Hack job?
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Should we really care about the “Budget hack” that has been consuming a lot of politicians and political commentators over the last week? Is this really, as John Key used to say about scandals involving his own Government, one of “the things that matter”? 

I made the case yesterday in my column, The Budget ‘hack’ scandal reveals big accountability problems, that there are some vitally important issues at stake involving the integrity of the political system. These boil down to the idea that we need a properly functioning democracy in which manipulation and deception are kept to a minimum, and government departments don’t become the politicised attack weapons of the Beehive used to undermine dissent or opposition.

Others feel the “Budget hack” saga is more of a distraction from the bread and butter issues that voters really care about. As John Key used to say in the storm of controversies about the GCSB misusing their powers, the Saudi Sheep scandal, or even Nicky Hager’s revelations about dirty politics, he was “relaxed” about these problems because his government focused instead on the “issues that matter” to ordinary people.

Some media and Government-partisans are now making the same sort of arguments about the difficulties that the Government is in over their handling of the so-called “Budget hack”. After all, the issues are rather abstract, high-level, and murky, in contrast to more “substantial” policy issues that have a more direct impact on peoples’ lives.

For the best argument in favour of ignoring the “Budget hack” story, see Bernard Hickey’s Newsroom column, in which he argues that “the ‘scandal’ is symptomatic of an accelerating and more extremist form of politics in a social media-driven age of snap judgments and tribal barracking” – see: Our political metabolic rate is way, way too fast.

Hickey’s column is a plea for people – including his own colleagues in the media – to focus less on the latest controversial “drama of ‘he said, he said’ and who was right and wrong, and who should resign” and instead concentrate on the substantial issues that are of immediate interest to voters. In this case, he wants less attention on the “Budget hack” and more on the details of housing, transport, and incomes in Grant Robertson’s Budget.

He makes the case that “news and commentary have ramped up into a blur of headlines, memes, click-bait, extreme views, abuse and a desperate game of trying to grab the attention of a distracted media and whip their own social media bubbles into a frenzy”.

This has been bad for democracy: “The end result is a disengaged public, policy paralysis, a lot of noise and not much light. I understand how it happened and I’ve been living in it now for a decade. A political firmament driven by social media, sound bites, cheap shots and one-day-wonder stories is not going to solve the problems of South Auckland or Tamaki. Everyone should take a chill pill, stop jumping to conclusions for a quick political hit and instead think beyond the beltway to the real world and long term concerns of citizens.”

Hickey’s column has identified valid concerns. There’s certainly an argument to be made that an “increased metabolic rate of politics has warped the public debate”. This point was also made by the new Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins in her feature story, Madness on Molesworth Street – has politics reached peak crazy?

Watkins, who has just stepped down as Stuff’s political editor, describes the increased pace that she has observed working from Parliament: “Chaos is the new normal. Politics has turned into a crazy, churning roller coaster that no one seems to know how to stop. When press gallery journalists and others try to trace back the start of the madness, there is disagreement on the exact turning point. Was it the Kim Dotcom showdown, the teapot tapes election? Or was it when former prime minister John Key up-ended convention and everything we thought we knew about politics when he suddenly announced his intention to retire, while still at the height of his powers?”

I’m also referred to in her story, in terms of the difficulties the rapid churn of political news poses in putting together this Political Roundup column, the fact that the sheer volume of information makes it harder for the public to engage deeply with stories, and the danger of the “Budget hack” scandal appearing as just another example of deception, manipulation and game playing on both sides that will drive voters to be further alienated from the political process.

Similarly, Massey University political commentator Claire Robinson says: “It’s that gotcha politics that amuses people in Wellington but it doesn’t necessarily go beyond that.”

In a blog post, former Cabinet Minister Wyatt Creech declared that “The debate over Budgets in Wellington is the ultimate in beltway-ness” and the leak/hack story would get “little cut through to sentient beings outside the political realm” – see: Treasury troubles, strike money & growing grains of salt for polls. He says “The beltway game is of little importance to Joe or Jane Citizen waiting for an operation.”

Reportage of the scandal is also critiqued by RNZ’s Mediawatch specialist Colin Peacock who complains that “political reporters were making hyped-up claims of their own” to match those of the intensity of the politicians involved – see: Budget leak draws media away from our wellbeing.

For the must-read rejoinder to all of this – and particularly to Bernard Hickey’s piece – see Liam Hehir’s argument for taking the Budget “hack” and other such “beltway” scandals seriously: Sometimes with politics, you should sweat the small stuff.

Hehir begins by acknowledging the merits of the idea that Government scandals don’t necessarily make a big difference, and that some of the same points could have been made during the last National Government’s term: “For years during the Key era, I wrote about the way the dozens of little contretemps touted as ‘game changers’ were anything but since they didn’t really touch on people’s overall confidence in the government’s economic management. Those pieces were never heralded for their wisdom, quite naturally, since they argued against the always prophesied Watergating of John Key.”

But Hehir is careful to point out that just because something might seem “beltway” and not directly important to the average voter doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be covered. He draws a parallel with much of the opposition to Donald Trump’s integrity and governance in the US, and suggests that the likes of the Washington Post shouldn’t just “call off scrutinising the potential administrative sins of the Trump administration” because many in wider America aren’t interested in “Attorney-General William Barr’s refusal to release the full, unredacted Mueller report to Congress”.

Instead, Hehir argues, we need the media to focus on the minutiae of governance in order to keep the system clean: “Those who engage with political minutiae are a bit like the timberwolves of the political eco-system. Few people in the town think about what happens in the wooded hills on a day-to-day basis and when they do pay attention, pack-hunting might not be the prettiest thing to watch. Take the wolves out the food-chain, however, and the cascading effects will be felt soon enough. It won’t be long before you have deer stripping the bark from the trees in your backyard. If the smaller fiascos and debacles (over which reporters and commentators actually have some influence) are set to one side to allow more focus on the big, substantive issues (over which they really have none) then an invitation to vice into the country will occur.”

Similarly, for Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan this issue is an important one in determining whether Jacinda Ardern’s Government really is “the most open and transparent government in the history of New Zealand” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s Govt as brutal as any (paywalled).

Today’s Dominion Post editorial also makes the case for the importance of the issue, pointing out that the whole scandal involved Finance Minister Grant Robertson issuing “one of the most remarkable statements in recent New Zealand politics” when he backed up Treasury’s statement about “deliberately and systematically hacked” and linked his to National – see: Time for truth in the ‘hacking’ saga.

Most of the above debate is about how the Government and Treasury have handled the “Budget hack”. However, there are still questions about whether National should have even released the Budget information that it obtained in the first place.

For one of the best challenges to National’s decision, see Mark Longley’s Budget leak shows how shamefully out of touch modern politicians are. Here’s his main point: “While the Budget leak saga played out like a schoolyard argument over who kicked the ball through the window, did any of the taxpayer-paid politicians involved wonder what was best for New Zealand? Did Simon Bridges, who had details on Labour’s landmark Wellbeing Budget in his excited little hands, wonder if leaking those details was best for the voters who elected him? Or did he just spot the opportunity to land one on the opposition and screw the consequences?”

Not surprisingly, Government-aligned blog, The Standard also disapproved, saying “We see arguably the most important day of the year for the Government and thus for the public being hijacked and overshadowed by slanderous accusation and wild speculation, a Government in apparent disarray, and overall chaos that turns off most people from showing any interest in politics whatsoever. What is worse, the turmoil most likely will cause people to distrust politicians even more than before. A sad day for democracy in New Zealand and thank you again, National” – see: Same old dirty National.

For a similar critique, see Oscar Kightley’s Urban Dictionary’s apt noun to sum up National’s actions. He says “I can’t see what National really gained from it. They would have had a bigger hit, and held the moral high ground, if they’d just exposed the weakness in the Treasury security systems, but not released the information they had.”

But such “pontifications” don’t carry much weight with political journalist Stacey Kirk, who says: “The Treasury website is a public website. It exists for transparency’s sake, so to claim as the Government has, that National’s information on it was ‘unauthorised’ is grasping at straws. Whether it was a good move politically is a valid question and will likely be decided by a voter’s personal politics, but a few points bear considering. Budget day is notoriously difficult for any Opposition to be heard, and whether coverage of National in the days leading up to it was negative or positive, their strategy served them extremely well on the day” – see: Smartest men in the room? Pffft! Treasury stands alone on Budget bungle.

Finally, there are still some experts who maintain that National taking Budget secrets from the Treasury website was indeed still a “hack”, and for the best of these accounts, see Keith Ng’s Treasury hacking: The time I hacked WINZ, Lyndon Hood’s J’Hackuse, and Alexander Stronach’s The 2019 NZ Budget Leak: what actually happened.