Not a syndrome yet but Key's slips are showing

Someone in the cabinet might tell the airline it mostly owns that Christchurch has been hit by an earthquake or two. The seatback video on a flight from Sydney featured the “gothic facade” on an intact cathedral and a “cable car (sic) on Regents (sic) Street”.

Tourists might be a tiny bit surprised when they try to board the tram to admire the cathedral. If, of course, they can find a place to stay.

But at least Air New Zealand doesn’t have Qantas’s unions. Repositioning Qantas cabin crew on domestic flights sit in business class. The leader of one of the unions running disruptive strikes told people not to book on Qantas for Christmas.

Unions count in Australia to a degree now near unimaginable here — and a re-elected John Key government would likely aim to reduce what clout they still occasionally muster.

That re-election might now be complicated by devious Greeks and incompetent Filipinos who drove a ship on to a reef, killing swathes of wildlife and wounding many businesses. The Greeks registered their ship in Liberia to skirt international rules. Put that beside the fact that it is Greeks’ aversion to tax and work that has precipitated a banking crunch in Europe which could go global and wash up here like big black slops of oil.

That storm has caused two rating agencies — the very same outfits which, for a fee, rated subprime mortgages as safe bets up till 2007 — to downrate Bill English’s government debt, which his budget was predicated on averting. Key’s response to that embarrassment was to sneer that one agency had said it would more likely cut the rating if Labour was in power, only to be directly contradicted by the agency which said it didn’t rate parties.

That is not a good look. Nor were Key’s accusations and hand across the throat directed at Labour when a man tried to jump down from the parliamentary gallery on Labour’s side, potentially seriously injuring an MP.

Add Key’s dismissal of a report on the cost of a poor early childhood by the respected Infometrics economics team as “rubbish”.

It bespeaks an occasional brittleness under pressure or faced with inconvenient evidence. It is not yet a syndrome but, unchecked, could become one. Labour correctly senses a vulnerability. Key needs a thicker skin.

A related habit is an understandable urge to give people reassurance after a disaster which he then, also understandably, can’t quite live up to. That happened in Christchurch and Pike River.

The Rena disaster is different: destruction was delayed and then was of wildlife and beaches, not humans. Ministers and Key did not sprint to Tauranga as they did to Christchurch and Pike River. Doubts were allowed to grow whether Maritime New Zealand was acting quickly or vigorously or collaboratively enough and Steven Joyce had to back and fill with explanations that serious commentators took seriously but which did not dispel public unease and anger, fanned by amateur-experts and media frenzy-feeders.

There was more fodder for that anger from Labour’s reminder on Saturday that a parliamentary committee called in late 2008 for fast enactment of the Convention on Limitation of Liability and Maritime Claims which would have doubled the shipping line’s direct liability. Officials’ briefing to incoming minister Joyce reiterated it — logically, because, as Joyce said, the Labour cabinet had actually approved action in June 2008 though with low priority.

After Audit Office criticism of the Treasury’s costly mishandling of the guarantee to South Canterbury Finance, this failure of fiduciary duty to taxpayers looks bad. But even if Joyce had got a bill drafted the lax management of Parliament’s business would probably have left it low on the agenda like many other important bills.

Again, it is not a syndrome. But it does suggest the cabinet needs tighter management than Key’s devolved style. Which is more important: removing compulsory student unionism or doubling the fees for dodgy Greek shipping companies?

None of this is likely to have stripped much, if any, of Key’s sheen — though he did eventually take it seriously enough to overcome his distaste for National Radio and give it interviews.

But it might flick a switch for some voters to take out insurance against a single-party majority, as focus groups in 2002 said voters did when Helen Clark’s Labour government, which had been cruising in the stratosphere as the election campaign began, hit turbulence in the form of a row over whether some genetically modified corn had been planted.

In Clark’s case Winston Peters and Peter Dunne benefited hugely. Peters delivered one of his punchier speeches in Tauranga on Saturday. Bedraggled ACT sits hopeful on the bench.

As for next Sunday, it is to be hoped Key has exhausted his attraction for disasters (credit crunch, earthquakes, a mine, oil spills). If not, voters are unlikely to hold a loss against him personally but it could throw the no-single-party-majority switch if the Rena hasn’t already.