Cruiser Key and an inconvenient question

John Key cruised into his job. He didn’t do the apprenticeship a Helen Clark or a Jim Bolger did before becoming leader of his party, then Prime Minister. That is one reason he misses some points of proper process.

The apprenticeship he did do was doing deals. Doing deals is how politics and government are done in Washington where money talks and talks big and Key has a soft spot for the United States (viz his Korea mistake on Sunday). A deal-making mentality is another reason he misses some points of proper process.

A deal is a deal. How you get it matters a lot less than that you get it. Key got in a family connection, Ian Fletcher, to run the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), which broke the law by spying on Kim Dotcom and thereby mucked up Dotcom’s extradition.

He got Sky City to talk turkey about a convention centre for Auckland, which was great news for tourism. That earned himself, his ministers and officials a polite ticking off from the Deputy Auditor-General but he professes not to see — or doesn’t see because he didn’t do the apprenticeship — that beneath the politeness the report was critical of the deal-making process. Deal makers don’t rate politeness.

And that is the nub of the Ian Fletcher affair. In this country doing policy deals has since 1912 been tightly circumscribed by written and unwritten rules.

Whether Key gets the real import of Iain Rennie’s carefully polite “surprise” and “issues of perception” language about the GCSB appointment is not clear — though the embarrassed “body language” reporters noticed last Thursday suggest it probably did get through.

If not, Key could get some interpretative help from Rebecca Kitteridge, whose report on the GCSB he will release when back from China. As cabinet secretary, Kitteridge has — has to have — a deep knowledge of the constitution and all its protocols and conventions on proper process, including on appointing senior public servants.

The point is that New Zealand’s rules about high-level core public service appointments are the world’s purest. (Crown entity and state-owned enterprise boards are a different matter and governments may, and do, freely appoint toadies and hacks.) That purity is one reason this country persistently ranks No 1 or 2 in clean-government surveys.

A single transgression isn’t a hanging offence. Key did not bring the democratic house down by phoning breakfast-companion Fletcher and inviting him to apply to be GCSB boss. Every cabinet transgresses once or twice.

But the price of purity is eternal vigilance. That is why, to Key’s progressive irritation and eventual irascibility, the media followed up Grant Robertson’s initial revelation by way of a question in Parliament and then probed Key’s evolving explanations and bit-by-bit ownings-up. The “knuckleheads”, as he called journalists on Friday (echoing his over-the-top “slippery slope” allegations over the John Banks “tea party” recording in the 2011 campaign), were doing their democratic job.

Key can arguably be forgiven his initial incomplete (and thereby misleading) response to Robertson because it was a trap question, tacked on to another about the GCSB and an example of the game-playing that has degraded question time. But he tacked on to his initial offhand response a gratuitous insult about Robertson’s intelligence, which diverted Parliament into points of order that ended in Labour MPs Trevor Mallard and Chris Hipkins being thrown out.

And, come the following Tuesday when he knew he would be questioned at the post-cabinet press conference, he could have been expected to have got the story straight. Not so. It went downhill from there as the knuckleheads sensed and documented another “brain fade”.

Again, a memory lapse is not a hanging offence. Even the famously retentive Clark had one from time to time. The issue is not a faultless memory but whether (a) memory lapses happen more often than one would expect of a Prime Minister on top of the job or (b) a memory lapse is convenient, that is, amounts to obfuscation.

After his first brain fade on the GCSB last year Key got himself better briefed for press conferences and other questioning. He began to look more the executive Prime Minister most expect than the guy who got the job without apprenticeship. That has been undone somewhat by the Fletcher affair.

Does it matter? At the cabinet apex is triangle of Key and two superministers, Bill English, who sees to strategy and reform, and Steven Joyce, who sees to GDP growth. Though, as Business New Zealand’s and other organisations’ scathing assessments of the Resource Management Act reforms suggest, sometimes policy workability and political saleability are sacrificed for speed and single-mindedness, it is on the whole a very effective trio.

And Key cruises on, his popularity high. The political risk is that too many rule breaches and brain fades will cause him to lose altitude. Who then would cruise National into a third term?