OPINION: That must have felt like a very long week in politics for John Key.
What was probably intended to be a steady start to the campaign, with a few soft announcements building towards the official launch tomorrow and then a short sharp month – all the better to squeeze the Opposition out of the frame – has been anything but steady.
There are already shades of Corngate, the Exclusive Brethren and the Teapot Tapes in the dirty politics furore.
All were issues from left-field that, if not always of the government’s making, were made worse by a leaders’ reaction to them, including the last resort of the politician cornered by questions – blame the messenger.
There are several strands to the accusations in Nicky Hager’s latest book and the penumbra of media examination around it.
But the most difficult for Key is not the forensic unpicking of who was told what, and when, about the SIS’s release of documents to blogger Cameron Slater.
The really tricky one is how to deal with Judith Collins, a senior minister at the heart of his government who has clearly taken her friendship with Slater too far.
Key has opted for the lesser of two evils by keeping her on with only a mild rebuke. (‘‘Unwise’’, in the glossary of political discipline, is somewhere near the bottom of the rising crescendo that passes through inappropriate and ends up at inexcusable and unacceptable for a minister.)
The alternative was to sack her or issue a much stronger rebuke, but on that he was boxed in by the final warning he gave her for not being full and frank with him during the Oravida controversy.
Also, a tougher response would have given credence to Hager’s book, which Key has been at pains from the day it was published to avoid doing.
That begs the question what he will do with Collins if he is prime minister after September 20.
She could be offered up as a sacrifice on the altar of a deal with Winston Peters – he is no fan of National’s hard Right – with a Cabinet demotion. That was unlikely before the events of last week.
Collins was a strong minister who got things done with loyal backing from her rightist supporters in the party and the back bench. But even they must now be having doubts.
Collins’ involvement has also made it harder for Key to discipline his ‘‘black ops’’ guy, Jason Ede, even if he wanted to.
Ede’s actions differed from Collins’ only in degree and to slap around an official while letting a minister off lightly would send all the wrong signals.
But the combination of won’t read the book, won’t discipline my staff, and won’t apologise has not worked well for Key.
What is missing is in an acknowledgment that, even in the dirty world of politics, Ede, and through him Slater, went too far and that Collins got too close to the action herself.
Deputy leader Bill English said it was not his style. Seamy would be another word.
Instead, Key started by attacking the author and the illegal hacking of Slater’s emails, moved on to his political opponents and on Thursday in Christchurch rounded on the media as well.
If evidence comes to light, as a political leader you have to deal with it irrespective of how it came out. The attacks on the illegality of hacking and Hager’s agenda are all very well. But Hager and the hacker didn’t write the emails.
And, as selective as they may be, they disclose at the very least a culture of bragging, utu, contempt and tough talking at the expense of innocent members of the public as well as their own colleagues.
One of the worst was the attack on public servant Simon Pleasants, because they suspected he had leaked a story about English’s accommodation allowance. He didn’t.
By Thursday, rather than conceding any ground on the substantive questions, Key tried to shame the media by suggesting they were ‘‘effectively supporting illegal activity’’ – the hacking – by continuing to run hard with the Hager-inspired issues.
In parallel he tried to suggest there was something anti-democratic going on. That it was all an attempt to subvert the true will of the people. That ‘‘a hacker and people with a Left-wing agenda are trying to take an election off New Zealanders’’.
But as much as Key tries to make it the voters’ problem, it remains his problem.
If he doesn’t want to take action, to admit any fault in his back office, then he has to hope that toughing it out will not open him up to a most unlikely defeat.
His best chance of that is to grab back the agenda tomorrow with his official campaign launch.
To date, National’s campaign has been relatively low-key on policy.
But with the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update out of the way, with no nasty surprises in the Budget numbers, the way is clear for a big announcement tomorrow.
There are few clues so far to what it might be. Ministers have been hosing down the possibility of a tax-cut announcement but hints in that direction are already strong.
English has put a figure on the amount available; $500 million a year from the $1.5 billion available for new initiatives. Chances are that will be accumulated to a $1.5b package later in the three-year term.The launch in South Auckland could suggest a social policy announcement with poverty, housing, inequality and childhood problems seen by the Opposition as the Government’s vulnerabilities.
But intriguingly, in recent speeches Key has been adding ‘‘environment’’ to his list of things New Zealanders most care about. Something in that area could appeal to the growing number of blue-greens and what used to be called the Sue Kedgley Mums after the former Green MP.
Whatever it is Key will be hoping it will allow him to seize back the agenda.
But that will not be easy.
The hacker seems set on drip-feeding the Slater emails whenever an issue becomes the topic du jour and there are more rocks around the corner.
The report into Gerry Brownlee’s security breach at Christchurch Airport is due before the election and, of course, there is Kim Dotcom’s ‘‘big reveal’’ just days out from the election.
Key is still in the box seat to win on September 20, but thanks to events – mostly of his own making – you get the feeling it is going to be a very long month indeed for Key and his inner circle.
The release of Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, and thousands of hacked emails linking Key’s office to shock jock blogger Cameron Slater has blindsided Key.
The Teapot Tapes
A recording of a conversation between Key and Epsom candidate John Banks, which they believed private, was handed to a Sunday newspaper sparking frenzied speculation about its contents. Key stormed out of a media conference and accused cameraman Bradley Ambrose of deliberately making a covert recording. National won the election and when the contents of the tape later emerged it turned out to be a total fizzer.
Labour flew a team to Australia to trawl through court records after being set on a false trail in search of evidence linking Key to a financial scandal decades earlier, labelled the H-bomb by Labour insiders. Helen Clark was on the campaign trail when news of the failed smear broke. There was a change of government when the country went to the polls a short time later.