Acting fast and loose not a Dunne deal

TRACY WATKINS POLITICAL WEEK
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2013
John Key

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OPINION: National has defied every prediction of coming unstuck.

When political weather vane Peter Dunne starts putting some distance between himself and the government of the day, you know something is up.

Mr Dunne has a nose for spotting political turning points; he served in Helen Clark's ministry but, once Labour looked like a lost cause, declared they were ideologically incompatible and started playing footsy with John Key.

Fast forward four years and Mr Dunne is starting to look sideways at National. In a blog which would have raised a few eyebrows among his government allies, Mr Dunne warned National about the potential for some of its tactics to explode in its face.

He highlighted two recent events: the auditor-general's report on the SkyCity convention centre deal, and the Government's dealings with studio bosses over the "Hobbit laws", as revealed by the long-delayed release of their exchanges.

On SkyCity, Mr Dunne labelled National's behaviour "fast and loose". In the case of the Hobbit, meanwhile, the Government's enthusiasm to cut a deal "did get in the way of the facts" from time to time, he observed. When people accuse you of not letting the truth get in the way of the facts, that's usually code for lying.

It's one thing for your opponents to call you slippery; it's extraordinary when your allies start doing the same thing.

In Mr Dunne's defence, he also made the point that pragmatism and an ability to cut through issues were what people liked about the Key Government.

But he rang an unmistakable alarm bell all the same. Support for National's "cut-through" approach would quickly wane if it started to look more like it was simply bending the rules, or doing special deals, he said. The ends do not always justify the means.

If National is running true to form, it will probably ignore the warning. It has come to regard most advice from outside its own tight circles with a cynical eye and no wonder.

It has defied every prediction of coming unstuck over ministerial transgressions and debacles like class sizes and Dotcom. As a Government, National remains as popular as the day it first swept into power.

But being unremittingly popular carries with it the danger that eventually you will start to believe in your own infallibility. All governments get there eventually, of course - usually a year or two before voters start to tire of them - and it is not hard to see why.

Ministers are whizzed from one meeting to the next in the back of their chauffeur-driven BMW with their heads buried in important matters of state. Officials race to open the door for them first.

The prime minister travels the world and discovers most problems seem petty from 30,000 feet up when they are focused on more weighty international affairs.

Meanwhile, scandals slide off with barely a scratch in those first few years. Even the most grounded person would find it hard not to develop a God complex.

You knew Helen Clark had got there when she referred to herself in the third person, famously describing herself as a popular and competent prime minister.

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National is well on its way. John Key looked like a man who wanted to be anywhere but Wellington this week when reporters tried to drill down into the detail of how National would keep its promise that Kiwis would be at the front of the queue for 85 per cent to 90 per cent of shares in Mighty River Power.

The promise was a cornerstone of National's election platform but Mr Key was clearly close to losing his rag when it seemed his insistence that the pledge would be honoured wasn't enough to stop the questions.

After accusing reporters of playing games, he flew out to South America and seemed much happier trying on sombreros and drumming up support for New Zealand's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Meanwhile, ministers' offices - with some notable exceptions, including Bill English, Steven Joyce and Paula Bennett - increasingly hide behind press releases, as the bunker mentality takes root.

Even Mr Key's chief press secretary, Kevin Taylor, circled the wagons some time ago. Mr Taylor's main contact with major media outlets these days is to fire off missives from deep within the Beehive when he takes criticism of the Government personally.

But someone should poke their head above the parapet long enough to heed Mr Dunne's warning. He has watched more governments come and go than most MPs. And his is a reminder that there is a danger point which all governments reach, when their greatest strengths can also become their Achilles heel.

In Labour's case, Miss Clark's hands-on approach to government got the tick from voters as a sign of huge competence, but eventually came to seem domineering and controlling.

In National's case, Mr Key's "whatever it takes" approach risks - as Mr Dunne points out - looking fast and loose. When it also starts to read like "whatever it takes to remain in power", National will really be in trouble.

National's treatment of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone, back in the news this week over her $425,000 exit payout, was political expediency at its most ruthless.

The Government decided someone's head would have to roll over bungled education policy, and Mr Key was adamant it would not be that of his minister, Hekia Parata.

Golden handshakes are time-honoured Opposition fodder; the public hate them and they look like political mismanagement.

Yet Mr Key's response to news of Ms Longstone's payout this week was to shrug his shoulders and suggest it just "didn't work out". Her payout, meanwhile, was the bare minimum, he suggested.

In other words, $425,000 is the price of political expediency. By choosing Ms Parata over her chief executive, National expects Ms Longstone to become the public face of education bungles. The ends justifies the means.

Expecting the public to swallow that might just be wishful thinking, of course.

Or it might be a sign that National has come to believe too firmly in its own infallibility.

- The Dominion Post

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