19 Sep 2016

Dirty Politics in small-town New Zealand?

7:44 pm on 19 September 2016

Dirty politics have hit small-town New Zealand with candidates in Marlborough and Nelson the targets of an apparent smear campaign, a Nelson city mayoral candidate says.

Marlborough's longest serving mayor Alistair Sowman is stepping down at this year's election.

Marlborough's longest serving mayor Alistair Sowman is stepping down at this year's election. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Nelson councillor and mayoral candidate Pete Rainey said it amounted to gutter politics, which was unbelievable in local body elections.

The blog run by Cameron Slater was described in Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, as having a history of running smear campaigns against MPs, health campaigners, environmentalists and others on behalf of Mr Slater's political allies.

Mr Rainey, a city councillor for three terms, and co-owner of a local events management business, was recently accused of profiteering from his dealings with the council. He said the deputy mayor Paul Matheson asked for information on his business dealings with council, but Mr Rainey said it was later found to be wrong.

Whale Oil published the information.

"Look there's definitely untrue claims made by Slater about a company I own and its dealing with the council. The information is incorrect - it's quite clear it's incorrect but the information is out in the public arena and I think the people of Nelson will have to make their own mind up about how that happened and who stood to gain from it," Mr Rainey said.

Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman is trying to find out who leaked a recording of a confidential council meeting in April, aimed at embarrassing mayoral candidate John Leggett.

Nelson councillor and mayoral candidate Pete Rainey.

Nelson councillor and mayoral candidate Pete Rainey. Photo: Supplied

The closed meeting was about the financially troubled ASB Theatre in Blenheim, which opened in March this year. The audio and transcript of the meeting to discuss finances have appeared on the Whale Oil blog.

The Marlborough District Council said legal advice had confirmed that recording discussions in the confidential part of a council meeting was in breach of the Local Government Act and the Privacy Act.

All staff members present at the meeting now have to sign a statutory declaration to say they were not responsible for the recording or in releasing it to a third party.

Councillors will also have to surrender, if requested, their council owned devices for inspection.

Mr Sowman, who was stepping down this year, said he had not seen anything like it in all his years on the council.

Blogger Cameron Slater claimed it was council staff who leaked Mr Leggett's views on the theatre funding. Mr Sowman said that was highly unlikely, and if it turned out to be a councillor then he or she could be asked to resign.

Mr Sowman said the law allowed councils to exclude the public from parts of council meetings, if there was good enough reason.

"We were talking about people who owed the council money and then there was a report of the theatre's finances."

He was confident the council would trace the leak.

Dirty Politics publisher Robbie Burton said the defamatory post on Mr Rainey, who was a friend, came "straight out of the Dirty Politics playbook".

"Does anyone really think Cameron Slater would be interested in Pete Rainey unless someone locally put him up to it? Of course, he wouldn't.

"Our community deserves far better than this," Mr Burton said.

Cameron Slater said he acquired the information from tip offs, and his own research.

"There is a real 'boss hogg' mentality in many small towns where canals of ratbags act with impunity. It sometimes takes someone outside of it all with no fear of retribution to get to the bottom of it all," Mr Slater said.

Nelson's deputy Mayor Paul Matheson said while he requested the information from council staff in relation to Mr Rainey's business, he did not pass it on to Whale Oil.

Mr Matheson said he had no idea why the blog would run information the council had conceded was incorrect.

"All I'm aware of is the information originally sent came from the (council) chief executive, so whether that information was tested or not, I'm not sure."

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs