• The New Muldoon

    In August 2011, the Herald published a piece of mine in which I warned that John Key was in danger of posing, by virtue of his dominance of both the political process and the media, a Muldoon-like threat to good government and accountability. Today, in the light of more recent events, there may be a better understanding of the point I was trying to make.

    The most recent of those events is the controversy that has arisen about the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment of Ian Fletcher as head of the government’s security agency. The episode gives cause for concern on a number of grounds.

    What seems beyond doubt is that Ian Fletcher, although no doubt a competent public servant, had no relevant experience to qualify him for the job. It is a mystery, therefore, that – following the rejection of a short list of four people with relevant experience – his name and his alone went forward.

    It is also beyond doubt that this unusual process came about as a result of John Key’s intervention. The Prime Minister’s memory may again have conveniently failed him, but it was his phone call to an old family friend which led directly to Ian Fletcher’s appointment. It is beyond belief that the knowledge that he enjoyed the Prime Minister’s patronage was not a factor in his appearance on a short list of one and his emergence out of left field as the preferred candidate.

    Does this matter, or should we – like John Key – shrug our shoulders and say that that’s the way these things happen? The first point to make is that heading the GCSB is one of the most critical appointments in the public service. An incumbent who lacked the necessary qualities could make mistakes with very serious consequences – and this may have been a factor in what is now recognised as the mishandling of the Dotcom affair, the first major issue faced by Ian Fletcher following his appointment.

    And how convenient it was for John Key that, following his visit to GCSB a month after the illegal raid on Dotcom’s mansion, the video recording of the briefing he received on current issues, and whose details he could not subsequently recall, could not somehow be found. This allowed the Prime Minister to escape censure for his incorrect assertion that he had had no knowledge of the Dotcom affair until much later.

    At the very least, this episode illustrates the danger of what might be perceived as a close nexus between the head of the spy agency and the Prime Minister. A spy chief – possessing as he does the power to spy and report on ordinary citizens – should never be seen as the Prime Minister’s creature.

    It is not only John Key’s role in the appointments process that should raise eyebrows. We have again witnessed an increasingly familiar sequence of events. First, the Prime Minister bypasses proper process and stitches up a secret deal with cronies – either business or political or both. He has grown accustomed to behaving, in other words, as a law unto himself; the Prime Minister’s fiat takes precedence, it seems, over normal process and rules. Then, when he is rumbled, he denies that anything improper has happened, or professes to have no recollection of what was done or said, or passes the responsibility on to someone else, or falsely claims, as in the case of the deal with Sky City over a convention centre, that – in defiance in this case of the Deputy Auditor General’s report – he has been vindicated.

    What is worrying is his readiness to obfuscate, to slip and slide away from taking responsibility for what he has done. His confidence that he can get away with being economical (and in some cases just plain careless) with the truth has led him, it seems, to lose any respect for not only the media but – surprisingly – Parliament as well.

    In the GCSB case, we have seen John Key treating Parliament with contempt, omitting to mention the phone call he made to Ian Fletcher (a call he claims to have “forgotten”) and also giving a misleading and partial account of his relationship with Fletcher.

    Much of this will pass over the heads of most people. They will continue to respond to the Prime Minister’s ready smile and friendly manner. It is, though, one of the hazards of the media age that presentational skills have taken over from honesty and plain-dealing as the qualities we rate in our leaders.

    Democracy is not just a matter of electing people to govern us. It works only if, having elected a government and a Prime Minister, we then hold them properly to account – a task that rests not only on the media but on all of us. The danger is that John Key can now assume that he can escape that test – that he can achieve through obfuscation and glad-handing the same immunity from scrutiny, the same release from the obligation to account to his electors, that Muldoon secured through bullying and intimidation.

    Bryan Gould

    4 April 2013

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