by Bill Rosenberg
REVIEW: Dirty Politics
Craig Potton Publishing 2014
Nicky Hager’s explosive new book has many levels. They include political intrigue – “how terrible some human beings can be” (referring to Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, Jordan Williams, Simon Lusk et al) as Andrew Geddis graphically describes in his Cri du Cœur; the “two-track” strategy of Mr Nice Guy out front and the ‘plausibly deniable’ personal attack politics out the back; and deliberate tactics to disgust the public sufficiently to put them off voting.
But an essential strand is something right at the heart of science: the importance of evidence. Again it is at a number of levels. The current furious reaction is the most obvious. As one journalist described it, “John Key dismissed Hager, a respected and experienced investigative journalist, as a ‘Left-wing conspiracy theorist’ before he’d even picked up the book”. Another, normally conservative journalist, described this as a “tirade of insults, invective and scorn directed at Nicky Hager [which] must rank as one of the most sustained efforts by National to destroy an individual’s credibility since the party’s political witch trials of the Muldoon era”. He noted that Key (and Stephen Joyce in similar style) had repeatedly described the book as being “filled with ‘baseless allegations’ … when they know much if not all of it, is accurate, simply because the contents come straight out of the mouths of Slater, Ede and other National Party figures and associates”.
This public fury is not a dispute as to the evidence but a refusal to admit that evidence exists. If they admitted it existed, then their job would be to bring evidence to refute it. The fact that they don’t, suggests that falsifying evidence does not exist. Even that word “refute” – “prove (a statement or theory) to be wrong or false; disprove” – is being debased to mean just “vehemently deny”.
But there is a deeper attack on the use of evidence revealed in the book. Chapter 7, Cash for Comment, is about how one of the most important sources of ongoing funding for Slater and his Whale Oil blog is from the tobacco, alcohol and retail industries, including attacks on campaigners against obesity. They pay Slater publish pieces they have written as if he had written them himself. They are written in a similar style to him – deeply offensive, vitriolic personal attacks. Two of the funders are Katherine Rich for the Food and Grocery Council (and a former Cabinet Minister), and Carrick Graham, son of former Cabinet Minister Doug Graham, a former British American Tobacco employee now with his own company which acts on behalf of the tobacco industry among others.
An example is an attack on Prof Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre, for speaking out on the heavy drinking culture in New Zealand and ‘excessive alcohol marketing’. One written by Graham but posted over Slater’s name began: “If there was ever a case of demonstrating once and for all that Professor Doug Sellman is mad, this article ‘Drunks steal sanitiser for alcohol’ proves it … any ounce of credibility that this guy once had has long-since evaporated.” It gets much worse, as do the comments that Graham then posted under other pseudonyms, commenting on his own posts. These paid-for personalised attacks are aimed not only at the person but at evidence-based policy making itself.
Chapter 8, Chaos and Mayhem Ltd (Slater and his associates’ own name for their activities) continues some of the themes of Chapter 7, but includes the Ports of Auckland industrial dispute, including the leaks from within Ports of Auckland Ltd and their relationship with Slater, and the campaign against the organisation Building Services Contractors of New Zealand. The BSC worked with unions to ensure government contracts gave low-paid cleaning workers decent conditions. The Government recently stopped this arrangement, leaving cleaning companies free to force down conditions. The campaign on the Whale Oil site was a personalised attack against the BSC’s national president, Patrick Lee-Lo and on the organisation itself in order to soften it up for the coming attack on the government contracting arrangement. It was almost certainly financed by Grant McLauchlan of Crest Commercial Cleaning, according to Hager. This is the same company that campaigned to repeal s.6A of the Employment Relations Act which also protects cleaning workers and other vulnerable workers from the worst effects of the frequent changes in cleaning contracts in the industry. Again, says Hager, Graham wrote posts for Slater to pass off as Slater’s own, and both Graham and McLauchlan then weighed in writing even more abusive comments in support of the posts Graham had given Slater.
On health, there is further material on opposing anti-obesity campaigns, and an offer from a US spin-doctoring firm to pay someone to put their name to an opinion piece it would write opposing tobacco being excluded from protection by the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) currently under negotiation. Excluding tobacco would mean tobacco companies could not sue governments over their anti-tobacco campaigns as Philip Morris is currently doing against Australia.
These are concerted attacks on the use of evidence in matters of public importance. There is much more in this important book, which is short (138 pages plus notes and index), well written and available in both printed and electronic form. If you want to understand how policy making and politics are increasingly conducted in New Zealand, you should read it – and then work to reclaim decency and respect for evidence.
Dr Bill Rosenberg is Director of Policy and Chief Economist, at the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions and has published widely on globalisation, trade and learning. He was previously Deputy Director, University Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Canterbury, a Member of the Institute of Directors, a Commissioner on TEC, and was a member of the Regional Land Transport Committee of Environment Canterbury.