Year's end could turn ugly for National

Last updated 10:38 27/10/2012
John Key
There's a sense among John Key's Government that the worst of 2012 is over - but the year's end could yet take an ugly turn.

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Tracy Watkins

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Just over eight weeks till Christmas. Only six weeks or less before Parliament rises. Not that anyone is counting. But after weeks of distractions and blunders there is an air around the Beehive that the worst of 2012 is behind it.

OPINION: We're over the hump, was one assessment.

Given what lies ahead, you can only applaud their spirit. It has echoes of London during the Blitz.

So commonplace has trouble been lately that even a week which followed the usual pattern of bad news coming in twos or threes - it kicked off with the Maori water rights issue landing in court, and ended in fresh questions over the police organised crime agency behind the Kim Dotcom raids - counted as a good one for the Government.

There was some basis for the air of relief. Both issues - water and Dotcom - still have a long way to run. Both could again turn ugly for the Government. But not this week. After weeks of distractions, National and Labour were for once in accord.

Prime Minister John Key has clearly been wounded by the revelations that his top spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, illegally spied on New Zealand residents, including German internet mogul Kim Dotcom. At best, the perception is that spies were running amok under his lax ministerial oversight.

But till something new emerges, there is not a lot more mileage for Labour in keeping the issue running, especially after leader David Shearer's claims of an incriminating tape implicating Mr Key backfired so spectacularly when the tape failed to materialise.

And while the focus has remained on the Government being on the back foot, Labour has also lost momentum on the issues it had been getting traction on before Spygate blew up - jobs, growth and asset sales. For now it is happy to leave the running on Mr Dotcom largely to NZ First's Winston Peters, who can get away with making empty threats about explosive revelations to come, simply because he is not the major Opposition leader.

National, meanwhile, has its own motives for wanting to get back to the economy; it wants to talk about the Greens' policy of quantitative easing, or printing money, since it knows Labour thinks the policy is about as loopy as it does.

But events may conspire to cut short any chance of either Labour or National regaining momentum in the final weeks of 2012.

The political calendar is crowded by a list of potential political crises that is longer than the average Christmas shopping list.

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It is a list that includes:

  • A November High Court hearing on the Waitangi Tribunal water ruling, which could spark fresh division if it goes down the path of ownership;
  • A constitutional review, which could also stray into potentially divisive race issues.
  • A string of inquiries and investigations including the Paula Rebstock-led probe into leaks at the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, which has the potential to shatter reputations and snare senior public servants in its net.
  • An auditor-general's inquiry into the horse-trading over a national convention centre built by SkyCity in return for a quid pro quo promise to allow more pokie machines.
  • Ongoing inquiries into ACC privacy breaches.
  • The never-ending Dotcom saga, which still has a long way to play out in the courts and includes the investigation into the GCSB.
  • A housing affordability study next week, which has impossibly high expectations of an enduring solution to meet;
  • And a report to State Services Minister Jonathan Coleman on the air force Anzac Day crash, which killed three servicemen. One report has already damned the safety culture at RNZAF. The Labour Department (now part of the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry), responsible for workplace safety, may also come in for heavy criticism.

The end of the year is not without a potential landmine for Mr Shearer either; the auditor-general could release her report into former minister Shane Jones' handling of an immigration case involving Chinese national Bill Liu. Mr Liu, who goes by several names, was earlier this year found not guilty of making false declarations related to his immigration and citizenship application, despite a High Court judge declaring the case to be highly suspicious.

Mr Jones was stood down by Mr Shearer when the auditor-general launched her inquiry. Mr Liu was a substantial donor to the Labour Party. A damning report would sink Mr Jones' political career. But a less-than-damning report that also falls short of completely exonerating Mr Jones would be an even bigger headache for Mr Shearer.

Overshadowing all else are the Canterbury earthquake and Pike River inquires, both due by the end of November. Both will require a political response from the Government that gives comfort to the families of the victims of both disasters that lessons have been learnt.

But on the wider front, the recurring theme in the string of inquiries and reports is the questions they raise about the competence and oversight of many of our government institutions.

The same questions arise over the integrity of the GCSB and now police, who, it was revealed this week, doctored up a search warrant and misled the courts to boost the street cred of an undercover cop. The judge viewed the transgression so seriously he threw out a string of serious charges against more than 20 gang members.

An appeal may yet prove the Government and Police Association right that the judge overstepped the mark. But the involvement of the same police agency involved in the Dotcom raid, the Organised and Financial Crime Agency, begs the question about cowboy operators.

As Kiwis, we have always taken pride in a No 8-wire mentality as putting us a cut above. But our faith that "she'll be right" is seriously shaken; it is an attitude that could just as easily be a cover for corner-cutting and incompetence.

The Canterbury earthquake and Pike River inquiries have already heard chilling evidence of safety failures. The man who supervised the CTV building construction has been exposed as a fraudster who stole another man's identity. The building collapsed during the February 22 earthquake, killing 115 people.

In the case of Pike River, former mine boss Peter Whittall has denied 12 charges over the explosions that killed 29 men in November 2010. But in apportioning blame, the inquiry is expected to cast its net far wider than the mine company. There is likely to be blistering criticism of government oversight of mine safety.

In the fallout from both inquiries, there will be demands for heads to roll and questions over liability. A tough year for the Government could get even tougher.

- The Dominion Post


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