Hard News by Russell Brown


Key Questions

Parliamentary Question Time on March 27, 2013, was a bad-tempered affair, as David Carter, the struggling new Speaker, clashed with Labour MPs who miss the days when Lockwood Smith obliged ministers to make some effort to actually answer the questions asked of them.

The ill temper culminated with with the final question and a series of supplementaries from Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson to the Prime Minister in his capacity as minister responsible for the GCSB. In the course of answering, John Key made one of the nasty little slights that are, unfortunately, characteristic of his behaviour in the House.

Trevor Mallard, Russel Norman and Winston Peters all rose to express their unhappiness at the Speaker's lenient treatment of the Prime MInister, especially given that Key repeated his slight on Robertson under a point of order. They seemed quite justified in doing so. If Carter can't exercise authority over all members, he shouldn't be Speaker.

Eventually, Mallard and his Labour colleague Chris Hipkins got themselves ejected from the chamber. You can see the whole, sorry incident in a 10-minute clip here.

And that seemed to be the story. The questions, Grant Robertson's poking around with respect to Key's past relationship with GCSB director Ian Fletcher seemed to me -- and I wasn't alone -- as little more than a hopeful bit of fishing. It's a small country. I too, went to the same school as Ian Fletcher. (I can also confirm that Alistair Fletcher was a very bright guy, and is presumably mortified at having his name dragged into this.)

But as Robertson has explained in a blog post, he didn't ask Key about his background with Ian Fletcher: Key volunteered the information, as if he saw something coming. And in his response to Robertson's question:

What role, if any, did he play in recommending the appointment of Ian Fletcher as Director of the Government Communications Security Bureau?

Key said:

His appointment was made by the State Services Commissioner

Given what we now know, it seems fair to regard this as a lie of omission. Robertson is clearly writing in his own interests in the blog post, but it's really worth reading for his laying out of the way the Prime Minister's account of both his relationship with Fletcher and his role in Fletcher's appointment as the country's top intelligence official evolved over days, of in contradictory and puzzling fashion.

I think it's possible to honestly take the view that while Key's personal shoulder-tap of Fletcher -- without telling the State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie -- might have been unusual, it wasn't improper per se, and neither was the ditching of the entire short-list for the job in favour of Fletcher. On the other hand, John Campbell's magnificent interview with Rennie did a great job of setting out reasons for concern about it.

(Brian Edwards' railing on The Panel about Campbell's conduct towards Rennie is just bizarre. It was a well-structured, probing and courteous interview; one informed by the previous work Campbell Live has done on the Kim Dotcom case. I wonder how much of Edwards' commentary on Campbell stems from some personal animus. The same may apply to Robertson. I can't think of any other explanation.)

But what can't be denied is that this whole affair indicates further that when he is questioned about his actions, the first instinct of Prime Minister John Key is to dissemble, divert and develop amnesia. This isn't good enough. We are supposed to be able to trust the Prime Minister. His subsequent "knucklehead" hissy fit, in which he declared his intention to refuse questions about his own actions unless he has been warned about them in advance, was appalling.

Yes, sometimes Prime Ministers respond this way. Helen Clark certainly made a meal of her questioning about Corngate from the "little creep" Campbell. That response did not reflect well on her. But she did eventually enjoy the support of the Broadcasting Standards Authority in believing she was due more warning before being asked to respond to accusations about a partcularly complex series of official decisions. And she didn't declare an intention to refuse to answer any further questions about anything from "knucklehead" journalists unless she'd been tipped off.

Because the internet never forgets, there is an extra level of richness here. Back in 2007, Gerry Brownlee declared the death of a neutral public service over a similar case, involving Labour minister David Parker's role in the hiring Clare Curran for a communications job  at the Environment minister -- an affair in which another comms worker, Erin Leigh, was treated very poorly. National crusaded on this for months.

But that was about the hiring of a ministry PR person. The present matter involves the country's most senior intelligence official, whose only oversight comes from the minister alleged to have overridden an appointments process that is meant offer some assurance to the public. It's vastly more serious.

The response from the footsoldiers has been predictable -- and in the case of Cameron Slater, quite farcical. Your conspiracy about journalists is based on a map of Twitter mentions? Really?

As Bryce Edwards notes in an epic roundup, the general reaction from the press and bloggers to yet another "brainfade" episode has been considerably harsher. It is becoming hard not to see John Key as a man who not only regularly fails to meet the standards expected of a Prime Minister, but who does not even understand what those standards are.

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