Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: New Zealand's power elite

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Labour and the Greens are highlighting PM John Key's personal connections with GCSB director Ian Fletcher. Photo / File
Labour and the Greens are highlighting PM John Key's personal connections with GCSB director Ian Fletcher. Photo / File

New Zealand has a power elite running the country. There should be no doubt about this - some people have significantly more power than others, and they live and work together. But is this abnormal, dysfunctional or anti-democratic? Certainly critics of Prime Minister John Key are attempting to paint a picture of Key as someone who, conspiratorially plots and operates with business leaders and the general Establishment to retain power and keep the masses under control. Perhaps there's some logic in that. But the latest attempts to besmirch Key's reputation seem rather lame. Labour and the Greens are highlighting the PM's personal connections with GCSB director Ian Fletcher, and are throwing around mud. MPs are using the words 'nepotism' and 'sinister', referring to Key's apparent 'conflict of interest', and complaining about a lack of transparency - see Adam Bennett's PM plays down friendship with GCSB boss.

The strongest criticisms are coming from the Greens - see Andrea Vance's Green MP says spy boss link with Key 'sinister'. Green MP Steffan Browning has made some harsh allegations: 'For them to have that sort of relationship, it's nepotism - it's more than that, it's something you might think [went on] in some sort of third world country where there aren't decent checks and balances'. He bases these allegations on what appears to be third-hand information that appears to be verging on gossip or bragging: 'Browning said he had been told by a friend who also knew Mr Fletcher that he and Mr Key continued to stay in touch after their school days'.

Browning appears to descend into parody when alleging that while at Christchurch's Burnside High School: 'They all went to each other's places together, they all hung out together'.

Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister is reported as hitting back 'angrily' calling the attacks 'totally unfounded criticism and pretty low rent' - see Andrea Vance's Key: Green MP needs to pull his head in. Certainly when the micro-scandal arose, Key dismissed in Parliament the idea of the two being 'mates', saying that he only 'vaguely' knew Fletcher, but admitting their mothers had once been 'best friends'. Key also claims to have advised the State Services Commission of the relationship. So for Browning to continue to label the situation as 'very, very disturbing' seems somewhat hyperbolic. While there is certainly room for investigations and questions about New Zealand's Establishment (the interlocking company directorships, relationships between politicians and bureaucrats, business power, and social connections), it seems a bit underwhelming to use examples emanating from Burnside High School. What's more, the Labour-Green attack has allowed various rightwing blogs to say what most of the public are already thinking: 'this is getting silly' and the Opposition is grasping at straws - see, for example, David Farrar's Scandal - their mothers were friends and Keeping Stock's Grasping at straws.

Other complaints about politician impropriety are also topical, due to the appearance yesterday of the deputy Auditor-General at a select committee, where she answered questions about the recent SkyCity and Shane Jones reports - which are well covered in Newswire's PM contradicted on SkyCity 'vindication' and Hamish Rutherford's Auditor General hearing on Shane Jones. It appears that scandalmongering is an activity that MPs can't quite help themselves from doing.

This is also partly the cause of current heat occurring in the parliamentary debating chamber, with the debate over Key's alleged friendships eventually leading to expulsion - see Isaac Davison's David Carter ejects Labour MPs from the House and Jane Clifton's Speaker's ruling sets stage for hostilities of biblical proportions. Again, hyperbole is evident in responses to the event, with MP Chris Hipkins (@chrishipkins) saying on Twitter, 'Today is a sad day for Parliamentary democracy'.

But clearly there is a rising anger in the Debating Chamber, especially over the role of new Speaker David Carter. According to one blogger, blame lies on all sides - see Pete George's Speaker troubles - Key's and Shearer's responsibility. For the question for Labour is, according to Scott Yorke, What to do about Question Time?. He evaluates various possibilities, and concludes that the Opposition just needs to harden up and work harder: 'It demands that MPs don't ask quite so many dumb questions, and that questions be directed to the weaker ministers. It requires humour. Above all it requires Labour's leader to lift his game'.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

• There's been a lot of hyperbole expressed over the gay marriage issue too. Some of this can be seen in Kate Chapman's report, Gay marriage: 800 gather outside at Parliament. But the legislation continues on its path - see Peter Wilson's Gay marriage bill through another stage. Meanwhile, one gay marriage supporter, Cathy Odgers, is growing tired of some of the legislaton's proponents - see: Once Was A Mormon.

• Conservative politicians are turning their attention to alleged problems occurring in prostitution - see TVNZ's MP to tackle growing underage prostitution numbers. David Farrar responds succinctly to say, 'Before one talks of further law changes, how about enforcing the current law. Shouldn't the Police be sending in a team to remove any under-age prostitutes and refer them to CYFS? Prostitution is only legal when the prostitute is aged 18 or older. I'm not sure the law is the problem here - it is enforcing it' - see: Police should act.

• Following on from yesterday's criticisms of the Department of Conservation job cuts - see: Are DOC job cuts really the end of the world? - the Southland Times has published a strong criticism, especially of the Government's desire to reduce DOC's advocacy role - see: DOC takes a huge knock. Vernon Small also has some interesting comments in his column, Rejig little help for conservation.

• New Zealand apparently performs exceptionally well in the areas of health and education - see Yvonne Tahana's NZ up there with the best.

• The Government is in the middle of performing a U-turn on road safety according to Kate Shuttleworth - see: Govt to reconsider roadside drug testing.

• Solid Energy's Don Elder is back in the spotlight, with further allegations about his departing payout - see Matthew Backhouse's Elder's extra $250k slammed as a 'golden handshake'. For more on the ins and outs and rights and wrongs of such deals, see employment lawyer Peter Cullen's Keeping a grip on the golden handshake.

• The Law Commission's proposed News Media Standards Authority is being given a thorough analysis by media lawyer Steven Price on his Media law journal blog - with the following series of post: One-stop-shop for media complaints - Law Commission, Labour's weird response to the Law Commission, TVNZ's weird response to the Law Commission, and The NZ Herald's weird response to the Law Commission. You can also watch Media3's very good discussion of the issues here. And on a different media issue, Karl du Fresne argues RNZ's bias needs to be tackled.

• Last night's TV3 programme The Vote - which debated introducing a tax on unhealthy food - might have kick-started an increased public interest in policies designed to improve our health at a time, according to Tim Watkin, just when the Labour Party is moving away from such an approach - see: Labour's GST-off policy could yet bear fruit.

• Finally, the Civilian's latest faux political news is out: ACT Party launches investigation into why John Banks is leader of ACT and 3rd Degree hosts spar over future of 3rd Degree.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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