Witnessing the slow decay of a government past it’s Use-By date
There is something unpleasantly familiar about the recent appalling events surrounding the current National government and it’s embattled leader, John Key and his strange relationship with Cameron Slater.
Searching my memory, it dawned on me: I am witnessing a replay of the closing years of the Shipley Administration, before it was eventually turfed out of office in November 1999.
The Shipley-led minority-National government was racked with crises.
One such was the Saatchi Affair, where then-PM, Jenny Shipley, was found to have lied about a dinner engagement with Saatchi & Saatchi boss, Kevin Roberts. Shipley’s recall of that dinner engagement – and the topics of discussion – were at variance with what Roberts had claimed took place.
Shipley had misled public; the media; and the public. The headlines at the time pilloried her;
To call the National government of that time a “decaying government” would be a gross under-statement. As well as beset with scandal after scandal; cuts to the budgets for police, health, education, etc; deeply unpopular measures such as state house sales, and a crazy, hundred-million-dollar plan to move/demolish the Beehive (and extend the original Parliament Building); there were other events which drew a rising chorus of criticism and condemnation from a wide sector of society.
On 27 November, 1999, New Zealanders had had a gutsful and threw out the National government.
The recent “txt-gate” scandal is simply the most recent scandal to envelope the current Prime Minister, John Key.
In terms of past events; past scandals; and past instances where the PM has been caught out – it is by no means the worst.
This time, however, matters have reached a critical flash-point. The media has awoken to a smell of a government on the defensive and where Dear Leader has pushed the envelope once too often. Journalists and media commentators are no longer as tolerant; no longer awed; and no longer willing to be mollified by a popular prime minister.
The Shipley Factor has kicked in.
At this point, nothing that National does will counter the same style of growing clamour of criticism it’s predecessor faced in the late ’90s.
Even the distractions of a costly flag referendum; growing ‘softening’ of the public for a New Zealand presence in Iraq; or another bout of bene-bashing will not work to deflect attention from an increasingly embattled PM. Such distractions will be quickly revealed, and dismissed, for what they are.
If National’s current problems translate into public odium, the upcoming flag referendum may well become a referendum on Key’s administration – much like the September 1997 referendum on compulsory retirement savings became a referendum on the National-NZ First Coalition government.
An extraordinary 80.3% of voter turn-out resulted in 91.8% voting “No”. However, the wisdom at the time suggested that the massive “No” vote was more of a reflection on the National-led government of the day, rather than the actual issue of superannuation.
Perhaps the clearest indication that the tide has turned against Key (and his government) is that the most trenchant criticism has come – not from the Left; nor from the Parliamentary Opposition; nor even from Key’s nemesis, Kim Dotcom – but from the Right and a previously compliant media.
On 25 November last year (2014), John Armstrong, from the NZ Herald wrote;
The Key administration has plumbed new depths of arrogance and contempt for the notion of politicians being accountable for their actions in its response to today’s hugely embarrassing report by the independent watchdog who maintains oversight over the Security Intelligence Service.
Rather than take the findings of the report by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn on the chin, National sought to bury the report.
John Key may have effectively been cleared by Gwyn for having only a “very limited” involvement in the disgraceful release of information by the SIS to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater.
That gets Key personally off the hook. But that does not absolve him of ministerial responsibility. In fact. he is doubly responsible both as the the minister-in-charge of the intelligence agencies and as the person responsible for the behaviour of his Beehive office.
This morning’s statement by the Prime Minister in reaction to the Gwyn report places all the blame for this shoddy affair on the SIS.
Key’s statement unsurprisingly makes no mention of an email revealed in the report from one of his political advisers, Jason Ede, the man who Hager cites as central to the dirty tricks campaign being run out of Key’s office. In the email to Slater, Ede said that “he might be in the shit” over the way he has used SIS information. Slater replied that he would simply state he had a source within the SIS – a statement Gwyn took to mean that Slater was seeking to protect Ede.
No heads will roll. Most of the participants in this unsavoury episode have since moved on or retired, while Key gives assurances that lessons have been learned and a more effective oversight regime is now in place.
That is not good enough. The public need an assurance that nothing like this will ever happen again…
Four days later, Armstrong offered yet more trenchant criticism of Key’s administration;
The subsequent fibs, half-truths, memory blanks and – worst of all – the misleading of Parliament on the Prime Minister’s part in the wake of the report’s release has so far not seen the electoral ground that Key has so successfully occupied for so long shifting from under him.
Key has been his own worst enemy in seeming to be in denial of Gwyn’s confirmation of the dirty tricks operation run out of his office and first exposed by Nicky Hager in his book Dirty Politics.
Key then topped that by misleading Parliament by not fessing up to his text conversation when specifically asked whether there had been any such contact.
Such reckless and consequently self-incriminating behaviour left most observers and voters completely gob-smacked. So gob-smacked that the torrent of criticism raining down on Key went into temporary abeyance.
When it came to trashing his credibility, Key seemed to be doing enough on his own without assistance from outside.
Armstrong continued by really putting the boot firmly into Key’s backside;
But the absence – so far – of any public backlash against the Prime Minister bar those who already detest him is a source of of intense frustration for Opposition parties. And more so the more Key’s memory lapses impede on serious matters of state.
What began with a failure to recall whether he was for or against the 1981 Springbok Tour was followed by forgetfulness over how many Tranz Rail shares he owned.
Then there was the inability to remember how he voted on the drinking age, along with the sudden case of amnesia surrounding the identity of the passengers who flew to New Zealand aboard a mystery CIA jet.
Things started to get even more worrying when Key confessed to being unsure if and when he was briefed on Dotcom by the Government Communications Security Bureau.
They got even more dodgy when Key professed he could not remember whether he had phoned the brother of an old school pal urging him to apply to become the director of the GCSB.
This is the power and collective memory of the media at work. Citing past instances which paint a consistently negative picture of a political figure is something usually left to bloggers these days. One of the best examples was a list of lies, half-truths, broken promises, etc made by Key and compiled by a writer-known-only-as “BLiP”.
No doubt that list will be much lengthier, nearly two years later.
It will prove to be a valuable resource for any journalist digging back into Key’s track record since 2008.
Meanwhile, the media are running stories openly questioning Key’s integrity, such as this piece by Hamish Rutherford, in November last year;
Prime Minister John Key is fighting off accusations of lying, claiming confusion about his contact with WhaleOil blogger Cameron Slater stemmed from wanting to give a “general” answer to reporters rather than a specific one.
Yesterday he was forced to admit he had corresponded with Slater on several occasions since Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, was published.
On Tuesday, Key told reporters that Slater “sent me a text one time, but I can’t remember when that was”.
It later transpired that Key and Slater had corresponded by text message the previous evening, in what Key has now described as a “gossipy” exchange.
The details emerged after Key admitted he had misled Parliament on Wednesday, when he denied having corresponded with Slater about a report by Justice Lester Chisholm into the conduct of former justice minister Judith Collins and the intelligence watchdog report on disclosures of SIS information.
Key claimed he misunderstood the question, citing noise in the debating chamber, leading him to believe Labour MP Megan Woods was referring only to one report.
In fact, Woods asked two consecutive questions about both reports.
This editorial in Rotorua’s Daily Post, was unequivocal;
You would think that with the stench of Dirty Politics still lingering in the corridors of power after this year’s madcap election build-up, Mr Key would know better than to conduct a text conversation with the figure at the centre of the controversy.
Mr Key, who gave Mr Slater his new cellphone number after he changed it during the election campaign, says he is “fundamentally not” in contact with Mr Slater, and hadn’t rung him or “proactively texted” him.
Though according to at least one report he also said he phoned Mr Slater on Wednesday to confirm his recollection of what they discussed in their text exchange on Monday night as he’d deleted the texts.
On Wednesday night he had to back down on his earlier claims he’d had no contact with Mr Slater ahead of the release of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn’s report into the SIS’s role in Slater’s 2011 political attack on former Labour leader Phil Goff.
Earlier news reports say Mr Key refused to answer questions about his contact with Mr Slater, saying it was in his capacity as National Party leader, not as Prime Minister.
That really doesn’t cut it. When you’re Prime Minister, everything, even dropping your kids off at school, is done in your capacity as Prime Minister.
Fran O’Sullivan was equally scathing;
There is considerable angst that Key is continuing to engage with a high-profile blogger at the expense of his own reputation as Prime Minister. The texting bout episode when he responded to a communication from that particular blogger when prudence would have dictated that he should have just blanked Whale Oil is a case in point.
Key’s failure to realise he would be likely to be filleted when it was inevitably leaked defies credibility.
But trying to mask the obvious backtracking was a step too far.
There are many inconsistencies in the Prime Minister’s response to the inquiry by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security into the release of information by the Security Intelligence Service to a blogger.
A simple apology on behalf of his office for the obvious black ops would have done a great deal to defuse the issue.
But Key has simply resorted to semantics and tried to hold his ground.
NZ Newswire political columnist, Peter Wilson, described Key’s actions as “causing more trouble than the dubious tactic was worth“, and wrote;
Key’s assertion that he was acting in his capacity as leader of the National Party when he spoke to or texted Slater is raising issues as well.
Radio New Zealand pointed out that the High Court has ruled Slater is a journalist.
That being the case, in what capacity does Key interact with press gallery journalists?
Winston Peters is wondering whether Richard Nixon would have been allowed to escape responsibility for Watergate if he’d argued that he was acting in his capacity as leader of the Republican Party.
And Slater suggests Maurice Williamson should ask for his ministerial job back, because surely he was acting in his capacity as an electorate MP when he called the police to ask about a court case.
Brent Edwards, from Radio NZ, injected a large measure of sarcasm into Key’s denials of reality;
The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, apparently wrote two reports into the way the SIS released information embarrassing to former Labour Party leader Phil Goff in 2011.
There is the report Ms Gwyn released publicly on Tuesday which found the Security Intelligence Service had released inaccurate and misleading information leading to unfounded criticism of Mr Goff.
This report also found that staff in Prime Minister John Key’s office had passed on information to right-wing blogger Cameron Slater about briefings the then SIS director, Warren Tucker, had said he had given to Mr Goff about speculation Israeli spies had been caught up in the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch in 2011.
The other report – the one Mr Key apparently received – does not find that his staff played any part in feeding Mr Slater information or in helping the blogger make his Official Information Act request to the SIS.
John Key is adamant the report finds no such thing. It’s a line repeated by his ministers, including the Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.
Yet on page 63 of the report Ms Gwyn states: “I did, however, find that Mr Ede provided the details of relevant documents to Mr Slater and was in fact speaking to Mr Slater by phone at the exact time that Mr Slater submitted his OIA request.”
When not publishing pieces by right-wing columnist, or editorials, all attacking this government that they are supposedly friendly to – there are other stories appearing which also paint a less-than-rosy picture of Key’s administration.
This op-ed by Bruce Bisset, last September in Hawkes Bay Today, outlined hard facts that have rarely been published in msm papers – and usually more the province of political blogs. Bisset wrote;
Back when Labour was in power we had constant carping about Clarke’s “nanny state” and how welfare and social reforms were running up debt like there was no tomorrow.
Still we hear that mantra repeated – and surprisingly, most of the time it goes unchallenged.
But it’s pure myth. New Zealand’s national debt was less after nine years of Labour than when they were elected. The Clarke government was fiscally ultra-conservative, because the books really did balance.
Contrast that with debt under Key’s government. Starting at around $18 billion, it has blossomed to a staggering $86 billion today. That’s a five-fold increase, in just six years.
Yes, we’ve had the global financial crisis and Canterbury earthquakes and tax cuts for the wealthy that have to be paid for somehow. We’ve also had record commodity prices, significant departmental cost-cutting, and the sell-off of major state-owned assets. Plus very little new spending.
Yet we’re running up debt at more than $13 billion per year – to merely tread water.
It doesn’t add up. These guys are supposedly the whizz-bang flash moneymen. So how come we’re so indebted it now costs over $4 billion per year just to service the interest?
Truth is, the economic recovery is itself a myth.
Since last year, the noise surrounding Slater/txt-gate/SIS report all but died down. They have become largely forgotten by the public who are fed a daily diet of dumbed down “news” on TV1 and TV3; puerile garbage as entertainment, but precious little serious current affairs analysis; and a dazzling, mesmerising, cornucopia of ever-increasing consumer-goods dangled in front of their slack-jawed faces.
Radio NZ temporarily joined the mind-numbing dumbness of commercial radio’s ranks from December 24 to January 19. Insight, analysis, and commentary were on temporary hiatus for nearly a month.
If the last six years have shown us one thing, it is that the next scandal and revelations of dodgy ministerial practices and inept Prime Ministerial behaviour is not too far away.
The media are alerted. The public now have some awareness of dirty politics behind the scenes. And journalists are starting to exercise a form of collective memory.
It is said that the public no longer care about politics, and that Key has “de-politicised” it. But, like the continuing bad stories that finally destroyed Jenny Shipley’s government, continuing negatives stories can have a corrosive effect on this government.
The more times Key is caught out lying or being tricky with the truth or breaking promises – the more that the public will slowly but surely distrust his “brand”.
Even four years ago, a sizeable ‘chunk’ of the public were suspicious of Key’s honesty;
It will only get worse for Key and his cronies. Especially as social issues continue to dog this government.
Housing is fast becoming a real problem in this country as more and more New Zealanders find themselves locked out of the market and forced into a lifetime of renting.
Housing was also a critical issue during the dying days of Shipley’s government, as they enacted an unpopular policy of selling state houses.
New Zealanders may have surrendered their Citizenship in preference to becoming zombified Consumers – but housing is a commodity, and Consumers will not be denied the opportunity to acquire said commodity.
Even if it means a change of government
NZ Herald: Shipley on the run
Wikipedia: 1999 General Election
Fairfax media: Key claims confusion over texts with Slater
NZ Herald: John Key defends cost of flag referendums
Radio NZ: PM spells out IS deployment dangers
Wikipedia: Referendums in NZ
The Standard: An Honest Man?
Fairfax media: Key claims confusion over texts with Slater
The Daily Post: Editorial – Key’s whale of a tale
Hawkes Bay Today: Bruce Bisset – Nats have buried us in debt
Dominion Post: John Key – Safe hands, forked tongue?
NZ History: The state steps in and out – State housing
Previous related blogposts
Facebook: Housing NZ Tenants Forum
Facebook: Tamaki Housing Group- Defend Glen Innes
This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 1 February 2015.
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