Aug 28, 2014 Politics
John Key looks set to win his third term, but only thanks to David Cunliffe.
The old adage is that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. John Key spent the first weeks of the campaign trying to prove it true. His response to Nicky Hager’s polemic Dirty Politics was the most ill-judged performance of his six years as Prime Minister.
Given Hager’s far-left political outlook and his tendency to reach conclusions that put his opponents in the worst possible light, Key’s initial attack on Hager as “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist” was fair comment. Hager has also admitted the material on which he bases his books is sometimes gained unethically and even illegally (although he has made it clear he did not do anything illegal himself in relation to Dirty Politics). What’s more, he declines to explore the context of that material with those he writes about. The Wellington peace activist and environmentalist then skilfully times his broadsides to maximally damage governments he opposes, including Helen Clark’s in 2002.
For all that, this is still supposed to be a pluralistic society. Hager is as entitled as anyone to work with his sources and like-minded political activists to try to bring down governments he opposes (just as Clark and Key are entitled to abuse him in the media if they judge that is their best strategy). But, while Hager’s conclusions may be hyperbolic, nobody has ever shown his documentary evidence to be false.
Putting aside Hager’s spin, the documentary evidence in Dirty Politics shows that Judith Collins, whom Key has entrusted with running the nation’s police force, prison system, justice ministry and accident insurance scheme, is not fit for senior office. It also shows a third-tier staffer in Key’s office, Jason Ede, pushed the boundaries beyond what was acceptable when feeding smears about the government’s opponents to his blogger friends.
Most troubling are the lingering questions about whether the Prime Minister used the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) to discredit Phil Goff (who is not an angel either, having misled the public as opposition leader about what he knew about Israeli spies).
The Prime Minister claims that former SIS boss Warren Tucker, all on his own, decided to fast-track an Official Information Act request to a National-aligned blogger to discredit the opposition leader in election year, while refusing similar requests from the mainstream media. Could this be true? It would mean Tucker was in breach of the political neutrality sections of the SIS Act and should face legal sanction. If he really did behave so outlandishly, the Prime Minister’s office should have told him to pull his head in and informed the State Services Commission that the SIS director had gone rogue.
The Prime Minister’s explanation is extremely hard to believe. It is far more plausible that the SIS document found its way to Cameron Slater before anyone else because the whole affair was orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s office for political purposes. That’s an appalling abuse of power. Even Sir Robert Muldoon, when he used the SIS to attack anti-Springbok Tour protesters in 1981, had the integrity to personally release the SIS report showing links between the anti-apartheid movement and communist organisations. Key’s office hid behind a blogger.
At the time of writing, the Prime Minister’s story remains that he knew nothing about the effort to discredit Goff until it was all over. Unlike Jim Bolger and Clark, both of whom considered it unthinkable to involve their political staff in dealing with the SIS, Key has apparently delegated some of that responsibility to politicos in his office. The primary job of the nation’s leader — before worrying about schools, hospitals or anything else — is to keep us safe from security threats. To this end, Parliament provides the Prime Minister with extraordinary powers. It is not for him or her to delegate those responsibilities to some party hack.
In all this, Ede and Slater are not really major players. They were merely doing their job as National’s smear merchants and, let’s face it, they did it well for many years. The person who is responsible for the culture of the Prime Minister’s office is the chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson. And, unless Key has delegated dealings with the SIS director to someone even more junior, Eagleson is complicit in the release of the SIS documents. Key has previously said that when you speak to Eagleson you are speaking to the Prime Minister.
After what has been revealed, the government deserves to lose on September 20. What will save it is Labour’s disastrous decision last year to replace David Shearer with David Cunliffe, who has cost them around 10 points in the polls. In defiance of the adage, while the government is doing its best to lose the election, the opposition is losing it more.
This column appears in the September 2014 Metro, on sale now.
Matthew Hooton runs a PR firm in the city and presents a centre-right perspective on politics and business. Photo: Simon Young.