WHAT A CURIOUS INVERSION of the conventional political playbook. A conservative prime minister defending the rights of the news media. The same Green Party that barred media representatives from just about every session of its annual general meeting championing a journalist damsel in distress. The leader of a populist party which owes its very existence to the successful exploitation of leaks exposing scandals, demanding the head of a political rival for (allegedly) leaking information and exposing a scandal. And, not to be outdone, a Labour Party hell-bent on making public the private communications between a journalist and her source.
If there’s a common principle linking these actions, then it’s extremely well hidden!
In yesterday’s snap parliamentary debate on Peter Dunne’s resignation, Greens co-leader Metiria Turei made a special point of displaying her sororial solidarity with Press Gallery journalist, Andrea Vance. At best, this was diversionary. Ms Vance, a veteran of the Murdoch press, has almost certainly been in tighter spots, and with the full backing of her Fairfax editors has no need of additional champions. The journalist’s situation did, however, afford Ms Turei the opportunity of talking about something other than John Key’s need to keep the disgraced Mr Dunne inside an “unstable” and “unethical” government which “relies on the votes of disgraced men”.
Progressive voters tuning in to the debate would probably have preferred the Greens’ co-leader to re-focus Parliament’s attention on the document Mr Dunne is accused of leaking: the Kitteridge Report. They might also have expected her to indicate what a Green Party would have done if supplied with a report revealing more than 80 instances of illegal surveillance of New Zealand citizens.
If the Greens had a representative on the Security and Intelligence Committee , and he or she had been made aware of such violations, what would the party expect that person to do? Make contact with a trusted journalist? Leak the report before the Government contrived a way of spinning its contents to safety? Or, would it expect its representative to keep the report confidential – thereby demonstrating the Greens’ reliability, and confirming their suitability for a seat at the Cabinet Table?
What’s that? The Greens did have a representative on the Security and Intelligence Committee? Russel Norman? Oh, well, I guess we already know which choice the Greens would make – don’t we?
Labour’s performance was equally demoralising. Listening to David Shearer’s opening speech, it soon became clear that he had requested the snap debate not for the purposes of elucidation, but solely for the purposes of persecution. Peter Dunne’s career is in tatters and his reputation is shot, but that is not enough for the Labour Party. Apparently, the party of the workers will not be content until Mr Dunne, like the traitors of old, is subjected to a prolonged, painful and very public execution.
“The public deserves answers, and this House should be left in no doubt that this is an issue that is as serious as it gets. It involves one of the Government’s support parties and one of John Key’s most senior and trusted members. The report was considered so sensitive that it was held in a highly restricted electronic system within the Government Communications Security Bureau. No electronic copies were distributed; just 35 copies of the report were circulated. The report was a matter of our national security—the most sensitive information we have. Two months ago—just 2 months ago—John Key agreed. Two months ago, leaking the report was so serious it demanded an inquiry. Two months ago John Key said that these leaks “undermine the integrity of the entire Public Service.” Two months ago he said that he had a responsibility to get to the bottom of it if he could.”
Perhaps Mr Shearer’s hard-line approach is the long-delayed pay-back for Mr Dunne’s defection from the Labour Party in 1994. Perhaps Helen Clark’s use of the United Future Party’s votes following the 2002 and 2005 general elections was inspired by nothing more than realpolitik. Whatever its inspiration, Labour’s strategy clearly anticipates the complete political destruction of Mr Dunne. The Prime Minister is to be deprived of an ally – and his crucial vote – thereby stalling the Government’s legislative programme until after the by-election Labour clearly intends to precipitate.
This cannot be achieved without revealing to the world the full contents of the e-mails exchanged between Mr Dunne and Ms Vance. That will not be easy. Fairfax Media has warned Parliament’s Privilege Committee that any attempt to subpoena their journalist’s correspondence, or compel her to divulge the identity of her source, will be resisted to the fullest extent of its powers.
If the Privileges Committee proceeds down that path they will be doing exactly what the American humourist, Mark Twain, warned politicians against. “Never pick a fight”, said Twain, “with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
The National Party’s Deputy-Leader, Bill English, could hardly conceal his delight at the prospect of Labour getting involved in such a fight. Responding to Shearer’s speech, the Finance Minister declared:
“Peter Dunne is a member of Parliament. OK. So this is the proposition of the Labour Party to the media now: any journalist who corresponds with any Minister in any Labour Government needs to know that their emails and voice messages will be open to scrutiny by the Prime Minister whenever they feel like it. That is the Labour Party proposition to the media. Well, let us just watch over the next couple of weeks. Those members might shout it in here, but out there they are going to be working very hard to get off that hook, because their relationship with the media is now at stake, and when you are in Opposition you need to be able to communicate with the media. You need to have free flow of information. You do in Government too, actually.”
Mr English’s boss put it more succinctly. Addressing the Press Gallery, The Prime Minister asked: “Do you guys seriously want me going out there foraging through your correspondence with my MPs and my ministers and other ministers and support parties? … I think that’s a step you would ferociously repel and be extremely vocal in your opposition to.”
Mr Key’s grammar is as tortured as ever, but it’s hard to disagree with what he is saying. Which really leads me to wonder what the hell is going on with Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. If Labour and the Greens can’t make a better fist of defending press freedom and the citizens’ right to privacy than the National Party, then some very serious questions need to be asked about their competency.
During World War II soldiers became so used to the Army getting things wrong that they coined the acronym “SNAFU” to describe its routine incompetence. I would hate to think that things were now so bad – particularly in Labour – that the party’s strategy for dealing with Mr Dunne could simply be written off as SNAFU:
Situation Normal – All Fucked Up.