Trust matters. Just look on the world stage

Tony Blair said Saddam Hussein could activate MWD in 45 minutes. George Bush said Hussein had been trying to buy uranium in Africa. Helen Clark said in last year’s election campaign all relevant documents on the 2000 GM corn scare would be made public.

Blair was wrong. Bush was wrong. Clark was wrong.

Blair blamed his intelligence wallahs, who demurred. Bush blamed British intelligence even though his own intelligence wallahs had falsified the claim. Clark blamed Mark Prebble.

Prebble is very able and a stickler for constitutional form: a public servant must carry out the minister’s lawful orders. Clark’s “full disclosure” order was lawful.

It is possible to explain his withholding the Ruth Wilkie GM memo (on confidentiality grounds) by the ambiguity in Clark’s in-house comment, as Wilkie reported it, that Clark was prepared for the notes to be released “if necessary”. This ambiguity would have left it open to Prebble to apply his confidentiality rule.

And then his action can be glossed as a “mistake” — failing to recognise that in this case public interest overrode confidentiality and thus getting the constitutional niceties wrong.

There was a constitutional stir at the time of the original disclosure. Ministers ordered public servants to front the media on the corn cover-up charges — in effect, to come to the aid of members of one party, Labour, in the heat of an election.

Science Minister Pete Hodgson introduced the officials, then stood watch at the back of the room. State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham, guardian of the public service ethos who yesterday said Prebble was wrong but will not be sacked, was there, too, giving his imprimatur.

In fact the officials were strictly proper and stuck to the facts. So a perilous precedent was not set, though only just. Constitutionally, the public service must be strictly neutral among political parties.

But isn’t constitutionality just for Wellington pointyheads? A chicken in every pot is what the punters care about. And right now chickens are plentiful.

Well, constitutionality is what marks a good democracy from bad and democracy from autocracy. It matters in invisible ways, protecting our freedoms, which are next in importance — some say crucial — to chickens in pots.

Trust matters, too.

Trust has two main dimensions in politics.

One is how much a politician’s word can be relied on. Sophisticated electorates, such as Bush’s, Blair’s and Clark’s, have long since learned how to assess and tolerate some slippage between word and fact.

They are not much moved by events such as last week’s unless they are frequent and/or very serious. (Though if the media tone changes as a result of the Wilkie memo, that will erode some of Clark’s vote over time).

Generally, voters bother more about the second dimension of trust — that a politician can get the job done. Much duplicity is forgiven amidst prosperity and security.

Back to Bush and Blair. Both have lost some trust, Blair a great deal, for their insupportable claims in support of war.

Moreover, since the point of the Iraq war was to enhance security — of the United States and our sorts of societies — now that the American death count in the “peace” has passed the count in the war, there is some nervousness that it may not work. It won’t feel too good here, either, if one of our engineers gets blown up.

In fact, the current so-called “quagmire” in Iraq is not surprising. It was largely foreshadowed by James Fallows in a deeply researched and finely nuanced article in the Atlantic Monthly in November last year, long before hostilities.

Fallows is in this country next week. A supporter of Iraqi “regime change”, he argued last year that the parallel was not Hitler in the 1930s but World War I. “Wars change history in ways no one can foresee.”

“Having taken dramatic action, we would no doubt be seen — by the world and by ourselves — as responsible for the consequences.” And so it is. Bush is going back to the United Nations to wheedle help in managing Iraq from those he brushed aside in his rush to combat in March.

So Bush and Blair are stuck with consequences of their own making, the opposite (for the moment) of the security they promised. Critics can hardly contain their schadenfreude — just as the anti-GM lobby here is delighting in the Clark ministry’s discomfort.

Not so fast. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, no slavish Bush acolyte, sets the setback in something like the original context, the “war on terror”.

“We are attracting all these opponents [terrorists in Iraq] because they understand this war is the big one … beat America’s ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere.”

If Friedman is right, winning the “peace” will take a very long time and great determination. For that a great deal of trust will be needed at home, yet Bush and Blair have undone much trust.

That is a lesson for leaders everywhere, even in this tiny backwater.