PM re-writing history — Slater

Whaleoil blogger unimpressed by apology letter from Key over the release of his "gunning for Feeley email".

National's third election win in a row was marred by only one thing: a fallout between Cameron Slater and John Key.

Now, an attempt by the PM to mend fences with the Whaleoil blogger has fallen flat.

It emerged today that Mr Key has sent Mr Slater a letter apologising for the release of an email that led to the resignation of Justice Minister Judith Collins from cabinet.

But the blogger tells NBR, "It's not really an apology ... more an expression of regret with a re-write of history."

The 2011 email in question was sent from Mr Slater to PR operator Carrick Graham, Mark Hotchin and Cathy Odgers (aka Cactus Kate, whose name is blanked out). It discussed his efforts, in concert with Ms Odgers, to place stories in the media that would undermine the credibility of then Serious Fraud Office boss Adam Feeley. In the email, Mr Slater says he has talked at length with Ms Collins, and says "she is gunning for Feeley". Mr Feeley reported to Ms Collins. Mr Hotchin's former company Hanover Finance was at the time under investigation by the SFO. Ms Collins is awaiting the outcome of an independent inquiry into the alleged smear campaign against Mr Feeley. She denies any wrongdoing. In April this year, the SFO wrapped up its 32-month investigation into Hanover Finance without laying any criminal charges. It found "While many may view the conduct that occurred at Hanover Finance as egregious, that alone is not sufficient for me to commence a prosecution." 

The "gunning for Feeley" email was released by the Prime Minister's office on Saturday August 30. Hours later, Ms Collins resigned.

Its release coincided with the leaking of dozens of Mr Slater's emails by Rawshark, aka Whaledump — the hacker who supplied Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager with thousands of emails and documents copied from the Whale Oil blogger's computer. 

However, Mr Hager did not explore Ms Collins' relationship with Mr Feeley in his book. An NZ Herald report by Fran O'Sullivan implies the "gunning for Feeley" email's release had more to do with National Party infighting. (And it was certainly convenient for Mr Key that he had an excuse to lean on Ms Collins – who had caused trouble for him in a number of areas, including the Oravida scandal — to exit stage left.) According to Ms O'Sullivan's account, "I can now say with reasonable authority that it was Odgers herself who coughed up the email [to the PM's office] after she was cajoled to do so by well-connected players including National Party insider Tina Symmans."

But while the release of the email solved Mr Key's political problem with Ms Collins, it rather threw Mr Slater under the bus (as well as embarrassing two journalists mentioned in the email, Ms O'Sullivan and former NBR chief reporter Jock Anderson. It's worth noting at this point that NBR's coverage of the Feeley saga relied, in part, on leaks from his own office. NBR also gave equal play to Mr Hotchin's fiercest critic, former Shareholders Association head Bruce Sheppard).

The prime minister's office says it's up to Mr Slater whether he publishes Mr Key's apology letter.

The Whale Oil blogger did not want to supply a copy to NBR to post as raw data. However, extracts have appeared online including a passage saying there was "intense media and public interest in matters concerning you and Judith Collins, following the publication of the book Dirty Politics," creating an "election issue" ... "I regret any harm that may have been caused to you or your family by the release of the email, and hope that this letter may help to bring this matter to a close."

The Prime Minister's Office has said, separately, that Mr Key stands by the decision to release the "gunning for Feeley" email. 

In short, the prime minister has apologised for the impact on Mr Slater and his family but not for the act of releasing the email. Ironically, Mr Key uses the same argument deployed by his foe Mr Hager to justify releasing a larger volume of Mr Slater's private correspondence: public interest.

So what element of history does Mr Slater think the prime minister is re-writing?

"His reasons for releasing it," the Whale Oil blogger tells NBR.

"[He] says it was because Collins resigned. Um, he made that happen. He called her at 6.30am on Saturday morning and demanded it. Now he is trying to hide behind a public interest argument when he caused that public interest."

Mr Slater wonders why Mr Key can offer an unreserved apology for telling an off-colour joke about escaped killer Philip Smith, but not for breaking privacy laws (which is how Mr Slater sees the release of the email. He told NBR he had complained to the Privacy Commissioner over it).

He adds, "I mean seriously, 'expressing regret'? 'Sorry' really does seem to be the hardest word for politicians to say."

The blurry image of the "gunning for Feeley" email that was released by the PM's office on August 30. Click to zoom.

Fresh problem
Mr Key's letter was presumably a pre-emptive move over Justice Lester Chisholm's independent inquiry into the alleged smear campaign against Mr Feeley. The well-connected Andrea Vance says the inquiry will clear Ms Collins. That will present the PM with a fresh problem: whether to allow the sharp-elbowed former Justice Minister back into cabinet [UPDATE: Mr Key says Ms Collins will not return to cabinet, even if cleared].

Ms Collins complicated her chances on October 15 when she said she was "disgusted" to learn through media, not the PM's office, that she would not receive the "Honourable" title usually automatically extended to ex-cabinet ministers.

Other Dirty Politics-related inquires are still on the go.

Mr Slater told NBR during the campaign that he had complained to the privacy commissioner over Mr Key's release of the "gunning for Feeley" email. He did not immediately reply to a request for an update today. Earlier, a spokesman for the Commissioner told NBR, "Our practice is to neither confirm nor deny receiving a specific complaint. Sometimes it will be publicly known that a person has lodged a complaint with the privacy commissioner, but it’s the prerogative of the person concerned to make that fact known, rather than it coming from us."

Mr Key and Mr Slater are also both awaitng the results of an inquiry by Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn into whether the rapid release of documents to Whaleoil under the Official Information Act was politically motivated.

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