A couple of years ago Kim Dotcom was a fairly popular person in New Zealand, and many people had sympathy for what had happened to him. How did he go from being reasonably popular, to arguably the most hated person in New Zealand politics? This post seeks to explore what happened.
I joked to someone that if the day before the election, that if two US Black Hawks had landed at his mansion and US Navy Seals jumped out and bundled him into a the choppers to take him to the US, and John Key held a press conference to announce he had personally authorised it even though his chief legal adviser Steven Joyce said it was “pretty illegal”, National would have got a 10% boost and get 60%.
That is an exaggeration, but National MPs and candidates I spoke to have all said that the most common topic of conversation in the last week was Kim Dotcom, and how members of the public would come up to them unsolicited and speak of how badly they want him not just out of NZ politics, but out of New Zealand.
But it was not once like this, so let's go back to the beginning. Up until the raid on his mansion, 99.9% of New Zealanders had probably never heard of Kim Dotcom, including the prime minister.
The raids were like something out of a movie, with SWAT type teams in helicopters landing. It was, in my opinion, an over-reaction by the NZ authorities to the situation. Yes Dotcom had access to weapons, but he wasn't Al Capone. Dotcom got sympathy from a fair number of people for the nature of the raid.
It also transpired that the Police did not get the paperwork right with aspects of the raid, and even worse the GCSB did not properly understand his immigration status and the law, and should not have been assisting the Police. This increased the sympathy for Dotcom.
And it should be said that the charges against him in the US are not a clear cut case. My belief is that Dotcom designed his business model to push the law to its limits, and to make money off copyrighted works – but he may not have broken US law. He may have gone over the boundary, but he may not have. It is an arguable case either way. A case that should be heard in court.
My feelings on Dotcom a couple of years ago were relatively benign. I thought the media were overly sycophantic to him, and that he was masterful at promoting a good public image. He made himself the victim. But I have always thought the US charges may not get a conviction, and that the Police were heavy handed (and slightly incompetent) in their handling of the case. So I wasn't a fan boy, but I said at the time that if he went to the US and won the court case, then I'd welcome him back in New Zealand.
He was a celebrity. He appeared in plays with Jacinda Ardern. He got invited to open the Frankin Road lights. He got the soft treatment in women's magazines and Campbell Live.
So where did it go wrong? How did he go from being the plucky popular underdog to the most reviled person in NZ? There were a number of reasons.
He became a politician
If Dotcom had not invented a conspiracy theory that Barack Obama and Joe Biden got John Key to let Dotcom into NZ, so he could be arrested an extradited, he would have stayed relatively popular. Rather than merely treating the USG as the enemy, and exposing the tendency of NZ law enforcement to be overly sycophantic to them, he decided to make John Key his personal target. He wanted to destroy John Key, and set up a political party to do so. He went from being an Internet entrepreneur to a politician.
Now to be fair to Dotcom, this was a very logical thing to do. I commented that I'd do the same if I was in his shoes, awaiting an extradition hearing and decision. A country extradites wanted criminals, not politicians. Turning yourself into a politician was in theory a politically smart thing to do – but it depended on what type of politician – a principled politician wanting better policies for NZ, or one seen to be utterly self seeking?
He lost his friends and his staff
Almost everyone close to Dotcom turned on him. He spent up large on himself, and his party, while claiming poverty with his staff, suppliers and friends. New Zealanders are quite egalitarian, and don't like a guy who flies everywhere in a helicopter leaving small NZ businesses out of pocket for tens of thousands.
The number of former friends and colleagues who now hate him is huge. He managed to burn off goodwill faster than a forest fire.
They leaked to (mainly Whale oil) various people stories, tapes and videos of Dotcom's various inappropriate happenings.
He spent too much money trying to destroy Key
If he had only put $500,000 or $1,000,000 into his pet party, there may not have been such a reaction. But $4.5 million looked obscene, especially as it was tied to utu – not a belief in a particular set of policies being good for NZ. Yes Colin Craig put in a lot of money also to his party, but Craig's motives were seen as upfront – wanting to become an MP and push a particular brand of policies – not revenge.
The alliance with Mana looked unprincipled
Dotcom used to donate to John Banks, one of the most right wing politicians in New Zealand. Mana is the most left wing party in NZ. Apart from a hatred of John Key, Dotcom and Mana were seen to have almost no policy commonality. It looked to most NZers that Dotcom purchased a tame political party, and Mana sold out their principles. Harre and Harawira would once have condemned a foreign born multi-millionaire criminal, whose staff alleged paid them below the minimum wage. But they took his money, and said nothing.
Recall that the Internet Party was meant to appeal to potential National voters, who didn't think the Government was Internet friendly enough. The alliance killed off that possibility, and in fact drove those voters back to National.
Some on the left saw it as a great way to get the Internet Party into Parliament, and help defeat John Key. The smarter Labour MPs realised it would stink to high heaven, and we saw Chris Hipkins and Phil Goff wisely denounce it in no uncertain terms. They can hold their heads up high – their judgement was spot on. Labour members and activists who routinely denounce Hipkins, Goff and others might want to consider that if they had listened to them at the time, then Labour may not have ended up with such a disastrous level of vote. Cunliffe was far far too slow to distance himself from the Internet Mana Alliance. He should have ruled them out entirely, just as Key did with Peters in 2008.
Laila was the wrong leader
Laila would be a great Deputy Leader of the Mana Party. She is a staunch advocate for workers (except those who work for Dotcom) and unions. But she is no Internet Party Leader.
The Internet community already had mixed feelings on an Internet Party. Some were wary of Dotcom's motivations, but still thought it was an exciting opportunity to have a party dedicated to Internet issues. If Dotcom has announced someone with real credibility on Internet issues such as ex TUANZ head Paul Brislen, then there would have been a real buzz of excitement.
The announcement of Harre as Leader created a fury with many in the Internet community. They felt that their issues were being hijacked for a cause that had nothing to do with the Internet. Some of those most vehement against the Internet Party were people who may have been potential supporters of it.
There were many good people involved in the Internet Party, such as CEO Vikram Kumar, who have a genuine passion for the Internet. But the leader is all important. Laila made a genuine effort to come up to speed on Internet issues, but the Internet community felt insulted by the use of the Internet's name for a party led by someone who is not an Internet native and didn't even know the name of her own ISP.
The Fuck John Key video
This was not a selfie video by someone in the audience. Dotcom, or someone working for him, thought it would be a great idea to stick a video of Dotcom leading a group of fans chanting Fuck John Key. They turned it into a party advertisement, put an authorisation statement on it, and promoted it.
This was a key point, when people really started to get determined to not let him succeed. We're a fairly polite country. Seeing the German guy facing extradition reveling in the crowd chanting obscenities at the country's Prime Minister offended huge numbers of New Zealanders, including many swinging voters. Even worse, Harre wouldn't apologise for it. For National, this video was gold. For Labour, they should have denounced it more strongly and used it as an opportunity to say they would have nothing to do with the Internet Mana Alliance.
The problem Dotcom had at this point is he was purely surrounded by people who hate John Key. Everyone in his circle would have loved the video. They would have had no idea how it played out with middle NZ – who decide elections.
Dotcom may or may not have been involved in the hacking, but he was boasting to people about it, his staff were boasting about it, he made a speech boasting of how he hacked the German PM, and of course many NZers thought he was involved. And most voters don't like it. They think dirty politics is hacking, stealing and spying – not talking to bloggers..
The Moment of Truth
A lot has been written about this before, but there were six things which did Dotcom in.
- His two years of assurances he had proof beyond any doubt the PM had lied. He claimed this dozens of times. He even had the privilege of appearing face to face against the PM at a committee meeting, and taunting him with it to his face. He did not just claim he has suspicions – he was adamant he had proof.
- The timing of the event pissed people off. His brains trust thought having the week of the election would get the biggest impact. New Zealanders though have common sense and saw it as an attempt to make allegations, without the time to have them fully considered. he should have held it three months before the election – as should have Hager.
- The farcical forged e-mail. A retarded five year old could have made a more convincing forgery.
- The failure to talk about the e-mail at all, at an event he had spent over a year promoting as the moment when he would reveal the proof
- His maniacal laughing throughout the meeting, as if he was Dr Evil in Austen Powers. I suggested National use the footage as their campaign closing.
- The combination of a German and three Americans lecturing NZers on their politics in their heavy accents, shrieked foreigners trying to influence the NZ election result
This combined into the biggest farce and own goal I think I have seen in New Zealand politics.
When I wrote the next morning that it is time to get angry, I had more positive feedback on that post than any other I can recall. It got shared widely on social media, and I got scores of texts and phone calls. People were angry. Everywhere MPs went, they met angry people – angry at Dotcom. They wanted him out of politics, and were determined to vote to stop him having influence on the next Government. The CTU spent $200,000+ on trying to get union members our to vote (obviously for Labour/Greens/Mana). Dotcom's Moment of Truth cost National not one cent and galvanised their supporters to the polling booths.
So it wasn't one thing, but a series of bad calls that did Dotcom in. He may blame it on the last two weeks, but it was well over a year's worth of misjudgements. If he had not invented his conspiracy theory involving John Key, and kept the focus on his ill treatment by sections of the NZ authorities – he would have maintained considerable public support and appeal. If his party had been a genuine Internet Party that sought more than the destruction of National at any cost, then it could have done quite well.
But he surrounded himself by people who hate John Key, and cut himself off from reality. He had no idea at all how the public of New Zealand were starting to regard him as a cancer that needed chemotherapy, rather than the plucky underdog he once was.
There's a lesson in that for more than Dotcom.