'House of Cards' in the South Pacific: New Zealand's dirty election campaign

The scandal engulfing New Zealand PM John Key's (L) government has delighted tech entrepreneur Kim Dotcom (C) and was triggered by journalist Nicky Hager (R).

Story highlights

  • A political scandal has engulfed New Zealand politics ahead of elections this month
  • It was sparked when a journalist published the hacked emails of a blogger
  • He says the emails show a strategy by the government to smear political opponents
  • A senior minister has resigned, yet the government still leads in polls
New Zealand politics, concedes Bryce Edwards, one of the country's leading commentators on the subject, "can tend to be on the bland side compared with other countries."
And at the start of last month, New Zealand's impending September 20 general election looked set to be just that: a tame affair, with an all but foregone conclusion.
The center-right National government, led by perennially popular Prime Minister John Key, enjoyed a huge lead in the polls and seemed destined to amble its way to a third term in power.
But then a bombshell struck in the form of a book-length piece of investigative journalism, triggering a cascade of scandals that have thrown the political parties' campaigns into disarray and dominated the news cycle for weeks.
"No campaign in living memory compares to the 2014 campaign," said Edwards, a lecturer in politics at the University of Otago.
"New Zealand election campaigns are usually fought over a mixture of policy and personalities," he told CNN, "not over issues of integrity and corruption and wrongdoing."
'Dirty politics'
Last month, long-time freelance investigative journalist Nicky Hager published "Dirty Politics." The book is based on a cache of emails and social media messages hacked from the private accounts of the controversial right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, whose "Whale Oil" blog is widely read.
Slater, a polarizing and politically well-connected figure whose father is a former National Party president, is notorious for his abrasive style and for breaking a string of scandals, including an extramarital affair by the mayor of Auckland last year. The mayor subsequently acknowledged the affair.
Hager's book alleges close and sustained cooperation between the blogger and senior government figures -- including a senior minister and top prime ministerial aides -- in their concerted efforts to smear political adversaries.
The extent of the alleged collaboration suggested in the hacked emails surprised even the book's author, he told CNN.
"This was prime ministerial staff involved in coordinating and executing attacks on the government's political opponents," said Hager. "It was much more orchestrated and constant -- relentless -- than anyone had been aware."
Minister toppled
In the book's wake, a senior National lawmaker, Judith Collins -- who admits to a close friendship with Slater -- has resigned as justice minister over leaked emails suggesting she was involved in a campaign to undermine the head of the government's Serious Fraud Office.
Collins would not comment to CNN, but has previously told reporters she is innocent of the allegations against her, and is confident she will be exonerated by an independent government inquiry into the issue, one of two official investigations launched to probe matters raised by the leaks.
The other investigation will be conducted by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security -- the watchdog for the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), a national intelligence agency -- into allegations that secret information had been declassified and passed to Slater for political purposes.
The scandal has put the prime minister's relationship with the blogger under close scrutiny. Key has told reporters that he talks to Slater three or four times a year, and occasionally sends the blogger a text message when he doesn't understand a story he has written.
Key would not comment to CNN on his relationship with Slater or the allegations made by Hager, other than to say in a statement through his spokesman that "it was a left-wing conspiracy based on stolen emails and cynically timed to derail the government's election campaign."
Nicky Hager, the freelance journalist whose book has triggered the scandal.
He has previously denied to the Otago Daily Times newspaper that he had involvement in any of the allegations in the book, and told reporters that Slater's actions were solely his own.
Meanwhile the hacker behind the leaks, who goes by the name "Rawshark," continued to anonymously dump hacked correspondence online, unearthing fresh dimensions to the scandal, until Slater obtained a High Court order banning him from further releases of his correspondence.
"Rawshark," tweeting with the handle "WhaleDump2," signed off with a warning to practitioners of dirty politics, "present and future: Don't make me come out of retirement."
House of cards?
The deepening layers of intrigue have led some commentators to liken the situation to a South Pacific "House of Cards," a comparison the man at the center of the scandal is familiar with.
"All of a sudden I'm supposed to be some sort of Frank Underwood-style person who's the center of a massive conspiracy," Slater told CNN, referring to the scheming politician at the heart of the hit U.S. show.
He claims the only conspiracy revealed by the scandal is the one against the government, which saw his emails illegally hacked in order to present "a picture that is not fair and balanced."
"I think people can see it for what it is... an attempt to pervert our elections and bring down our government using criminal means," he said.
He said he had filed a police complaint about the stolen emails, and a Privacy Commission complaint against Hager.
Hager's book, he argued, was "not a journalistic effort" as it had presented a biased picture -- omitting Slater's dealings with figures on the political left, and not allowing Slater or others the right of reply before publication.
Hager told CNN he did not offer Slater and others named in the book a right of reply, as to do so would have presumably led to injunctions that would have prevented the publication of information in the public interest. He felt the emails presented concrete evidence that could not simply be explained away, he said.
Dotcom's 'bombshell'
Slater also alleges that the wealthy German tech entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who has emerged as a political player of consequence at this election, was involved in the hacking of his accounts.
Dotcom, who was granted New Zealand residency in 2010 and is fighting extradition to the U.S. on criminal charges, strenuously denies the allegation.
"I have nothing to do with Hager's book. I have not hacked Slater. I haven't hired anybody to hack Slater. I don't know who hacked Slater," he told CNN.