Analysis: Sabin clock keeps ticking for Key

Of course, National might still win [or not  Editor].

Year after year, John Carter’s Northland electorate won internal party plaudits for its huge membership.  For this weekend’s by-election, no less than the economic development, regulatory reform, science and innovation, tertiary education, skills and employment and associate finance minister took full personal control of the campaign.  Pretty much the whole cabinet was whisked in by ministerial limo. 

The Public Finance Act was assaulted with election bribes.  John Key cut short his state visit to Japan to hit the mean streets of Moerewa.  Dark stories were told about the risk to Tim Groser’s free-trade agreement with Korea if National were to need the support of UnitedFuture’s Peter Dunne. 

Luckily for National, the Labour candidate’s name remains on the ballot paper.  Maybe there’s some methodological flaw in Wednesday’s TV3 Reid Research poll that gave the edge to Winston Peters.

Sigh of relief
At the time of writing, National had also been spared the full story becoming public about the resignation of former MP Mike Sabin.  Those close to Mr Peters suggested he would return to Wellington before the by-election to reveal all under parliamentary privilege.  Instead, the NZ First leader elected to stay in Northland talking about his proposal to expand the port at Marsden Point, a referendum on cannabis and his forthcoming bill to remove name suppression from alleged paedophiles if victims say they don’t want it and to launch a register for parents to check there are no sex offenders in their neighbourhood.

No doubt there was a sigh of relief at National Party Headquarters.  But that may be short-sighted.

Arguably it would be better for National had the full Sabin story become known well before by-election day.

Fragments are on the public record: that Mr Sabin has been under police investigation since August, that Mr Key was “happy” for him to remain chairman of the law and order select committee overseeing the police budget while that investigation was under way, and that Mr Sabin resigned “due to personal issues … best dealt with outside Parliament.”

Mr Sabin himself is no longer that important: the police and any other relevant arms of government will now deal with him as they see fit.  

But Mr Key’s government stands accused of somehow covering up after Mr Sabin, with Labour leader Andrew Little going so far as to say he believes Mr Key is lying.

That is not entirely implausible.  Although NBR has been unable to substantiate allegations the National Party top brass knew all about Mr Sabin as far back as before the 2011 election, police commissioner Mike Bush has made clear that he and his officers did not “drop the ball” when it came to informing the Beehive about the Sabin investigation in August.

Mr Bush has not commented further.

The Beehive line is that Mr Bush told police minister Anne Tolley about the investigation in August – and her successor Michael Woodhouse after the election – but didn’t name the MP concerned. Nor, we are meant to believe, did Ms Tolley or Mr Woodhouse ask. 

The Beehive will not answer questions about whether or not either passed this information to Mr Key or his office. Answering such questions, according to chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, would violate the privacy of natural persons.

Public duties
If the Beehive’s account of the Sabin matter is true, then Mr Key’s government has become deeply dysfunctional.  Reflect on the type of conversation we are being asked to believe happened, just weeks before a general election:

“Minister,” says Mr Bush, “you need to know that we’re investigating an MP for assault.”

“Cheers,” says Ms Tolley. “Thanks for letting me know.”

Given the proximity to the election, Ms Tolley in fact had a public duty to ask the commissioner who was involved.  Was it Mr Key or David Cunliffe, the candidates for prime minister?  Was it Bill English, David Parker or Russel Norman, the candidates for finance minister?  Or Murray McCully, David Shearer or Mr Peters, the candidates for foreign minister?  Maybe Judith Collins or Mr Little, the candidates for justice minister? 

Even if Ms Tolley neglected her duties to the public, is it plausible her political duty to the prime minister didn’t lead her to inquire?  “Please god, let it be Cunliffe!” she would surely have thought.

Mr Woodhouse’s story is just as odd. When briefed by Mr Bush after the election, we’re told he too ignored his public and political duties to inquire further.

Perhaps even more incredible is Mr Eagleson’s claim that, when he was contacted on November 26 by Labour’s chief of staff Matt McCarten about the Sabin situation – which he says he already knew about from others – he waited until the following week to mention it to the prime minister, who remained, he claims, utterly ignorant until December 1.

“Prime Minister,” the Beehive says Mr Eagleson or his underlings never said, “we have a problem.  We’ve just been called by the opposition, which has some serious dirt on Sabin, and it’s all around town because we’ve heard about it from others a while ago.  You might be asked questions about it as soon as today.”

Are such calls from the opposition really so routine they don’t get escalated?

The risk for Mr Key is that if the full Sabin story becomes known in a week, a month, six months or a year, it will look as if his government covered it up not just through a general election campaign but then again through the by-election as well.  The clock keeps ticking.

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