National caught deep in the mire

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 01/09/2014
stuff.co.nz

John Key on Judith Collins resignation and whether it will hurt National's election campaign.

Key
PHIL WALTER/Getty Images
IN THE ROUGH: New Zealand Prime Minister John Key reacts on the 13th hole at the Hills Golf Club in March. Now he's facing even worse trouble from the snowball effect of the Dirty Politics scandal.

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OPINION: The snowball effect of the Dirty Politics scandal is threatening to bury National.

There was overwhelming relief from sections of National's camp yesterday that Prime Minister John Key finally had a reason to act against Judith Collins, who had become the biggest liability to National's re-election chances.

There was even hope that it might put the campaign back on track as increasingly ugly questions swirl around the Key Government. But that may be a slim hope.

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Three weeks out from an election Collins' resignation could have the opposite effect - it might reinforce to voters there is no smoke without fire.

Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, linking Key's ninth floor office to shock-jock blogger Cameron Slater, will gain even more credence now it has claimed a scalp - even if Collins maintains she wants to clear her name in an inquiry.

That was the gamble Key had to take, however, after Collins was dragged into one of the more scandalous stories of the Dirty Politics scandal so far.

Key went on the attack yesterday, continuing to beat the drum about Left-wing smear campaigns and insisting voters want to hear about "the real issues".

But that no longer washes.

The suggestion, which the emails appear to raise, that his justice minister might have been involved, even peripherally, in a paid and co-ordinated campaign by Right-wing bloggers to undermine Serious Fraud Office boss Adam Feeley, strikes at the heart of confidence in his government.

The Sunday Star-Times revealed yesterday that the bloggers - it appeared from the emails - were being paid by former Hanover boss Mark Hotchin for their efforts. Hotchin was under investigation by the SFO at the time.

It was untenable for Collins to remain in her position once those allegations were aired.

Key will today unveil the details of an inquiry to probe the allegations. To be credible it will need full powers of inquiry, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and take evidence under oath. But that will mean nothing can happen till after the election; even if Collins is exonerated, it will be too late to make a difference.

Meanwhile, Key's office will be dragged before an inquiry by the Security and Intelligence watchdog to give evidence under oath about allegations of a Security Intelligence Service document being declassified in order to fast-track an Official Information Act request by Slater.

Key's right-hand man, chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, is among those likely to be summoned, with indications that the hearings will take place before the election.

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Voters must increasingly be wondering what to make of it.

As for Key's wish that Collins' resignation will draw a line under the events of the past week - that may be out of his hands. The story of this campaign is that others appear to be setting the agenda.

- The Dominion Post

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