Editorial: Prime Minister's bad memory embarrassing

Last updated 05:00 04/04/2013
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MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

FORGET-ME-NOT: John Key addresses media at the Porirua Club in regards to the appointment of Ian Fletcher.

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OPINION: There is nothing wrong with John Key calling an old mate's brother and telling him there's a public service vacancy he might be interested in applying for.

There is everything wrong with the prime minister misleading the public about his involvement in the appointment of that old friend's brother, Ian Fletcher, as head of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Mr Key's fondness for picking up the phone and talking directly to those at the coalface is a trait he shares with other go-getters who have become prime ministers. However, his predecessors all recognised the importance of maintaining public confidence in government.

Mr Key has now failed to do so on at least two occasions – first by advocating on behalf of one of the potential builders of a new convention centre in Auckland and now by being less than candid about his role in Mr Fletcher's appointment.

Last week the prime minister was asked by a reporter what part he had played in the appointment. "Only that the state services commissioner came to me with the recommendation," he replied. "That's normal."

He was also asked, in Parliament, whether he had had contact with Mr Fletcher since his school days.

"I cannot recall particular occasions; I am sure I may well have done so."

As the subsequent explanation by the prime minister has revealed, both those answers were wholly inadequate.

In 2011, Mr Key called Mr Fletcher in Queensland, where he was working at the time, to suggest he apply for the GCSB position. That call constitutes involvement in the process and contact of the sort he was asked about in Parliament. If Mr Key had not made the call, Mr Fletcher would not have applied for the job.

Mr Key now says that he forgot making the call. His answer stretches the bounds of credulity. How many senior public service vacancies does he alert former classmates' brothers to?

John Banks has been rightly ridiculed for saying he cannot remember flying in a helicopter to the grandest mansion in the country and David Shearer has been derided for forgetting he had more than $50,000 in a foreign bank account.

Mr Key's forgetfulness is equally inexplicable and even more damaging because he is prime minister.

As a former diplomat and head of the UK Patent Office, Mr Fletcher appears to have the requisite managerial experience for the GCSB role. However, Mr Key's memory loss raises questions about his other qualifications for the position. Before Mr Fletcher applied for the post, State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie had rejected four other applicants for the job. Between them they reportedly had decades of experience in the military and cloak and dagger businesses. What was it that they lacked and Mr Fletcher possessed?

There are many potential answers, but one of them at least was a personal acquaintanceship with the prime minister.

Mr Key's changing story will only fuel the suspicions of those who argue it is not what you know but who you know that matters.

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