Jane Clifton: Mega-spot of bother

by Jane Clifton / 13 July, 2012
When will politicians learn the rich and famous need a wide berth?

Owen Glenn, Sir Michael Fay, Sir Bob Jones, Julian Robertson, Sir Peter Jackson – there’s a list of financial titans who have left politicians in various sorry states, from distinctly pink about the gills to being in “can this career be saved?” territory – generally without even necessarily having any such intention. But by any measure, especially a mayhem-perinitial- outlay calculation, no moneybags has ever come close to the political carnage caused – with industrial-strength insouciance – by Kim Dotcom.

And our politicians appear not even to have seen him coming. Despite his being the size of an abattoir freezer, employing half of northwest Auckland to keep him in the manner to which he is accustomed and being about as discreet as a kiss-o-gram, a series of politicians who should have known about him have continued to pretend to have been under a rock somewhere whenever his name has cropped up. John Key, in whose electorate the Megaupload founder has taken up considerable space, has had an out-of-body experience whenever he has been asked about this constituent. Jonathan Coleman, Maurice Williamson, Simon Power and John Banks all appear to have suffered conspicuous brain outages. To the point where Kim Dotcom must wonder how he could possibly have made himself more memorable.

For a mere $50,000 contribution to John Banks’s campaign, Kim Dotcom has had the Government on various kinds of toast. And the buttered side keeps changing. Initially, when the police raided the rented Dotcom mansion, the political peril was in why the Government had let this international internet megamogul into the country in the first place. Now the knock-on PR has changed completely, to why has the Government been so beastly to this big-hearted guy who just wants to be one of us? The debacle of the raid has unhappily underlined what is still a very uncomfortable relationship with the US.

Whatever the facts behind the Crown Law and Police decisions to act in the way they did, the thing looked as though we were crassly overeager to do the US’s bidding, to the point of being careless about following our own procedural standards. That the case against Dotcom is still painfully unravelling in a week in which the US cold-shouldered our frigate from Pearl Harbour under the old post-Anzus friendship downgrade rules is just mortifying. (And curiously, Coleman had a brain outage about that, too, our Defence Minister “reading about it in the paper”. Do his staff deliberately keep him in the dark about everything important, or is he just absent-minded?)

Worse, the episode feeds into some rather silly paranoia about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and whether it’s really just a stealthy theft of our sovereignty. The issue here is not that our sovereignty was taken away, but that we made it look as though we were simperingly keen to give it away. And – not to leave anything out – it underlines concerns about Police and Crown Law judgment over the Urewera raids. Had they learnt nothing about dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s, or was the urge to say “go go go!” like they do in The Bill simply overwhelming? In fairness, there’s probably no right way for a Government to handle a problem the size of Kim Dotcom. It would have looked appalling if senior Government politicians had overtly befriended the big guy – witness the damage to Banks.

Dotcom was quite rightly treated like just another aspiring immigrant. And, as they say in romcoms, this thing is bigger than the both of us. Dotcom and the US Government are fighting an epic battle on the frontier of IT law. It’s not our fight, in one sense – but in another, it’s everyone’s fight. New understandings need to be reached globally about intellectual property, and how to make it pay for those who generate it, when it’s nigh on impossible to stop it being accessed for free. There’s righteousness on both sides of the argument, and it’s unfortunate that the New Zealand Government looks as though it has buddied up with Hollywood on the militant dinosaur bench. Did we even need to get involved? Almost certainly. If a friendly government asks for help, this country is at the very least morally bound to accede. But as Justice Helen Winkelmann’s judgment makes clear, our help was rendered via a botch-job.

There was no need to go all Bruce Willis on the guy. The only thing even faintly violent about him is his taste in lurid artworks. And our legal eagles’ later seemingly accidental handover of material to the US, in the teeth of express instructions from the court that nothing leave the country, is beyond embarrassing. Although no doubt heeding the proprieties of the scrupulous separation of justice and politics, the observations that must be emanating from the notoriously acerbic mouth of Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson are terrifying to imagine. And what’s the bet Justice Minister Judith “Crusher” Collins will be offering to assist if there are paddywhacks to be administered? A steely forensic investigation into police and legal decision-making in this case is under way, whether the Government cares to phrase it that way or not. If nothing else, this means the Greens will get at least one of the 19 inquiries they have demanded since re-election. But hopefully it will tell us how our law enforcers came to bungle not one but two major ops.

It has been a PR revelation the way Dotcom has turned the public perception around. He quite simply ticks all the boxes New Zealanders require: he is down-to-earth, good-humoured and family-doting, has an unaffected manner, makes no bones about how thrilled he is to be here and has been a generous and popular employer of large numbers of New Zealanders. Whatever one’s view of the file-sharing firmament, he hasn’t grown rich by emptying the bank accounts of pensioners or polluting the oceans. And he likes a beer. Key needs urgently to master the behind-the-eyes irritation that manifests whenever the subject of Dotcom comes up. Details of which ministerial office and department knew what about the FBI’s plans to indict him are slowly being tweezered out of the Beehive, and Key’s demeanour feeds the impression that the seeds of the botch-up were closer to the ninth fl oor than is comfortable.

Actually, the evidence points the other way, that the Beehive saw trouble written all over this situation from the start. Power’s typically risk-averse decision to not allow Dotcom to buy property here would not have gone unremarked on by other ministers. Unless Key actually rang Senator Joe Biden and offered personally to clap Dotcom in irons, it’s hard to imagine the Government is directly culpable for any of this debacle. Politicians do not organise police raids. Nor can they be expected to second-guess the strength of a foreign country’s case against a citizen.

Even the US cannot be sure it has a strong case in this instance. It’s all new territory. The silly thing is, if Key and Kim met up for a @swimatkims – or @teaatkeys, for that matter – you know they’d get on like a house on fire. There’d be steaks on the barbie and lager chugged from the bottle and probably a Tweeted invitation to Prince William to come on over. John Banks stories would be traded happily into the small hours. Regaining their memories instantly, Williamson and Coleman would have their Speedos on quicker than you could ice a cupcake – though Power would probably be washing his hair that night.
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