PM unlikely to change formula

7:03 pm on 11 December 2014

The Prime Minister has been judged by many to be the country's politician of the year. Applying the usual measures of political success, it is easy to see why John Key would be rated ahead of his peers.

Mr Key, after all, led the National Party to a third consecutive term in office in September. On anybody's measure, that is political success. But he and his colleagues face more pressing questions about his success as a politician.

John Key celebrates National winning another term in government in September.

John Key celebrates National winning another term in government in September. Photo: REUTERS

If Mr Key were held to his promise to uphold a higher standard of conduct than his predecessor - former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark - would he be judged politician of the year?

By most measures, the Prime Minister is struggling to fulfil that promise.

Forget the political rhetoric which has come from Mr Key and his fellow National Party MPs denigrating Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics. It has raised serious questions about the conduct of his government. Some of those questions have been answered - and not positively - in the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security's report into links between the Security Intelligence Service and Mr Key's office.

That report found his office used information from the SIS for political purposes. It gave details of the strong links between Mr Key's office and right-wing blogger Cameron Slater - links the Prime Minister embarrassingly had to confirm when he was forced to tell Parliament he had texted Mr Slater about the report after earlier saying he had had no contact.

Even senior National Party figures cannot understand why Mr Key continues to communicate with Mr Slater.

Marama Fox

Marama Fox - didn't want anti-terror legislation rushed. Photo: SUPPLIED

While the Prime Minister has ended the year still in the top job, his integrity has come under question. He will face more scrutiny on that next year.

At the same time one of his government's final act of 2014 was to ram legislation through Parliament, which critics say undermines people's civil liberties.

And there was something symbolic about first Tim MacIndoe and then Gerry Brownlee leaning menacingly over Marama Fox's seat in Parliament this week when the newly elected Maori Party MP refused to bow to government pressure.

Ms Fox had the temerity to vote against the Government's urgency motion on Tuesday to rush the final stages of the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill through Parliament that day.

Given the Bill, which Parliament voted in favour of this week, includes what many people believe are draconian powers it was instructive to watch the response of Mr MacIndoe and Mr Brownlee after MPs voted narrowly to debate the bill under urgency.

Mr MacIndoe immediately left his seat and went over to Ms Fox. As he left the chamber, Mr Brownlee also took the time to reprimand her.

The Government has been keen to argue its legislation strikes the proper balance between individual freedoms and keeping New Zealanders safe. It says it is not draconian and not aimed at any particular community.

It argues that free speech and protest action will continue to be protected and senior ministers have given assurance after assurance that activists will not be targeted as a consequence of the new law.

But Mr MacIndoe and Mr Brownlee did not exhibit the same tolerance.

Not that it should worry the Maori Party. Standing up to the Government, while Labour voted for the anti-terrorism legislation, will do it no harm among its supporters.

Author Nicky Hager.

Nicky Hager's book has raised serious questions about the conduct of John Key's government. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Not politics as usual

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is in a stronger political position now than at the start of the year. But he has still not shaken off the doubts raised by Dirty Politics.

The practices outlined in the book are not, as Mr Key has asserted, politics as usual.

The big question for him is: in the wake of the revelations this year, can he clean up National's politics? Or, perhaps more importantly, does he want to?

The Government faces one final question. Will it become more transparent or continue its practice of ignoring and delaying requests made under the Official Information Act? As part of its political management National has engaged in the practice of withholding information for as long as possible.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English argues this is a very transparent government.

John Key could prove that by getting his office to at the very least acknowledge requests it receives under the Official Information Act. Getting his ministers to also treat requests seriously would be another positive step.

Responding to requests within 20 working days is perhaps expecting too much - even if it is required by the law.

Mr Key is unlikely to change the formula of combining an easy going public persona on the one hand with tight control of information on the other.

So far, in terms of how political success is judged, it has served him and National well.

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent

  • Parliament approves anti-terror laws
  • PM again under attack over Slater link
  • Govt 'the most open NZ has had'
  • Advice sought on PM destroying texts
  • PM's oversight not very intelligent
  • PM under fire over 'grubby' dealings
  • Hager has law on his side - lawyer