John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: The trouble with showing too much of your bottom line

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Dean Purcell
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Dean Purcell

Confused? Who wouldn't be? It is difficult enough getting to grips with the new forms of inquiry laid out in last year's Inquiries Act without the politicians complicating things even more.

Interviewed on radio yesterday morning, Winston Peters said a royal commission examining National's "dirty ops" as revealed in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics would be a bottom line for New Zealand First if it held the balance of power after the election.

By early afternoon, John Key was indicating he could live with that even though the inquiry he had just announced will be confined to allegations Judith Collins may have been involved in efforts to undermine the head of the Serious Fraud Office back in 2011.

No sooner had Key said that than Peters was denying he had made the matter a bottom line for joining other parties in a governing arrangement.

The talking at cross purposes was in part down to Key and Peters not wishing to lock themselves into inflexible positions from which they cannot shift post-election, and part the outcome of last year's inquiries law change.

Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister has chosen to hold a narrower "government" inquiry rather than the supposedly more in-depth and broader "public" inquiry.

Equally unsurprisingly, Labour is demanding the latter, while the Greens and New Zealand First want a royal commission which is effectively the same as a public inquiry but with more status.

Confusingly, a public inquiry is the same as a government inquiry in that both have powers to summon witnesses. Government inquiries are intended to deal with smaller and more immediate issues where a quick and authoritative answer is required. Public inquiries are designed to deal with "meaty" matters such as big policy changes or natural disasters with loss of life.

It all comes down to the terms of reference. And Key has yet to reveal those for his inquiry. He is deliberately drip-feeding details in order to keep his opponents guessing and regain control of the election agenda.

His bottom line is simple - to have the minimum inquiry possible and ensure it does not report before election day.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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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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