Why is Labour so hypocritical on transparency?

Labour’s over transparency was reinforced this week with another anonymous attack site launched. It is a sad fact of life that the party which claims the was needed to bring transparency to campaigning has a long history of establishing anonymous attack sites against its opponents.

First of all in the 2005 election there was the site. This site launched attack after attack on Don Brash and other opponents of Labour. They kept their identities a closely guarded secret but after the election a member of the PM’s Office revealed at the NZUSA Christmas Party that the site was organized out of the PM’s Office.

Then in 2007 burst into life. They would have you believe it is a totally independent collection of activists who just happen to not like National. The reality is somewhat different.

It is understood that the Standard was conceived of by the PM’s Office, specifically by Rob Salmond, who was working there after the 2005 election. Salmond wrote a chapter “The Battle of the Blog” for the Victoria University publication on the 2005 election and is a long time Labour activist. He was known to work in the Beehive after the 2005 election, even though he did not appear on staff lists and he has confirmed he did work for the PM’s Office.

He is credited as having come up with the concept for The Standard, to counter centre right blogs. He also proposed the creation of a special role in the PMs Office for online communications – a role subsequently filled by Chris Elder. The source for this information is Elder himself who has told several people of Salmond’s role in setting up his job and creating or proposing The Standard. This does not mean the PM’s Office personally registered the site, but that it wasn’t just the idea of some independent activists.

The Standard says they are all independent bloggers. However the following e-mail has been forwarded onto me:

From: xxxxxxx xxxxxxx
Date: 11 June 2008 12:24:42 PM
To: labourmembersofparliament@parliament.govt.nz
Cc: pm@ministers.govt.nz, mike.williams@labour.org.nz
Subject: The Standard Blog

Dear all

I have a serious issue to raise with you all. It has come to my attention that two Ministerial staffers – Chris Elder and Andrew Kirton, both political employees – are blogging anonymously at the Labour-hosted, anti-John Key blog the Standard, www.thestandard.org.nz.

Given that a large number of these posts (most notably those by Chris Elder or all_your_base, a communications staffer on the ninth floor) occur during office hours, do you all believe it is appropriate that political employees are spending their time blogging anonymously? Is this approved behaviour?

Kind regards

xxxxxxx xxxxxx

After I was forwarded a copy of the e-mail by a parliamentary staffer, I asked the e-mailer the basis of the information, the e-mailer replied “A young Labour person I know who is also a blogger”

It has in fact long been speculated that Elder blogged as All-your-base as this was allegedly a favourite saying of his (referring to the tag line of a famous hacking group). He has denied being involved with The Standard, and it is of course impossible to prove or disprove without computer logs.

But it is likely that two of the bloggers are Beehive communications employees, and a third is the Labour Party Head Office Communications Manager. A fourth and maybe a fifth are employed by the EPMU – Labour’s largest affiliated union. This would be seen very differently by most members of the public than the official line of “a collective who saw a gap in the New Zealand political blogosphere and decided that we should have a go at filling it. We write here in our personal capacities and the opinions that are expressed on the blog are individual.”

If they were public over their identities, then people could judge for themselves how much of a personal capacity they are in.

The issue is not that they blog, but the total lack of transparency over what they do. The Green Party has some of its parliamentary employees (and MPs) blog at Frog Blog. But they are open about this, and accept responsibility for what they publish. The Greens deserve praise for their commitment to transparency, which is at total contrast to Labour.

It is certainly true that there are other bloggers at The Standard who do not work for Labour. But nevertheless how can one argue for transparency in campaigning yet argue that the PM can have a Communications Advisor blogging anonymously on a site proposed by her office as part of a communications strategy?

Some of the material on The Standard, such as a pdf document, reveals in its properties that it was created on a Ministerial Services computer. Other material links it to the EPMU.

The final link is the new No8wire website launched this week. The Standard reported this is the same team which did the KeepLeftNZ site in 2005 – in other words it is probably also run out of the PM’s Office. The site even makes it clear that the material appearing on the site is contributed by multiple persons – it is not an individual effort.

In an ultimate fit of hypocrisy they have registered the site in the .org top level domain as this allows anonymous domain name registrants. They also claim to be exempt from the Electoral Finance Act as it is hosted overseas and managed by a NZers who lives overseas.

Their lack of transparency clearly breaches the spirit of the Electoral Finance Act, and quite possibly also the statute itself. I will be lodging official complaints over the site and asking electoral authorities to fully investigate it.

As leftwing blogger Idiot/Savant notes at No Right Turn:

The problem is that both of the exemptions they cite look decidedly dodgy – it all looks a bit slick and well funded to be “non-commercial”, while their declaration that they are “ready to ensure the election of an LPG Government” blows their appeal to the media exemption out of the water. Many people, I think, will be concerned whether those videos are really being produced outside New Zealand – and National will no doubt seek to counter them by claiming they are really being hatched in the Beehive. By allowing that, they’re undermining their cause, and the credibility of fair controls to prevent the rich from buying elections.

Even having the official editor and hosting overseas may not put them beyond the reach of the law. If material for the site is produced by people in NZ, then they are arguably promoting election advertisements, and risk being in breach of the law.

The overseas NZer is widely believed to be the same Rob Salmond who set up The Standard, previously a staffer or contractor in the Beehive. A quick look at the site shows it to have professionally edited graphics and obviously considerable resource behind it. They have already ripped off an anti David Cameron video from 2006 and used it as an anti John Key video.

This is not a personal blog. It is beyond doubt supported by and resourced by the parliamentary Labour Party and/or their affiliated unions. The fact they have one anonymous ex staffer or contractor on the other side of the world uploading the material for them, doesn’t change that reality. It is a “hollow” attempt to avoid the most basic requirements of transparency, let alone their own Electoral Finance Act.

The Internet is a medium where people should be able to express their opinions, and have a whack at parties they don’t agree with. But political parties should stand behind their own work. Why doesn’t Labour do as the Greens do, and take responsibility for their work?

One suspects it is because they want to be able to attack their opponents without taking responsibility for such attacks. The exact thing they claim to be against.

These anonymous attacks are not an isolated incident, such as a parliamentary staffer submitting a one off idea to a blog. Labour’s entire involvement since 2005 has been lacking in the transparency they claim to champion. It is a hypocrisy that rankles with those who do stand behind their own names.

The purpose of this post is not to challenge the right of The Standard and/or to run material attacking John Key. I happen to think it is mostly counter-productive anyway as it is so lacking in subtlety. But the purpose is to ask for Labour to stop hiding behind anonymous proxies and to take responsibility for their own work.

Again, this is not an isolated incident. Their entire online history of the last three years has been to hide behind anonymous attack sites.They do it time and time again.

I know something about the challenges of online advocacy from Parliament. I was a parliamentary staffer for eight years. From 1996 to 2004 I posted tens of thousands of times to the Usenet Internet newsgroups on political issues. Every single time I did so under my own name. The first nine months of my blogging was as a parliamentary staffer, and again that was always under my own name. I have no issue with parliamentary staffers blogging – I welcome it – they can offer more to the debate than most people with their access to information. But they should be open about who they are.

As a final note, some will ask for the proof that Labour has been involved with these three sites. Well obviously direct proof is near impossible unless one does a Nicky Hager and gets hold of e-mails or has video recordings of people at work.

However the information about the identities of the people involved in these sites come from multiple people in multiple settings, collected over time. I have no reason to doubt its veracity. It would also be very simple for the facts to be established – for example Helen Clark could state in Parliament that no Ministerial staff members do blog or has blogged at The Standard and that no Beehive (or Labour Research Unit) staffer is producing material for 08wire or The Standard. Her word, if given in Parliament, would be accepted. Somehow I doubt she will.

UPDATE: Rob Salmond has posted a comment admitting he worked last year for the PMs Office and is behind 08wire and that he does not produce all the material himself but receives it from others. He of course refutes some of my assertions – specifically any involvement setting up The Standard, and I have responded to his comments. What is not denied is that material for all three anonymous sites is produced by parliamentary staffers.

Whale Oil also posts on the issue.

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