Until recently, no serious observer expected New Zealand’s 20 September general election to be anything other than a humdrum affair. All was set for the usual boring routine.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the election. Several funny things.
New Zealand is a highly urbanized, mini-imperialist country of 4.5 million people that is deeply dependent on primary production, in particular dairy and sheep-farming exports. The majority of its inhabitants are British-derived (known as Pākehā), but there is a large unevenly integrated Māori population which retains important elements of the indigenous culture and which has undergone something of a revival in the last half century, as well as growing immigrant populations from the Pacific Islands, Asia and elsewhere.
Under the Mixed Member Proportional Representation electoral system (MMP, similar to that in Germany or Israel), New Zealand governments tend to alternate between coalitions of the Labour Party-led center left and the National Party-led center right, the latter having governed for the past two three-year terms. Most prominent political journalists believed that the pendulum was not yet ready to swing in the other direction.
These certainties were thrown into doubt with the 13 August publication of Dirty Politics, a new book from investigative journalist Nicky Hager. Dirty Politics exposes the machinations of a small clique of political operatives associated with the right wing of the National Party and centered around Cameron Slater, the son of a former National Party president and the proprietor of the Whale Oil blog. This group has considerable direct access to Prime Minister John Key and links to very big money.
On the basis of a large tranche of emails supplied to him by a hacker, Hager demonstrates how this clique has manipulated internal party processes, scaring off less right-wing potential National Party candidates from pre-selection. He shows how they subvert the Official Information Act by the selective release of information to the Whale Oil blog, including giving it priority access to information requested by others, and even arranging to release a Security Intelligence Service briefing convenient to the government. Their practices include orchestrated bullying, such as obtaining personal sexual information on political figures and journalists, the better to influence or destroy them, most spectacularly last year in a case which nearly brought down Len Brown, the mayor of Auckland.
Hager reveals a group of thoroughly nasty individuals who enjoy the human destruction they create. Their emails are replete with phrases like: “the biggest buzz I get is when I wreck someone,” “an earthquake right now would be good,” “do you have any sleaze on …?” and “What a loser, can't even kill himself properly.”
After the publication of Dirty Politics, the original hacker released several installments of the raw materials. For about three weeks media focus moved among the different elements of the story, and Key's initial posture of denying anything untoward became increasingly untenable. Jason Ede, the official in his department who was his most direct connection to the clique, has not been seen since the publication of the book. Not so fortunate was Key's next closest link, Minister of Justice Judith Collins, the most senior woman in the government. On 30 August, just three weeks from election day, Key was forced to fire her on the shaky pretext of suspicion that she had been undermining the head of the highly authoritative Serious Fraud Office, for which she was responsible.
Key suffered further blows to his credibility less than a week before the election when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed the extent to which personal communications of New Zealanders are subject to mass surveillance as part of the inter-imperialist Five Eyes system tying together the security apparatuses of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Key's earlier web of lies that there was no mass surveillance on New Zealand citizens disintegrated. Having previously refused to comment on specific programs and techniques, he began responding to questions on cable-accessing and analytical programs with irrelevant answers about cyber protection measures.
While Snowden and Hager have revealed specific details not previously known, Marxists were not surprised by any of this. New Zealand is a small link in the imperialist chain that has always collaborated with more powerful allies at the expense of its own citizens. It is not generally perceived by the outside world as a country rife with corruption, and prosecutions are rare – but they do exist. In 2012, two former ministers of justice from “opposing” parties who sat together on the board of Lombard Finance were convicted for malpractice. It is well known that the big liquor companies and casinos not only pay large donations to all the main parties, but also have their pet MPs. And it is clear that “public opinion” is quite substantially shaped by editors and journalists in the interests of advertisers – which means in the interests of capital.
Hager paints the corruption he has discovered as an aberration, and hastens to assure his readers that politics is not inherently evil:
“the people described in these pages have helped to create a type of politics that disappoints and repels many ordinary people. But the book is not about the inevitability of expedient and unprincipled politics. Understanding what is wrong means things do not have to remain that way, and exposing dirty politics is an essential step in allowing reasonable people to understand and to choose other approaches. There is no need to follow those who are least principled down into the pit.”
The mainstream left in general tends to fear that the sheer nastiness of politics will drive the best people away, so they seek to prettify it. But as Quintus Tullius Cicero observed in 64 BC, “Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal.” This is not to argue that all politics is corrupt, or even that all bourgeois politicians are personally guilty of law-breaking, but that corruption is part and parcel of politics in class society. Despite Hager's protestations, Dirty Politics exposes this truth. It catches the ruling class and their lackeys in the act. In doing so, it arms us in a struggle against such corruption, a struggle which can only be successful in an ultimate sense through rooting out its material basis – the system in which profit is the mechanism of power.
The necessary instrument against political corruption – indeed the necessary instrument to act in the interests of workers, the poor and the disenfranchised – is a party that stands for workers as a class against the parties of the profit system. Labour once pretended to do that, but those times are long gone. The New Zealand Labour Party led the way in the neoliberal reaction of the 1980s, despite formal links to the trade unions and the support of large sectors of the working class. Although it has shed some of its most right-wing excesses, it remains unambiguously a party of the bourgeois order, and an instrument to tie working-class voters to capitalism.
The only political party in New Zealand that even comes close to representing workers as a class is the Mana Movement, formed in 2011 as a left split from the Māori Party, itself a 2004 split from Labour. The Māori Party is unambiguously pro-capitalist, representing a growing Māori bourgeoisie which presides over the divisions in Māori society, an increasing layer of workers with relatively well-paid jobs and extraordinary levels of unemployment and poverty. In 2008 the Māori Party, despite a following that had historically voted Labour, became a partner in the right-wing National-led government.
Eventually this was too much for Hone Harawira, MP for the Māori Party in Te Tai Tokerau, the poorest constituency in the country, who broke away and formed Mana. Harawira had played a prominent role in the 1981 anti-apartheid campaign against the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand (see “Brilliant Tactics … But Where Do They Lead?”), a critical event in New Zealand social history. He was joined in Mana by John Minto, the main leader of the anti-tour campaign, who went on to play a prominent role in the Unite Union, which focuses on the poorest workers, such as those in the fast food industry. Annette Sykes, a prominent Māori self-identified socialist lawyer, was elected deputy leader. It was activists such as these – Māori and Pākehā – who gathered around Mana as it sought to position itself as an advocate for all the oppressed.
Of course there was nothing pure or consistent about Mana politics, and it failed to go beyond the bounds of social democracy to recognize the need for the expropriation of industry and public ownership of the key sectors of the economy. But a party rooted in the working class fighting against the parties of the bourgeoisie, opening itself up as an arena of political contest for socialist politics, is an important advance. The IBT expected that we would call for a vote to Mana in the general election, while criticizing the limitations of its politics.
That is, until along came the millionaire internet mogul Kim Dotcom, who set up his own political organization, the Internet Party, and reached an alliance agreement with Mana, stealing much of the media columns devoted to this election, particularly in the international press (see the Guardian on “Kim Dotcom: from playboy entrepreneur to political firebrand”). It is possible that the Internet Party was simply intended as a vehicle for Dotcom to position himself against extradition to the United States on charges of internet piracy, but there is a clear ideology behind the new organization. Dotcom hosted the meeting at which Greenwald and Snowden made their revelations – Snowden by video link from Moscow, joined by Julian Assange of Wikileaks from the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The Internet Party seeks to capitalize on popular revulsion against state surveillance and the collaboration of the New Zealand government with other imperialist powers. The internet is presented as the all-encompassing counterbalance to this, which is fundamentally an individualist libertarian view that does nothing to challenge capitalism. Among liberal fragments of the bourgeoisie there is a real constituency for such a political vehicle.
One of Dotcom's most cunning moves was the appointment as Internet Party leader of Laila Harré, an experienced operator in cross-class coalitions. Harré represented the Alliance (a conglomeration of New Labour, Social Credit, Māori, green and liberal ex-National organizations) in parliament from 1996 to 2002, where she built a reputation as a leftist on issues of wages, parental leave and foreign policy, gained significant ministerial experience, and led the Alliance in its dying days in the legislature. Since then she has worked for trade unions, the Auckland Transition Agency, the ILO in Fiji and the Green Party. Her human resources responsibilities while with the Auckland Transition Agency, which facilitated the merger of the local bodies into a new Auckland “super-city” in 2009, included smoothing the way for mass firings. This raised considerable discussion on the left, not least by her current Mana running-mate, John Minto, who at the time described the appointment as “a big win for business.”
IBT comrades in New Zealand have been arguing, against the prevailing view on the left, that for Mana to sell its soul to Kim Dotcom is not cunning tactics or good fortune, but a serious mistake (see “Kim Dotcom’s ‘Mana’ from heaven: Class collaboration in the New Zealand election”). Alliances between a party of the oppressed and a party representing a section, however small, of the liberal bourgeoisie have been a repeating theme of history throughout the imperialist epoch, most clearly exemplified in the period of the popular fronts of the 1930s. Such alliances seem to offer better breakfasts and opportunity and justice and hope. Precisely because of their money and their bourgeois status they seem “realistic.” But the “hope” and “realism” they offer are deeply rooted in a hopeless system, and they have their price – the suppression of the fight for a better world.
The left is besotted with Internet–Mana. The International Socialist Organisation (ISO), which comes out of the tradition of Tony Cliff, is divided on the question, but the majority claim that “The appointment of Laila Harré as Internet Party leader makes the Internet–Mana alliance a clear left vote.” (“Should socialists support the Internet–Mana alliance?”, 18 June 2014). Fightback, an unstable formation which has never managed to clarify a consistent set of politics, says “the best option for bringing about a meaningful change is a party vote for Internet MANA” (“National and its right wing friends”, Fightback, issue 6, 2014).
These are clearly not organizations that seek to use elections as an opportunity to fight for class consciousness, or to present a vision of a socialist world. Both have been seduced by the charms of class collaboration. They believe in the fantasy of people such as Harawira, Harré, Sykes and Minto making society better through parliament.
A vote for Internet–Mana is not a vote for socialism, or even a rough approximation of what is needed. Alliances with bourgeois parties may be very, very popular, but they are the most important single obstacle to the struggle for socialist politics. Socialists should lead by example and condemn them because only complete rejection of alliances such as Internet–Mana can put socialism on the agenda.
Mana and its “socialist” apologists are not qualitatively better than Tama Iti, standing as a candidate for the Māori party, still within the National-led government coalition. Tama Iti is the candidate in this election with the most left-wing, militant and honorable personal history – a former member of the Communist Party, who spent nine months in jail as recently as 2012-13 on the allegation that he was trying to lead a guerrilla war against the New Zealand state. He seems to sincerely believe in socialism, but he’s not in a position to do anything about it – presumably he hopes merely to push the Māori Party and the National Party a little to the left. At least he seems conscious that in doing this he surrenders the possibility of a political struggle for socialism. His role is no worse, and at least less deluded, than that of the ISO and Fightback.
New Zealand, as a developed English-speaking society with a small population, reflects (and at times prefigures) the political issues and developments in Britain and North America in distorted and sometimes interesting ways. The surveillance revelations illustrate the thousands of threads linking the international ruling classes despite New Zealand's isolation in the Pacific. Parties professing internet freedom as the way forward for humanity exist elsewhere, as does proven bourgeois corruption. Alliances forged between small working-class organizations and bourgeois flotsam and jetsam in an attempt to gain more votes are also not unusual. The combination of the three in the microcosm of this election provides an intriguing illustration of the need to destroy capitalism at its source, and the necessity of an international revolutionary party championing the independent political action of the working class in order to do so.