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John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: National's SkyCity damage control

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Labour leader David Shearer claimed the report implicated the Prime Minister, rather than vindicating him. Key was in it up to eyeballs. He was in donkey-deep. Photo / Getty Images
Labour leader David Shearer claimed the report implicated the Prime Minister, rather than vindicating him. Key was in it up to eyeballs. He was in donkey-deep. Photo / Getty Images

To watch Parliament yesterday was to witness an escape act of almost Houdini-like proportions. Moreover, one which was carried off with the performer barely breaking into a sweat.

Opposition MPs had valid reason to think they could wipe the smile off John Key's face as they peppered him with tricky questions flowing from the content of Tuesday's report by Deputy Auditor-General Phillippa Smith into how SkyCity became the preferred bidder for the construction of a national convention centre.

Labour leader David Shearer claimed the report implicated the Prime Minister, rather than vindicating him. Key was in it up to eyeballs. He was in donkey-deep.

Pinning the tail on this particular beast of burden turned out to be a far more difficult proposition.

Shearer queried how Key could have said last year that his office had not had any correspondence, discussions or involvement in the convention centre proposal when the Prime Minister and his chief of staff had dined with the SkyCity board members.

It looked like an open-and-shut case until Key quashed it by explaining the statement had been made in the context of the later "expression of interest" stage, when neither he nor his office was involved. A check of the transcript of TVNZ's Q+A programme reveals Key was right.

National's damage control strategy has been to try to paint Key's earlier contacts with SkyCity as perfectly normal.

In labelling the process as unsatisfactory, unfair and not even-handed however, Smith's report has added significant grist to those who think SkyCity got preferential treatment. But having vigorously opened this can of worms, Smith then put the lid back on again, offering only some fairly muted expressions of concern in her summing-up about flaws in a process which should have resulted in a competitive tender.

That reticence has given Key room to move - or spin to be more exact. Further Opposition attempts to chain him down faltered on him variously coming up with new explanations for alleged inconsistencies or simply not answering the question - a tactic designed to take the pressure off him as the Opposition got sidetracked into lengthy wrangles with new Speaker David Carter.

It was the roughest question-time that Carter has faced so far, bringing an admission for the first, but surely not the last, time that his patience was wearing thin.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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