NZ POLITICS DAILY: Honesty bigger issue than cronyism

John Key’s strong public credibility is suddenly vulnerable due to the latest revelations about his role in appointing spy boss Ian Fletcher.

There now appears to be ‘blood in the water’, and Key is being strongly pursued not only by the Opposition but also by the media and political blogosphere. A good example is Andrea Vance’s latest in-depth reporting on the matter – see: Key forgets tip to friend over spy job. In Vance’s report criticisms are laid bare of Key ‘lying by omission’ and ‘misleading the public’ over the appointment of Fletcher.

As a barometer of the political media, John Armstrong is always useful, and it appears that he too ‘smells blood’. In his latest column, PM paints himself into another corner, Armstrong ponders how Key can keep getting himself into such a mess over ‘brainfades’, allowing a perception to build that he isn’t always telling the whole truth.
Notably, Armstrong also suggests that Key’s demeanour has shifted, distracting from the plausibility of his answers to the media: ‘His body language spoke otherwise. Something was not right. His trademark self-deprecating humour failed to make the journey from the Beehive to his lunchtime engagement at the Porirua Club’. Another important item is Adam Bennett’s Key's role upsets former spy chief, which includes a growing list of ‘Key's memory lapses’, suggesting that the latest is his sixth ‘brainfade’.
John Key’s ‘relaxed’ responses last week to questions about his role in the appointment seemed an adequate response at the time. But revelations this week that he omitted some crucial and relevant information has made it far more serious. We now know that he was a central player in Fletcher’s appointment, making a critical phone call to Fletcher to encourage him to apply for the position. And, as is usual in scandals, it’s the ‘cover up’ rather than the original infringement that creates the most damage.
This is the focus for the media and opposition at the moment. The best example can be seen in Andrea Vance’s excoriating column, Another Key brain-fade hard to believe. She says, ‘That Mr Key personally head-hunted a childhood pal for the job is a problem in itself. 
But the biggest issue here isn't cronyism. It is Mr Key's honesty that is at stake. Why didn't he come clean last week?  Instead, he attempted to make any connection with the appointment and the Kim Dotcom extradition case look like a conspiracy theory, insisting: "I've been upfront."’ Vance concludes that ‘with every episode like this, his denials appear less plausible’. Today’s Dominion Post is equally scathing – see: Prime Minister's bad memory embarrassing. It is said that Key is making a habit of not recognising ‘the importance of maintaining public confidence in government’, and that his latest explanation ‘stretches the bounds of credulity’.
Certainly it’s true that Key has become the master of obfuscation. And, this, Claire Trevett suggests is his downfall, as such attempts to hold back the full truth ultimately leads to ‘forensic analysis’ being applied to what he’s saying – see: Teapot timely reminder on dispensing truth.
All sorts of bloggers are now commenting on the PM’s modus operandi. John Minto says his propensity for ‘doing deals’ is ‘a hangover from his currency trading days for the now defunct Merrill Lynch, and that now ‘The stench of cronyism is high. An inquiry is essential’ – see: Stinking to high heaven. Similarly, see Peter Aranyi’s John Key is getting a reputation as a liar  – he asks whether ‘John Key has ridden his ‘I didn’t lie, I just forgot’ donkey as far as it can go?’ Feminist blogger Julie Fairey argues that Key’s modus operandi is simply that of ‘corporate governance’ which doesn’t and shouldn’t work in democracy – see: Ian Fletcher, John Key and dodgy partisan appointments. And Chris Trotter highlights the changing role of the GCSB in Friends In High Places.
The Key-Fletcher scandal has been given greater life by the unusual public intervention of a previous GCSB boss, who has called the latest appointment process ‘disturbing’. You can watch his interview on Campbell Live here: Former GCSB head Sir Bruce Ferguson speaks out. Ferguson also presents a different version of the appointment process to that of Key, suggesting that one of the shortlisted candidates for the job ‘at the 11th hour was told don't come to an interview, they've  already selected a candidate’, suggesting that Key’s intervention occurred before the other shortlisted candidates were rejected.
The interview has clearly angered the State Services Commission, with ‘Iain Rennie publicly slamming questions raised about the process and saying that he is ‘outraged that there has been baseless attacks on the credibility of Mr Fletcher's appointment’ – see: State Services chief defends spy boss appointment. See also, Claire Trevett’s latest report on this: GCSB: Commissioner surprised by PM's call.
But did Bruce Ferguson have ulterior motives for speaking out against Fletcher’s appointment process? That’s the interesting suggestion today from David Farrar in his blogpost, More on Fletcher appointment. It could well be that Ferguson is simply ‘miffed’ that the job went to someone other than Ferguson’s own acquaintance, and that it went to a non-military applicant.
Now charges from the Greens and Labour of cronyism and corruption – which had previously appeared rather tenuous – resonate, though remain unproven. Key’s opponents don’t necessarily have to prove anything, of course – just raise credible questions and Key appears to be failing to credibly answer those questions. Even when he does have answers, he’s at a disadvantage now, because ‘Explaining is losing’.
Although the issue might appear to be ‘beltway’, and much of the public will not be concerned with the details, the general public perception will be negative, eroding John Key’s credibility. It raises further questions about Key’s trustworthiness and the way that he operates. Labour can now more effectively run a line that National is ‘too hands off’ in the economy but ‘too hands on’ when it comes to doing deals and backroom process.
Another central problem with this appointment is that it isn’t any ‘normal’ civil service job. It’s for an agency that has a rather problematic place within constitutional arrangements. This argument is put forward very well by Green MP Steffan Browning – who originally raised concerns about the appointment – see: Top spy job appointment needs transparency. Browning shows why the appointment processes to the GSBC need to be much more robust than for any other agency. He also raises the wider question of reforming oversight of the GCSB, which the Greens have long argued is unsatisfactory. These points are also made well by No Right Turn in the blogpost, Cronyism in the worst possible place. And it’s not just the political left criticising the Government – see Peter Cresswell’s Buggering up the separation of powers.
If Fletcher was a dodgy appointment, then how well has he performed? Gordon Campbell draws attention to Fletcher’s role in the illegal spying on Kim Dotcom, as well as his apparent protection of Key over the matter – see: On the GCSB appointment.
Despite the heavily negative press for Key, it is still not clear that Fletcher is the ‘close pal’ that many in the media are characterising him as. Unless there is more to come out, and more brainfades about the friendship, Key’s relationship with Fletcher still appears to be as more of an acquaintance than anything else. Key maintains that he hadn’t seen Fletcher for about 30 years – not exactly a close friendship, then. And if you take the ‘conspiracy theories’ to far about Key’s relationship with Fletcher, you end up with a very colourful parody – which is what you can see in Steve Braunias’ Secret diary of Ian Fletcher, spy boss.
There is also a major question of democratic theory in the appointments process. Shouldn’t elected governments to be able to make their own appointments to the bureaucracy? This is Stephen Franks’ argument in PM’s problem – no constitutional confidence.
There are serious allegations and they could come back to bite Labour in many ways. Some of these are outlined by Pete George in his blogpost, Grant Robertson, cronyism, and Iain Rennie. He argues that Robertson is essentially saying that he has no confidence in two senior public servants – the head of both the GCSB and the State Services Commission, which could be problematic if Labour goes into government next year. George also wonders how Grant Robertson as a future PM or deputy PM would be able to avoid similar allegations of cronyism given that Robertson is so strongly connected with public servants.
Ultimately, what will be the impact of this latest scandal? The media improves its image of holding politicians to account. Andrea Vance, of the Fairfax parliamentary gallery – and notably ex-News of the World journalist – has increased her status for tenaciously following this issue when others might have thought it a dead-end. Cameron Slater challenges this view in his post, The Friendliness of the media. What is clear, is that Grant Robertson is a winner from this – his profile and reputation greatly elevated.
The losers are clearly John Key and National. As Armstrong says today, watching Key ‘playing Russian roulette with his reputation must be of some worry for the National Party’. But the negativity might spread further. Not only will the public’s confidence in the incumbent Government be reduced, but their confidence in politics in general will suffer. For more on this, see Pete George’s blogpost, GCSB, the process problem, and gotcha politics.
One thing is for certain: the GCSB is now more infamous and under scrutiny than ever before. As a result, sales of Nicky Hager’s definitive 1996 analysis of the GCSB must be booming in second-hand bookshops. However, you can download the whole book here: Secret Power, New Zealand’s role in the international spy network.
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