On 20 September, New Zealand re-elected prime minister John Key to a third term in office, and gave his centre-right party enough votes to govern alone, which is virtually unheard of in a proportional representation system like ours. The main reason for his success is simply that the National party is currently doing a good job of governing the country – basically, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, the left took a big hit no-one expected, and in my opinion, a part of that is because the entire left became associated in people’s minds with Kim Dotcom. Kim Dotcom came out on election night and stated he took responsibility for the Internet Mana party’s election loss because “… the Kim Dotcom brand was poisoned”. By using the word “poisoned” instead of “poison” he was actually abrogating responsibility and blaming others. It was Dotcom himself who poisoned his brand in New Zealand politics, and several politicians have lost their jobs and had their careers all but destroyed because of him.
When Kim Dotcom first came to New Zealand, most people gave him the benefit of the doubt; whatever else New Zealanders are, we are fair. But he’s been here a while now and has failed to make the case that the FBI’s allegations are unfounded. He kept protesting his innocence, but refused to stand up in court. When the FBI case was finally revealed in May, it became clear why not. Their case is strong and it’s obvious that Dotcom was fighting to keep it suppressed because it would damage his reputation. It also made the accusation that he’s trying to get a foothold in parliament to try and influence his extradition case more likely. (Read an article about the FBI’s case here.)
Kim Dotcom failed to read New Zealand politics too. He stated his ambition early on – to get rid of prime minister John Key, seemingly for the fault of not being suitably impressed with his (Dotcom’s) magnificence. His tactics were never the sort that were going to work in New Zealand, and it’s not as if he wasn’t warned. Russell Norman, co-leader of the Green party, rocked up to Dotcom’s Coatesville mansion early on and advised him his tactics were likely to work against the left. It seems his advice was ignored.
One of those failed tactics was setting up his own political party. At the very least, this approach was likely to divide the vote on the left. People who would be likely to vote for his party, the Internet party, were people who were unlikely to vote for John Key or the National party anyway. Therefore, the Internet party would only take votes from the established parties on the left – Labour, NZ First and the Greens. By ignoring this fact, Dotcom proved his political motives were entirely selfish, which to New Zealanders is political poison.
Secondly, he built the party from the top down, relying almost entirely on his own brand, personality and money to attract voters. Early on this worked, but was never sustainable. His brand was attractive only as long as his lawyers could keep the suppression order on the FBI’s case against him. Once that saw the light of day, people saw a different side to Mr Dotcom. He possibly thought it wouldn’t make a big difference, but he didn’t realize that most New Zealanders are actually fairly engaged in current events, and know what’s going on. Even worse was the money angle. Any suggestion that someone is trying to buy an election in New Zealand is toxic. He was effectively the only donor of the Internet party, and that was always going to lose votes.
So far, his tactics were only really going to affect himself and his supporters. He would get a few votes, but not enough to get into parliament or have a major effect on other political parties. However, if he was ever going to get what he wanted, he needed that voice in parliament, and he recognized this was out of his reach. Under New Zealand’s MMP voting system, a party needs at least one electorate MP or five percent of the overall vote to get into parliament. His party leader, Laila Hare, was not popular enough to become an electorate MP, and all polls showed him five percent of the vote was out of his reach.
This is when Mr Dotcom came up with the idea of merging with the Mana party for tactical reasons. Its leader, Hone Harawira, was extremely popular in his electorate but very short on money. An alliance between the two parties was formed and Mr Harawira obtained some much needed funding for his party’s campaign. However, in a shock upset, Hone Harawira was not re-elected in the Maori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau. I suspect he recognized the danger of hooking up with the Internet party, but thought his personal mana would carry him through. He clearly failed to recognize the depth of the antipathy New Zealanders in general, and probably Maori more than most, feel towards someone they consider is trying to buy an election. In my opinion, Hone Harawira is a big loss to New Zealand politics. He was destroyed by Kim Dotcom; I have no doubt he would still be in parliament if he hadn’t formed a partnership with the Internet party.
Laila Hare, leader of the Internet party, a great advocate for the left in her own right, seems to have been personally persuaded by Dotcom. While she was saying “some of us can see the [vilification of Dotcom] for what it is”, the rest of us are wondering how a woman of her intelligence got sucked in by him. For example, Dotcom is trying to persuade us that the reason he is not revealing e-mails between prime minister John Key and Warner’s studio executives is because of “legal advice”. Most of us are thinking that the legal advice was probably “stop trying to convince New Zealanders that a fake e-mail is real – you’re in enough trouble already”.
The next error Dotcom made was his foray into negative politics. This is extremely unpopular in New Zealand, and, unlike most countries, is punished at the ballot box. Kim Dotcom’s activities, such as the rally where he got the crowd chanting “fuck John Key”, simply energized the National party’s supporters to get out and vote. One couple I spoke to on election day lived an hour away from the nearest polling station. They’d tried to vote the day before, but had arrived after the polling station had closed. Not daunted, they came back the next day to ensure their vote was registered. I sit in admiration of their determination to make their voices heard.
Dotcom’s “Big Reveal” was what managed to tarnish the whole left. For months he’d been insisting he had documentation that would destroy John Key, but wouldn’t tell anyone until five days before the election. That just pissed everyone off for a start. The response of the average New Zealander was that if he really did have something, he’d tell us now. When the day came, the media didn’t really have a choice but to turn up. And. Nothing. The aforementioned fake e-mail.
He also had Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden telling us New Zealanders were the subject of mass surveillance by the GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau – New Zealand’s spy agency). Trouble was, prime minister John Key had documentation that proved that wasn’t the case and any surveillance was done with a legally obtained warrant. The left couldn’t help but come out and comment on the situation. David Cunliffe, leader of the Labour party made a statement that just made him look a bit foolish. The Greens co-leaders, Metiria Turei and Russell Norman bought into it. They stated among other things that they were going to review the Five Eyes agreement and close the Waihopai spy base. It didn’t help that the next day in Sydney, a two hour flight away, the biggest counter-terrorism operation in Australia’s history saw the arrest of multiple Islamic terrorists who planned to behead random Australians. And how were they caught? Their phone calls were listened to. Legally.
So the Labour party got their worst election result for more than ninety years and their leader, David Cunliffe (until they elect a new one in a few weeks), who thought this week would see him as the new prime minister will be lucky to retain a seat on the front benches. And the Greens, gunning for fifteen percent of the vote, are going to have to be satisfied with ten. Both parties have lost talented MPs, are once again in opposition, and looking likely to stay there for some time. They have to take a good hard look at themselves if they want to succeed in the future – currently neither is resonating with New Zealanders, and there are multiple reasons for that. But things wouldn’t be looking quite so bad without the poisonous brand of Kim Dotcom. As John Key said the day after the election, “I think he should go away and go through the proper court processes that anyone else should…”. I agree.