Labour is now having to decide whether to essentially pull out of the contest to win the seat of Te Tai Tokerau, where list MP Kelvin Davis is seeking to take Hone Harawira out. Labour will be well aware that this would produce an 'own goal', or as I put it 'electoral suicide' - see Chris Keall's Cunliffe seen 'absolutely open' to Harre, Harawira proposal to kneecap Davis.

Similarly, Gordon Campbell argues that 'It is in Labour's self interest NOT to make that happen. Logic and political nous in an MMP environment demand that Labour should now quietly decide to run a fairly token effort in Te Tai Tokerau, and put a good recruit like Davis into a safe position on the Labour list' - see: On the rise of Laila Harré.

The next electorate deal could well be in Waiariki - currently held by the Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell. Tim Watkin writes that 'Mana have the foot soldiers, and now with Dotcom's money will be confident its leaders will be confident it can give Annette Sykes the leverage she needs to win Waiariki' - see: How the path to election victory might go through the Maori seats. It is therefore in Labour's interest to stand back from this fight, too: 'the real loser is the Maori Party. Harre as leader meant the Mana-Internet Party could go ahead and that means a big boost for Mana. Indirectly, Mana now has a war chest to fight hard in the Maori seats and will have one key mission in this election -- the destruction of the Maori Party and its replacement by a more left-leaning, determinedly anti-National party'.

This is a big deal, because, as Laura Walters and Tracy Watkins point out today, 'That could deny National an ally and its ability to form a government' - see: Dotcom pumps $3m into party.

The next wildcard Maori electorate in question could be Tamaki Makaurau, with Willie Jackson's announcement that he might contest this for Mana.

Because such 'electorate deals' are under increasing scrutiny and could produce a voter backlash - as well as more heat from the likes of Patrick Gower - its more likely any deals will be 'soft', in the sense of not being obvious, blatant or public.

There is of course a danger for the Internet Party half of Internet Mana - in that if Mana suddenly won three Maori electorates, Laila Harre would need a party vote total of about 3 percent before being delivered to Parliament.

Hypocrisy of big money on the left?

The other moral challenge to the Internet Mana alliance is to justify the use of the huge donations from Dotcom - see Laura Walters and Tracy Watkins' Dotcom pumps $3m into party. The involvement of such largesse is certainly a strong point for the political right to counter-attack on. For example, see Claire Trevett's PM accuses Dotcom of trying to 'buy influence'. John Key is quoted as saying, 'You've got a guy who can't buy a house in New Zealand, but he can buy a political party. I think most New Zealanders would look at that and be pretty cynical about it. No one should be under any illusion... This is a very wealthy guy trying to buy a political party to stop himself being extradited'.

It's certainly the case that the left normally rail strongly against huge political donations - a point well made by David Farrar in his post, Dotcom spending $4 million to try and change the Government. This is his main point: 'Now just imagine that say the Act Party received a $4 million donation from a convicted criminal fighting extradition for alleged financial crimes. Could you imagine the outrage from the left who would spend months decrying it and protesting against it'. Farrar also says he is 'insulted' by the choice of Harre as leader, about where she is taking the party and the issues that she is emphasising: 'It's an insult to those of us who have spent 20 years actually fighting for Internet issues. Her issues are the issues of the Alliance and Mana. She's a great MP for the typical hard left issues'.

The main points of this critique are challenged by Rob Salmond in his post, Dotcom's $3 million donation: 'The rules allow these mega-donations (ha!), so are lefties like Laila Harre hyprocrites for accepting them? No. There is a huge difference between "I think the rules should be X for everybody," and "I'm going to do X even if nobody else does." The difference is competitive fairness. A politician's job is to campaign within the rules as they stand. They owe it to their supporters to do everything legally in their power to win votes and influence, especially because their opponents are also doing everything within their power to achieve the opposite. They owe no duty to provide their opponents with advantage by pre-emptively limit their own campaigns'.

Harre, herself, also addresses the issue in Radio NZ's Dotcom move 'progressive' - Harre. She is reported as believing that it is 'refreshing to see a wealthy donor backing a progressive party rather than supporting the status quo. "I feel very lucky to be in a position where resources are available to take on the establishment rather than the conventional approach, which has been for big money to support the status quo and to shut down change, particularly for young people." She said Mr Dotcom's funding of her party was not an example of money corrupting politics'.

Green Party damage

According to Chris Trotter, 'When they learned of Dotcom's decision, the Greens are said to have been incandescent with rage' - see: Game-Changer: Laila Harré accepts the Internet Party leadership. Trotter also discusses the Greens' refusal to have Harre as an MP: 'Laila Harré had been working for the Greens, but when the time came to draw up the latter's Party List no one in the Green hierarchy considered Harré worthy of a winnable slot'. See also, Trotter's L'État c'est Sue.

The Green Party leadership apparently didn't want Harre as a Green MP, despite her interest in standing as a Green candidate. Plenty of Green activists will be, surely, challenging the party leadership at this weekend's conference to explain why they rejected her. It's easy to understand that having Laila Harre in the Green caucus would have been very threatening for certain MPs. There is no doubt, for example, that Harre would have soon overshadowed both Russel Norman and Metiria Turei.

On the eve of their conference the Greens are talking about expected ministerial posts, but it might be too soon - see Isaac Davison's Greens eye up their Cabinet jobs.

There seems to be disagreement on how much the Internet Mana Party is going to damage the Greens. Radio NZ's Chris Bramwell explains today how the new party is going to be in direct competition with the Greens, especially for new voters: 'there will be some nervousness within the Green Party ranks about Internet-Mana eating into their party vote. The Greens have enjoyed their place on the left of politics, their support growing to historical highs and their confidence increasing accordingly. They have been a presence in Parliament for 15 years now - accepted as a stable party, and almost mainstream. The Internet-Mana alliance poses a threat to at least part of their support, and they're disappointed at Ms Harre's decision to opt to stand for a rival political party. Ms Harre would have been an asset to the Greens' - see: Power play.

Gordon Campbell sees Harre's appointment as a 'genius move', and is incredibly positive about the new force in politics. But he also sees it as a risk for the Greens: 'the Greens may have become complacent about their natural level of support. Internet Mana will need to get only a small amount of traction to put Greens high fliers such as current MP Holly Walker and talented aspirant James Shaw in real danger of missing the cut' - see: On the rise of Laila Harré.

The Authenticity of Laila Harre and the new party

Certainly there are some people challenging the obvious flaws in the authenticity of the whole set up. For instance, Twitter-expert Matthew Beveridge examines Harre's tweet history, and finds it rather lacking - see: Laila Harre. Also, when the Internet Party set up the Laila Harre Facebook page, they misspelt her name in the URL address - see Beveridge's Laila Harre or Laila Haare?.

There will be plenty that wonder whether the new Internet Party isn't just the old Alliance Party in drag - see Tracy Watkins' Internet leans to Left with Laila in charge.

For some very strong analysis on this, see the three blog posts on the Pundit - Andrew Geddis' Harre will lead the Internet Party, because the Twitter tells me so, Tim Watkin's Why Laila? The maths makes sense, but what's in it for her?, and Josie Pagani's The Left starts to fracture - and that's a good thing.

Finally, for humour, see Ben Uffindell's Internet Party warns that new leader Laila Harré has gained 'a lot of weight' and is now German, and my blog post, Cartoons and photos of the new Internet Mana Party.

- 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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