Over the last few weeks evidence has seeped out that Britain's Labour Party had started a Dirty Tricks Department within ministerial offices to smear political opponents. Gordon Brown's most trusted spin doctor, Damian McBride, has been forced to resign because of the part he played in putting together a series of smears on a website against the Conservatives' leader, David Cameron, and the Tories' Finance spokesman. Today comes the news that Brown has asked the head of Britain's civil service to tighten up a code of conduct governing ministerial advisers whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer. Brown says that they should sign a contract acknowledging that if caught "disseminating inappropriate material they will automatically lose their jobs".
It's high time we had such a system in place in New Zealand. Those with memories might recall the parade of dirty tricks used by the beleaguered Labour Party prior to the last election to smear their opponents. First there was the hacking into Don Brash's computer and the stealing of a selection of emails that found their way to the egregious Nicky Hager. He spun a tissue of fabrications worthy of the Holocaust denier, David Irving. Labour's leaders had a very good idea about who was the culprit, but they sat back and smiled while calumny was heaped on the opposition leader, and Hager made money from the book he published based on stolen goods. For myself, I have always believed that someone inside the Beehive was responsible for stealing those emails in the first place. The Police's investigation was scandalously conducted and found nothing. Then there was the establishment of a blog called The Standard. The Labour Party ran a weekly newspaper from 1934 to 1959 that published political material. It was subject to the normal journalistic standards of the time. But the new blog version made no pretence at following even the reduced journalistic standards of modern times. Registered to an address in Helen Clark's electorate, and operating out of the Beehive under ministerial supervision, it gave an airing to innuendo and false stories that ministers hoped might get picked up by the mainstream media. They often did. Indeed, several gullible reporters happily took their leads from the Beehive's dirty tricks brigade. I saw an email sent by Ruth Dyson that had clearly been prepared by her apparatchiks. It denounced me, and urged her mailing list to protest to a newspaper that was running my columns. I'm told that the apparatchiks watched the news, made it their business to pick up material, true or false, and fed lines to people like Brian Rudman of the Herald. The same dirty tricksters fabricated a story about John Key that had Mike Williams rushing to Melbourne to check records, only to return empty handed, and red-faced, just before the election.
The significance of all this is that New Zealand's Labour dirty tricksters were all on the public payroll. They operated mostly from the Prime Minister's Office where Helen Clark appeared to operate a kind of training school for younger versions of herself: people with degrees and absolutely no experience of life. Graduates of student politics, they regarded possession of the reins of power as some form of divine right. Mostly in their 20s, they were designated "advisers to the Prime Minister". Since they had little general knowledge, and consequently nothing to advise with, they were paid good money, and put to work on dirty tricks. Several are now on Labour's backbenches, where they are still being supported by the taxpayer. The Standard still exists, but it has been hollowed out by the end of the Beehive's funding. It would be interesting to know whether, in its current withered state, it is being funded from Phil Goff's office.
It's a fair guess that if Gordon Brown's proposed code of conduct had been operating, and there had been a robust media in New Zealand, the dirty tricksters of the last three or four years would not have had such fun with taxpayers' money.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the current National-led government won't eventually resort to such tricks. After all, Robert Muldoon had a dirty tricks department before he came to office in 1975, although it wasn't on the public payroll. It is time for the Prime Minister to ask the Chair of the State Services Commission to implement a similar system to what will now operate in London. We cannot rely on our supine media to flush out any party's dirty tricks, especially Labour's.