Key's snapper attack swallowed whole

HOOK, LINE AND SINKER: Prime Minister John Key landed more than a debate over snapper last week.
HOOK, LINE AND SINKER: Prime Minister John Key landed more than a debate over snapper last week.

I've never really got fishing.

As children, my brothers and I used to chuck a line off the rocks near Portage in the Marlborough Sounds, but all we ever caught were spotties.

We'd lug a net full of them triumphantly up to the batch where Mum would thank us, carefully place the mostly inedible catch outside, and wait for the ever-hungry weka to devour it.

Since then I've often wondered what people see in sitting on a riverbank, a rock wall, or a boat for hours while nothing much happens. But then, golf is a good walk spoiled and that doesn't stop people lugging their clubs around windswept fairways.

I appreciate, however, that I am either in the minority or at least a slim majority of people who don't much care for fishing. And that, as Prime Minister John Key found last week, you tamper with the bag limit of this nation of fishing fanatics at your peril.

Former prime minister Helen Clark once said to me during an interview that it's the little things that can catch you out as a leader - things you don't see coming out of a wet Thursday afternoon, often in the form of proposals by government officials for things such as car park taxes or compulsory low-flow shower heads.

I'm torn on the snapper quota though. It's either a salutary lesson for National on the things that really matter to us Kiwis, or it's a political masterstroke of Machiavellian proportions. And I can't decide which.

On the face of it, cutting bag limits from nine snapper a day to just three makes sense in parts of New Zealand where the fishery has been depleted. Another suggestion that sounds reasonable on the face of it was to keep the current bag limit but increase the minimum fish size from 27cm to 35cm. And yet all hell broke loose. According to Key, the Government has received a whopping 30,000 submissions on the snapper snarfu and just 124 on the GCSB bill.

National MPs have been badgered in their electorates by irate anglers and their email systems swamped by fishers who claim the Government is trying to interfere with their fundamental rights as New Zealanders to gather food for their families.

Poor old Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy has copped most of the flak, having been wheeled out to front the issue, possibly as punishment for stuffing up so badly over the quarantining of New Zealand meat products on Chinese wharves.

Now, whenever Key is asked anything about the GCSB bill, which is before Parliament, he answers by saying, "I think people are much more interested in the snapper quota".

Journalist: "Why?"

Key (deadpan): "Because they like catching fish."

Now, the cynic in me senses - if you'll pardon the pun - something fishy going on. In fact, to quote Key from 2008, "it's as smelly as a 7-day-old snapper".

Because it's awfully convenient - putting up a straw man just as public discontent over the prospect of our spy agencies finally getting the chance to legally snoop on us starts to gather some momentum.

The Opposition has swallowed the tactic hook, line, and sinker, with Labour expressing outrage over National's dastardly plan to swipe the fish from the fryer in living rooms around New Zealand.

In my opinion, Key has no intention of allowing the proposed snapper quota cut to proceed - so fisher folk can rest easy. The whole thing is a complete red herring (and that's the last fish pun, I promise).

Even six months ago I wouldn't have credited the prime minister with the political nous to pull off such a ruse. But Key is finally coming into his own as a politician of considerable skill and finesse.

Anyone who doubts this should take a look at the prime minister's performance on TV3's Campbell Live last Wednesday night. After making some rather snide remarks about the champion of the underdog's "GCSB Roadshow" and suggesting the broadcaster focus on fish instead of spies, Key agreed to come on the show for the first time in months.

Campbell was champing at the bit for a piece of the prime minister but couldn't land a single blow as Key deftly side-stepped every accusation about the spy bill and made a few of his own, telling Campbell: "You're scaring people . . you're making things up."

At one point an exasperated Campbell - who has several times got the better of NZ First leader Winston Peters, surely the most difficult man in the country to interview - told Key: "You're a brilliant politician."

Campbell didn't mean it as a compliment, but he was right. Key is running rings around every other politician at the moment, both here and in Australia, where voters are being asked to choose between the pompous and vain Kevin Rudd and the misogynist and clearly mad Tony Abbott.

The fact that Key is at the very peak of his powers will see the spying bill passed without too much more fuss, no matter what the media, the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, the former head of the GCSB, or former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer - all of whom the prime minister claims are wrong - has to say.

It's still bad law, passed in haste, as is regrettably so often the case in New Zealand - a country Sir Geoffrey once described as harbouring "the fastest lawmakers in the west" .

Still, we'll have plenty of time to repent at leisure. Probably while we're out fishing.

Waikato