Editorial: Believe him or not

20:31, Aug 29 2013

Ask people to finish a sentence starting "Trust me . . ." and most will surely add " . . . I know what I'm doing."

Which is not necessarily the same as ". . . I'm scrupulously truthful".

For starters it seems counter-intuitive, or simply weird, that New Zealanders trust John Key more than they believe him.

Although nearly 59 per cent of those polled have indicated they don't fully believe what he says, the same number still rank him as a strong and effective leader.

Let's not forget that the Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll used that phrase "fully believe".

It's perhaps possible that the respondents, even if they're inclined to answer that in the affirmative, are reluctant to come across as quite as uncritical as it may sound.


There's more to it than that, though.

The distinction surely can't be ascribed simply to people being reluctant to seem gullible.

Nor is it likely to be that people are effortlessly forgiving the prime minister's (occasional? abiding?) problems of factual accuracy on the grounds that they represent stumbles under pressure, rather than intent to deceive.

Yes there's a legitimate difference between fallibility and mendacity.

And that it should be particularly born in mind when we're considering a guy who goes through his working life with recording devices being placed insistently under his gob.

Plainly, for all that, Mr Key is not a details-oriented politician. And in common with the huge majority of his political peers, he doesn't like having to hum and hah on the record.

Rather than just mis-speaking and misremembering at times, he has shown tendency to be loose with the facts, particularly in issues like the Kim Dotcom and Government Communications Security Bureau and the appointment of his old mate Ian Fletcher as its head.

Maybe we just flat-out expect less of politicians.

We all know the old joke. All together now: How do you know one is lying? His lips are moving.

Labour's outgoing leader David Shearer scored far better than Mr Key for believability, but (it turns out intolerably) worse for strong and effective leadership.

So maybe we have gradually come to calibrate ourselves against lower expectations of their up-frontedness and we're willing to put failings of honesty into the "duly noted" category without it collapsing their credibility in the matters that we regard as more important.

Like how the economy is picking up.

Yes, economic stewardship is mightily important.

It's not the only thing that matters, though.

During the passage of recent spy laws Mr Key has particularly needed to adopt a "trust me" stance to counter concerns about civil rights erosion and the potential for snooping to go far beyond legitimate matters of security.

He's asking us to trust his standards and his judgments.

Troublingly, that's a case where he may know what he's doing.

But most often we won't.

The Southland Times