The tirade of insults, invective and scorn directed at
Nicky Hager must rank as one of the most sustained efforts by
National to destroy an individual's credibility since the
party's political witch trials of the Muldoon era.
National threw everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink at
the author, researcher and long-time activist in the wake of
last Wednesday's publication of his latest book, Dirty
Mr Hager is uncompromising in his principles and never shies
away from a fight - as evidenced by one of his earlier works,
Seeds of Distrust, which broadsided Helen Clark in the
This election has seen him move up a gear.
His book exposes a National Party dirty-tricks operations run
by the blogger Whale Oil, aka Cameron Slater, working in
conjunction with Jason Ede, who was until earlier this year
listed as one of John Key's senior advisers in the Prime
Minister's Office, but is who is now working fulltime at
National Party headquarters in downtown Wellington.
Labour - then the ruling party - saw its poll rating shed a
couple of percentage points in 2002, following the Corngate
affair prompted by Seeds of Distrust. But Labour's
rating had already been trending downwards.
The highly political nature of the latest book's subject
matter and the provocative timing of its launch meant Mr
Hager would get one shot - and one shot only - at getting
some of the book's content in front of the media before
National started running serious interference.
He did not make copies available to journalists until
half-an-hour before that evening's television news bulletins
went to air. The tactic worked.
National was stunned. What National got was The Hollow
What John Key got was Nightmare in Epsom transformed into a
political horror movie potentially exponentially worse than
2011's Teapot Tapes Saga.
That episode haunted Mr Key for months after the last
Mr Hager's book will be having the same debilitating impact.
But that is all National's fault.
For years, the party hierarchy have turned a blind eye to an
overenthusiastic band of little helpers whose activities were
questionable to say the least, but which were more than
tolerated because of their track record of making life
miserable for some of National's opponents.
Initially flummoxed by the sheer volume of incriminating
material within the book's 166 pages, National struck back on
Thursday morning with a sustained barrage of character
assassination, thereby confirming the very point the book was
Mr Key lambasted the book as being ''typical Hager'' and
filled with ''baseless allegations''.
The material had long been in the public domain. Mr Hager was
just reheating it.
Mr Key claimed it was no coincidence that the book's launch
had followed the burning of an effigy of himself, the ''f ***
John Key'' video, the description of Mr Key as ''Shylock'' by
a Labour candidate and the widespread vandalising of
National's election hoardings.
He argued that the left did not want to debate the real
election issues because it could not win the policy argument.
So the left was playing dirty. The public would see right
through that little game.
The accusation that Mr Hager found difficult to bat away was
one of hypocrisy - that having come into the possession of
screeds of emails stolen from Mr Slater, Mr Hager had used
them as the basis for his book. He was the one indulging in
Mr Hager countered that any media presented with such juicy
material would have done exactly the same as he had.
Mr Hager could also argue he was acting in the public
interest and exposing abuse of power.
National's tactic has been to keep the focus on Mr Hager and
persuade people he had hidden motives for writing the book -
rather than being drawn into arguments about its damning
Mr Key's damage-control operation was designed to both defuse
However, the Prime Minister looked and sounded distinctly
uncomfortable when questioned by reporters on Thursday
He conceded nothing and repeatedly answered questions by
saying the book's allegations had ''nothing to do with
When it was pointed out to him that National was clearly
implicated, he made excuses, saying he had not been briefed
on the detail.
If Mr Key's answers sounded glib there was good reason.
The vilification of Mr Hager by Mr Key and Steven Joyce,
National's election campaign supremo and the one designated
to front for National when there is trouble, is a charade.
Their dilemma is that they have to rubbish the book as being
wrong on every score when they know much if not all of it, is
accurate, simply because the contents come straight out of
the mouths of Mr Slater, Mr Ede and other National Party
figures and associates.
Mr Key's and Mr Joyce's deny-everything stances are not
tenable for long.
But if they admit Mr Hager is right about one thing, then
they have to concede he is right about everything.
Mr Hager has the emails. It is of major significance that Mr
Key has not questioned their authenticity.
To do so would risk Mr Hager releasing them and proving Mr
It would keep the story alive when Mr Key and Mr Joyce are
saying and doing the minimum in the hope of denying it
The last thing they want is for it to still be making waves
next weekend when Mr Key officially launches National's
Mr Key, meanwhile, is placing himself at considerable risk.
It only requires someone connected with one of the incidents
in the book to dispute and disprove the Prime Minister's
assertion that it all has ''nothing to do with National'' for
Mr Key to be in serious trouble credibility-wise.
Were the book's content being drip-fed day-after-day,
momentum might have built among the voting public for a major
inquiry or some heads to roll.
As things currently stand, they are in the balance.
But Mr Ede might yet have take one for the team and resign,
as evidence that National has cleaned out its Augean stables.
• John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political