Key's problem: putting party hacks in charge of SIS relationship
For political insiders, it's all too credible that John Key had no knowledge of the OIA shenanigans going on between the SIS, his office and Cameron Slater.
"An important question which needs to be answered is why Prime Minister John Key chose to delegate SIS briefings to a politically appointed staffer in his office," an ex Labour MP told me earlier this week.
"To me this definitely raises concern about the role of the secret service under this National government. This sort of delegation has never happened before. All previous PMs, as far as I know, regardless of political persuasion, have taken their responsibility for the SIS very seriously and have made sure they were personally briefed," the ex MP said.
"And because of the sensitivity of the SIS material, care was taken to keep it above party politics so they made sure the Leader of the Opposition was similarly personally briefed. No-one else was allowed near those briefings. But John Key appears to have delegated responsibility to Phil de Joux, a political advisor." (The two figures at the centre of the Gwyn report, Mr de Joux and Jason Ede, have both left the PM's office for the private sector.)
In any case, whomever in the PM's office was briefed by the SIS on the release of information to Mr Slater, it wasn't Mr Key himself.
The ex-Labour MP added: "It's interesting to note the changing nature of ministerial staff over the last 20 to 30 years" (A period that includes Labour in office, of course).
"Once upon a time your typical ministerial staffer was a career civil servant who prided himself/herself on being politically neutral and stayed in the same job regardless of which political party was in power. Nowadays most ministers prefer to have staff who are politically supportive rather than the traditionally neutral civil servant. Then, as needed they will employ short-term specialist staff from their Ministry. Some political commentators have reflected today on the need for Ministerial staff to have some guidelines, but apparently the SSC's offer to work up some sort of code was not favored by the Key government."
Of course, having politically appointed underlings handle at least part of the SIS relationship, without your knowing the exact details (or apparently no details in the Slater/OIA affair), is also a good way to remain willfully ignorant and keep at arm's length from some events.
NBR contributor Matthew Hooton picked up on this theme on Breakfast this morning, saying,
Helen Clark began the process of highly politicising the Beehive. The appointed these people called Ministerial Advisors who where in fact just party hacks and that lead to all sorts of unethical behaviour – the stealing of the money for the pledge card, the cover up of the driving offence and the painting and all that sort of thing
And John Key promised us he was going to be much better than Helen Clark’s corrupt third term government.
So when he became government, the State Services Commission said to him, ‘Look, we need to deal with this problem of these party hacks running around the Beehive and he just rejected that and said ‘no I like it to be casual and informal’.
And not only that, previously all Prime Ministers, Lange, Muldoon, Clark, Bolger, they always dealt with the SIS themselves. What John Key decided to do is put a National Party hack essentially in charge essentially of the government’s relationship with the SIS.
And from that decision made back in 2008, what, what we’ve seen has been inevitable.
It's disappointing stuff, but ex-Labour MP also picked up on a positive.
The post cabinet reshuffle saw Mr Key hand over responsibility for the SIS to Attorney General Chris Finlayson. It's hard to imagine the buttoned-down Mr Finlayson working in any way other than direct briefings.