Earlier this week, the rapper Eminem sued New Zealand’s ruling National Party for breach of copyright. That’s not even in the top 10 strange things that has happened in this election campaign.
It was supposed to be a sedate affair, a fait accompli and all the other cliches. John Key’s National Party had a crushing 20-point lead over Labour, and while less stocked with the potential coalition partners required by our proportional system, it was regularly polling at levels that would enable it to govern alone. Labour, by contrast, was dogged by manufactured scandals, chronic incompetence and the most fractious caucus this side of Rudd-Gillard.
It’s hard to explain the mystery of Key’s enduring appeal. The former global head of foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch has struck a unique chord with his character as the hyper-competent goof — a cross between George W. Bush and the winner of Bank Manager of the Month. Politically, he overcame his instinct to respond to the global financial crisis by enacting an aggressive austerity program, steering a course just right of centre that paralysed his opposition.
But there was a dark side to his “reassure and charm” approach. And no, it wasn’t the counsel he kept with Crosby Textor.
Our Watergate appeared out of nowhere two weeks into the campaign, already packaged in book form: the work of investigative journalist Nicky Hager, Dirty Politics. It details how the Prime Minister ran through one of his top advisers an attack machine against opposition politicians and anyone who stood in the way of the government. The attacks were carried out through a blog run by the son of the party president who recruited Key, and operated through vicious smear campaigns — up to and including the issuing of death threats against public servants suspected of leaking information — and the systematic manipulation of friendly elements of the media.
“We vote tomorrow, and the polls are exactly where they were eight weeks ago.”
Shocking for some but not so much for others who were familiar with the blogger’s work, the story was full of the kind of sordid detail — contained in thousands of hacked emails and Facebook messages — that would keep it running for months. In a particularly revolting exchange with a National Party figure, the blogger referred to the majority Labour-voting survivors of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake as “scum who should get nothing”.
What might have saved Key for now is that, implicated as he was, Justice Minister Judith “Crusher” Collins was in far deeper, and didn’t have the good sense of running her own attacks through a middleman. Eventually, she had to resign over allegations she used the attack machine to take down the head of the Serious Fraud Office.
Just as the scandal was stalled by Collins’ sacrifice and a successful legal bid to stop the hacker who had passed the information on to Hager from making further leaks, it was Kim Dotcom’s turn to stage his long-awaited Moment of Truth. This was an event months in the making, one that the German-born internet mogul now indicted by the FBI swore would expose a conspiracy against him and destroy the Prime Minister.
It wasn’t your average election stunt: Dotcom called in Glenn Greenwald and beamed in, over an encrypted live feed, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for a live event at the Auckland Town Hall to a worldwide audience of tens of thousands. They spoke of New Zealand’s role within the Five Eyes alliance. They alleged in unison that Key lied when he repeatedly reassured us that our spies weren’t spying on us. The Prime Minister first parried, calling Greenwald a “loser”, then gradually conceded there may be some truth in the allegations. Little doubt was left that we get friendly nations to spy on us and do them the same service.
This was the last week of the campaign. But the strangest thing is that none of this seems to have mattered. We vote tomorrow, and the polls are exactly where they were eight weeks ago. John Key seems poised to win — his 20-point lead over the next largest party almost inexplicably intact. It’s early to say what it might mean for the nation if he does. We hold our breath.