Fran O'Sullivan: Parties scramble for damage control after Hager book lands

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Dirty politics. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Dirty politics. Photo / Michael Cunningham

John Key will not give his opponents - and this includes Nicky Hager who timed the publication of his book Dirty Politics to inflict as much electoral impact as possible - the pleasure of serving up the Crusher's head this side of the election.

There's plenty of evidence that two National players - Justice Minister Judith Collins and former prime ministerial adviser Jason Ede - have abused their respective positions.

But Hager's claim that the Prime Minister's office and the Security Intelligence Service helped blogger Cameron Slater obtain the documents which he then used to embarrass former Labour leader Phil Goff will be difficult to ram home.

Former SIS boss Warren Tucker and Chief Ombudsman Bev Wakem - who previously looked into the issue - both back Key's story that he was never directly briefed on Slater's request to release a politically sensitive secret document which appeared to suggest Goff had told porkies.

But Key asks us to believe him that when he told journalists in 2011 that he had been briefed by Tucker before the release of the sensitive information to Slater it was his office that had discussions with the SIS, not him.

To anyone outside of the Wellington political scene this seems incredible.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security is probing what happened.

In my view the inspector's report must be issued before the election.

These allegations which get to the heart of the Prime Minister's integrity must be put to bed one way or the other before voters head into the booths on September 20.

There is little doubt when it comes to the Justice Minister's behaviour. She has been exposed as feeding private information to Slater which was used to bully a public servant via his Whale Oil blog.

That official - Internal Affairs' Simon Pleasants - received death threats and abusive comments after he was claimed to have leaked information to Labour in 2009 which was used to pot Finance Minister Bill English for claiming an accommodation allowance for a house he owns in Wellington.

Hager apologised and withdrew a further damaging insinuation that Collins arranged for a prisoner to be transferred at Slater's request.

But irrespective of that, there is plenty that she should be fronting.

Apart from a flippant comment to a gossip columnist - where she made light of a hoax resignation letter - Collins has chosen not to engage with news media, using the lame excuse that police inquiries are under way into the leaks.

It is not in Collins' DNA to fall on her sword.

Realpolitik dictates that Key isn't going to force the position either - quite yet.

If he kicks her down the road he risks giving credence to other Hager allegations which strike at the heart of his own office's political management. No punishment had been meted out to the former prime ministerial adviser from the Beehive's 9th floor who has abused his position. Jason Ede, who was on the Prime Minister's Office payroll at the time he joined Slater in poking about in the Labour Party's website, has been allowed to stay on under the fig-leaf that he is now working directly for the National Party.

It is an absurdity. So too, Key's flannel that the Labour Party had effectively asked for it through lax website security.

The Privacy Commissioner - who should be investigating this matter in light of the new information - won't do so. There is no point in having watchdogs that won't bark.

The Hager book has sucked the oxygen out of Key's election campaigning over the past 10 days. The book has come about through a political sting operation through a hacking attack on Slater's email and Facebook messages. There has been no attempt to get the other side of the story and by dropping his bomb just five weeks out from polling day Hager has made sure there is not enough time for journalists to ensure a balanced account.

It's too early to say if the revelations will damage National's standing to the point where the election is lost. It was already likely to be a close run thing given the lack of a substantial coalition partner or support partners from the right-of-centre.

There is a lot riding on Key this weekend as he launches National's campaign.

The one thing he can possibly be grateful for is that while his campaign has been starved of oxygen so has that of his opponents.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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