Opinion: What plagiarism says about the state of Labour


Last week, a friend sent me a discussion paper Labour has written about the role of technology in the future of work. An interesting and important subject.  I was struck immediately by how well written parts of it were — a far cry from the jargon-infested torrents of drivel that typically pass for political prose in New Zealand. 

It made me curious. Either Labour had hired a gifted wordsmith to draft every second or third sentence, or something more nefarious was at work. Thirty minutes of Googling later, it became apparent Labour had lifted several  passages, mainly from news articles, and plonked them, without citation or attribution, into their text. In one section, "On-Demand Economy", just under half of the copy (47 percent by my tally) was ripped directly from other sources. The best bits, too. Keep in mind I am not talking about inartful paraphrasing here — where an author covers their tracks by changing the order of sentences or tactically swapping out synonyms — but verbatim plagiarism. 

Hoping to minimise things, Labour called it a referencing error and promptly added footnotes in the four cases where I had uncovered sentence theft.  They should have retracted the document for two reasons: the presence of footnotes doesn’t excuse the pasting in whole passages of other people's work without quotation marks or in-text attribution; and because, as I made clear in my blog post on the subject, my quick examination was far from exhaustive. Other examples were bound to pop up — and have. Labour claimed to have fixed the problem by hastily appending footnotes but did so before checking for themselves whether there were other, as yet undetected, examples. They quickly emerged. A reader emailed me a few hours after the initial revelations with another glaring case, this time involving a NZ Herald article from January this year. My own research uncovered another instance of copy and paste from the Economist. There are probably more. The pattern is clear.  

This is no earth-shattering scandal, but I reject the idea propagated by some on social media that plagiarism in politics is unimportant. Why focus on this, I was asked, when the TPPA is set to rob New Zealand of its sovereignty? Or when poor kids are going to school hungry? This is a version of the old Soviet propaganda trick of whataboutism: "why are we talking about Labour's plagiarism when National are tearing our country apart?". It's a clever technique aimed at stifling dissent and casting dissenters, whose criticisms are said to deflect attention from the "real enemy", as traitors to the cause.  

The plagiarism revelations are important because they raise questions about Labour’s competence, ethics and readiness to govern. And since the party has placed great store in the Future of Work Commission as an engine room of the original thinking and new ideas that will propel it into office, it seems worth noting its first major document is rife with plagiarism. The irony alone makes it hard to dismiss. 

It shouldn’t be acceptable for any political party,  let alone one presenting itself as an alternative government, to engage in demonstrably unethical conduct. If a first year Uni student handed in an essay with half the content ripped from other sources, they would be failed, reprimanded, and possibly suspended. A journalist or academic would be looking for another job. Shouldn't we hold our elected politicians at least to the same standard?  

Weak oppositions produce bad governments. National is complacent, slow-moving, prone to own goals, and way too pleased with itself. But they thrive in part because Labour lacks the basic political skills necessary to hold them properly to account. With the notable exception of Kelvin Davis’ ongoing prosecution of the Serco prisons fiasco, Labour rarely, and barely, lays a glove on John Key or his Ministers. Their failure to gain traction through the dreary, painstaking but essential work of opposition leads Labour to resort to 'Hail Mary' stunts like racially profiling homebuyers with Chinese surnames (the issue over which I resigned from the party last month).  

Many in Labour think the electoral tides make their victory in 2017 inevitable. They have been busy leaking internal polls that reinforce that conviction. Maybe they're right, and the unwritten 'three term rule' is an unstoppable force, impervious to the respective talents and shortcomings of the people and parties involved. If that's true, the question becomes: if it really is Labour's 'turn', what kind of a government will they be? The kind of ethical misconduct and incompetence we witness from Labour in opposition will seem far from trivial when it coincides with actual power.