Brian Rudman: It’s only dirty politics when someone else does it

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When is “borrowing” someone else’s property okay in the Prime Minister’s eyes? When, it seems, it’s carried out by a senior adviser in his office working in concert with National Party staff and activists.

Since Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics bombshell blew National’s election campaign off course last week, John Key has been trying to brush aside the book’s revelations as the work of “a left-wing conspiracy theorist” and to defend the underhand National Party tactics exposed as the sort of thing everyone does.

He’s going to have to do better than that. Take, for example, the infiltration of the Labour Party computer.

The book reveals new details of the June 2011 National Party raid on the Labour Party computer system. Mr Key doesn’t deny it. He can’t. Party bosses admitted at the time it had occurred. Mr Key now acknowledges the book’s claim that Jason Ede, then his senior prime ministerial communications adviser, and assorted National Party staff and supporters took advantage of an insecure back door in the Labour Party headquarters computer to search confidential party records.

Credit-card transactions, membership lists and 18,000 emails were downloaded at the time, whether by party employees or by the PM’s blogger mate, Cameron Slater, is unclear. The book reveals Mr Slater and Mr Ede both accessed the site more than once and plotted how best to reveal the stolen material on Mr Slater’s blog.

Following the intervention of Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff after Labour discovered the attack, National’s general manager, Greg Hamilton, said the party would not publish any of the material.

Mr Key now shrugs the episode off, arguing if left-wing bloggers had found a similar weakness in the National Party computer system, they’d have been in like robbers’ dogs. Or All Blacks! He told Radio New Zealand: “If the Wallabies on Tuesday night had left their starting line-up up on their website, on their private website, would the All Blacks go and have a look? The answer is yes. The reason I know that is it’s happened.”

What a difference three years makes.

In the dying stages of the 2011 election campaign, five months after National’s raid on the Labour Party computer, Mr Key was outraged when he discovered his “secret” cup of tea conversations with Epsom Act candidate John Banks had been taped by one of the myriad news gatherers summoned to witness the carefully managed publicity stunt.

He was full of moral outrage that his private sweet nothings with Mr Banks might be heard and read by the rest of us. The Herald on Sunday, which had obtained a copy, asked Mr Key for permission to publish the conversation, recorded inadvertently according to the freelance cameraman Bradley Ambrose. He refused, damned the “News of the World tactics”, and filed a complaint with the police.

The police promptly issued a chilling statement that it was an offence under the Crimes Act to disclose private communications unlawfully intercepted and was punishable by up to two years in prison.

Mr Key has conveniently chosen to ignore what the Crimes Act has to say about what Mr Ede and his co-conspirators had done just a few months before. The law regards computer invasion as even more heinous. Everyone who accesses a computer system and “dishonestly, or by deception, and without claim of right … obtains any property, privilege, service … benefit” is liable to a prison term of up to seven years.

Even just intentionally accessing “any computer system without authorisation” carries a jail term of up to two years.

That sounds remarkably like what went on in the office two doors along from Mr Key’s on the prime ministerial Beehive floor. Mr Ede and his conspirators were shown the unlocked back door of Labour’s computer system by one of Mr Slater’s mates, idle and “bored” – his word – rich boy and one-time Auckland City councillor Aaron Bhatnagar. They burst into the computer uninvited, snooped around it at various times over a week, inviting friends to join in as well. One or other of them downloaded reams of private material to sabotage the Labour Party.

The Hager book reveals not a tinge of guilt, or worries about legality or privacy issues. Mr Bhatnagar seemed more interested in glory, telling Mr Slater he “wouldn’t mind a wee wink and nod one day in appreciation”. Mr Slater replied “will do”, but didn’t. Instead, according to Mr Hager, Mr Slater soon claimed all credit for himself.

Once Mr Slater started bragging online about their haul of Labour Party secrets, he and Mr Ede engaged in email banter about how lucky they were not to be caught out.

Just a few months later, Mr Key denounced such behaviour as criminal, and demanded the police set an example. Now it’s been revealed his own office was up to the same thing around the same time. Yet all we get is a prime ministerial shrug, and the claim that the All Blacks do it, so it must be okay.