Speaker by Various Artists


Naked Inside the Off-Ramp

by Jon Johansson

Whenever the term ‘inside-the-beltway’ is used I usually wince. We Wellingtonians go about our business inside a succession of off-ramps, not inside a beltway. Off-ramp doesn’t sound as fashionable I guess, but then again neither is the view inside the capital about the Prime Minister’s competence in adopting a partisan 61-vote strategy to pass his Government’s Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill. There is quite a bit of head-shaking from wise old hands, who saw the problem from the get go; a bare majority vote would prove a worse result than not passing the law at all.

Some distinguished New Zealanders did try and tell Key this, but they were all dismissed in scattergun attacks on their virtue, assisted gracelessly by his Attorney-General Chris Finlayson during the bill’s Third Reading Debate. God and sin seemed to have caused its own rot there, but never mind, if Peter Dunne wasn’t such a ‘willing seller’ of his vote he could have prevented the bill from passing by such a wafer thin margin. This would have proved his best rationale for not supporting it, especially as common sense has long been his purported lodestar. That future is gone now. 

John Key, seemingly without awareness, has now created the space for uncertainty to form around our future intelligence relationships and foreign policy intentions under a Labour-led Government, which is an intriguing strategic blunder, especially for someone who has worked so hard to maintain the closest of relations with the United States. I doubt our four old friends will view Key’s 61-59 passage as any thing other than a disaster.

In this one aspect, above all others, Prime Minister John Key has codified his ineptitude as the responsible minister. Four of our ‘Five Eyes’ partners will ponder this question: will New Zealand’s gaze shift when there is a change of government?

Key’s strategy has gifted Labour and the Greens greater space in which to contemplate any change of emphasis or direction in the future. The Intelligence bureaucracy will now also have to wonder about what’s in store for them once National does lose, which is a very good thing, but nonetheless surely an unintended consequence for this bill’s author.

Given this bill was about an aspect of national security, and involving a review of legislation fashioned in the aftermath of 9/11, it was indisputably the Prime Minister’s responsibility to reach out to fashion a bi-partisan legislative response, as Labour and National managed back in 2003. It was his bill. Politics got in the way this time, I believe, because John Key wouldn’t give David Shearer a platform like Helen Clark afforded him for their Section 59 compromise.

As well, Key’s form on Kim Dotcom and the GCSB – by no means limited to the Ministerial Certificate Ian Fletcher had Bill English sign to cover up their illegal activity or the by now, from memory, five corrections the Prime Minister has been forced to make in the Hansard about his nemesis Dotcom – meant he didn’t have his usual advantages or leverage, except of course over Peter Dunne.

So a 61-vote strategy won out, but any attempt to lead a principled policy discussion to gain consensus about the difficult trade-offs between preserving precious civil liberties and pursuing genuine threats to our national security, and then how to write good law to draw these boundaries and the state actions that can take place within them, were extinguished once a bare majority became the extent of Key’s legislative ambition.     

It also took some special incompetence by the prime minister to not secure the votes of New Zealand First. Winston and his party are conservative on, and concerned about, national security issues so he was disposed to help in improving the bill. Ultimately, Winston was rebuffed once Dunne’s vote had been willingly bought and sold. There is among the opposition parties genuine anger at many of Key’s cavalier public statements about so-called negotiations or discussions held privately.  

For mine, aside from thinking about how best to resist this law, I continue to believe that it’s a very bad idea to have all the intelligence functions, and their oversight, and the control thereof, all within the executive, without the prudential and countervailing balance of effective oversight being provided by another branch of government. This heightens the potential for abuse, whatever colour jersey a prime minister might wear, whether red or blue.

The Prime Minister’s belated attempts to justify the need for the legislation – which amounted to not much more than one appearance on Campbell Live and a third reading speech – provided a late flourish in what was an otherwise disastrous communication effort. Yelling “Yemen” and “Al-Qaeda” in the theatre, or biffing his critics with individualized care, like that delivered to former Prime Minister and constitutional scholar Geoffrey Palmer, or the low-rent venom delivered against Anne Salmond; well, it says a lot about Key’s attitude to well reasoned and principled criticism.

Back when he was president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson challenged his presidents to be as big a man as they could be. In his Pike River Memorial Speech Key was that man when he spoke with power to the surviving children of the twenty-nine dead miners. I believe over the course of the GCSB debate, however, that John Key has become a smaller man, more petty than we’ve seen him before.

The Prime Minister has been like King Canute; everybody’s wrong but me, everyone’s wrong but me. Or, when under pressure Key will fall back on his latest internal poll number: ‘Forty-nine.’ Spoken like an accountant. Spoken like a tactician and somebody whose 61-59 victory is no real victory at all because it will not prove to be the last word. Key’s poor leadership has guaranteed it. Inside the off-ramp last night a man called John stood naked for all of us to see.

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