The Jami-Lee Ross saga prompted many to draw parallels with Dirty Politics, the 2014 exposé of attack politics and tactics emanating from the then prime minister’s office. The author of the book argued in the Spinoff that it is a stark reminder that our politics remain at risk from the poison of dirty politics.
This was first published October 25 2018
The Jami-Lee Ross-Simon Bridges spectacle last week will, sadly, confirm some people’s opinion that they don’t like politicians and politics. I’ve talked to those who are thinking exactly that. But the problem isn’t most politicians and politics, which we rely on to have a democratic country. Last week’s spectacle was about a particular, reckless type of politics executed by people who don’t give a damn if their short-term tactics cause long-term harm for the rest of us.
There was some good media coverage of the Jami-Lee Ross attacks and meltdown, and also some poor coverage. The poor coverage tended to personalise it to Jami-Lee Ross, saying he is just an awful person. The better coverage analysed the bigger issues at play, in particular the ongoing influence of Dirty Politics exponents Simon Lusk and Cameron Slater on Ross, and the influence more widely of this kind of attack politics in the National Party. But the thing missing from almost all coverage was the question of motives: why was this happening and who stood to gain?
The book Dirty Politics is not about awful people; it is about a negative and destructive style of attack politics that has infected New Zealand from US politics. This is the idea that success in politics is achieved by attacking, smearing and mocking your opponents (“dirty” because the attacks are often untruthful, unscrupulous and covert). It is too easy for attack politics to take over – to start to seem like the only way to do politics – distracting attention and stealing time from real issues and problems facing the country. Thus the book’s sub-title: “How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment.”
The recent controversy was all about this type of dirty politics. It started with a typical attack: leaking embarrassing information about Simon Bridges’ travel spending to a journalist, which was published without revealing the identity and motives of the leaker. This is reminiscent of the way that Cameron Slater used to hand out scoops attacking opposition politicians to willing journalists (the scoops often having been quietly prepared in John Key’s office).
Journalists of course need to find stories. There is constant pressure to produce scoops. But I believe media should not take politically motivated attacks (Slater called them “hits”) from political people and allow their identities and motives to remain hidden from the public. Otherwise the journalists are just being used. In this case the fact that a group of National Party people was trying to destabilise the party leader was actually more important news than a little stir about travel spending.
When Jami-Lee Ross was later caught out as being the likely leaker, he set about trying to hurt Bridges’ leadership even more, releasing the covertly recorded phone conversation. We should notice that Bridges spoke of using the controversial $100,000 donation for attack advertising – not for explaining his vision for how to make a better country – showing that he too is caught in the mentality of attack politics. But, most important, when Ross was still trying to harm Bridges, even as his own political career was ending, what was going on?
A bit of context helps. The book Dirty Politics shows that Jami-Lee Ross won the candidacy of the Botany electorate and entered national politics primarily with the aid of the Dirty Politics pair Slater and Lusk. Besides advising him, they used personal attacks to smear the other National Party hopefuls for that electorate and thus cleared the way for Ross. It was they who made him MP for Botany. News stories revealed that these same two were supporting (and presumably encouraging) Ross in last week’s attacks on the party leader. Ross shows all the signs of being an apprentice of their destructive type of politics.
Back when Slater was attacking one of the other National Party hopefuls for the Botany electorate (Aaron Bhatnagar) to help Ross, Slater’s favourite cabinet minister Judith Collins wrote privately congratulating him on the “utu post”. She said: “Loved the utu post…. Frankly I wd be out for total destruction of Aaron if I was JLR [Jami-Lee Ross]. But then again I’ve learnt that to give is better than to receive.”
Total destruction is clearly what JLR was out for last week. It is the mentality of the Judith Collins faction of the National Party. Back in 2011, Slater passed on Collins’ message to Lusk, who replied: “That’s why I am keen to have her as leader, our side will learn to fight properly.” Slater added: “And fight hard”.
I think this is still true. I think that the attacks on Bridges, aided by Lusk and Slater, are about making Collins the leader of the National Party. She was uncharacteristically quiet during the last week of destabilisation of Bridges. Collins has repeatedly said she has had nothing to do with Ross’s behaviour. But she is very keen on becoming leader. If she becomes leader in the coming months, based in part on the crisis brewed in recent weeks, it will be a victory for dirty politics.
Jami-Lee Ross appears to have been brought down by this style of politics and at the same time he has seriously hurt other people and helped the terrible cause of turning more ordinary people off politics. The hurting other people part is particularly about his treatment of women.
When I was researching Dirty Politics this wasn’t the main focus, but it was appalling the way some of those involved spoke to each other about women. I didn’t include most of it in the book because I imagined the effect on the people’s families.
But last week’s revelations about Jami-Lee Ross bring it all back. Another young protégé of Slater and Lusk, Jordan Williams, now of the “Taxpayers Union”, had no problem getting information for Slater from a woman he was sleeping with. In chat logs leaked to me by the hacker Rawshark he is revealed offering to get information off her to help Slater “doing god’s work against the unions and Helen Kelly”. Willliams wrote of the source of the information: “She’ll no doubt want to root me tomorrow. I’ll have to take one for the team to get the details out of her.”
Slater also worked with a man named Luigi Wewege who engineered a relationship with the woman who’d had an affair with Auckland mayor Len Brown in order to get hugely intimate information and bring down Mayor Len Brown (the whole grubby story was uncovered by the New Zealand Herald and is told in Dirty Politics). The women were used then tossed. Last week we heard it was the same with Jami-Lee Ross. A woman told Newsroom she believed he had “groomed her” to find information about National Party members and she felt used when she realised their relationship was a way to “dig dirt”.
There’s a sick pattern here, made worse when we learn that complaints to the National Party president did not result in support. This is not being moralistic about people sleeping around. It is about an insidious culture of exploiting people to gain political power.
A couple of other issues are worth thinking seriously about after the last bewildering week. First, New Zealand politics badly needs some people willing to address the issue of growing Chinese Government influence in New Zealand. This isn’t about being racist or picking on China (there is a superpower on the other side of the Pacific that can undermine our sovereignty as well). But right now the allure of Chinese business ties and Chinese political donations is undermining an independent New Zealand. We need leaders willing to address this before it grows into a more serious problem.
The other issue brought to prominence last week is secret election donations. Currently most of the money used to fight and try to win elections in New Zealand comes from secret donors. Some parties get far more money to fight elections from these secret donations than others. This is a crazy state of affairs, inviting a form of low-level corruption. Given current concerns about foreign political influence, secret political donations are also a national security issue. Secret things are always hard to address. But Jami-Lee Ross’ allegation about a secret $100,000 donation to National should help to persuade the government to clean up the election donation laws.
Overall, it’s vital that the last week of politics is not dismissed as a bit of political madness. Instead, it is a reminder that our politics are still at risk from the poison of dirty politics. We need to think about where the battle lines are – the difference between constructive and dirty politics – and each decide what side we are on.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.