John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: PM paints himself into another corner

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Well Prime Minister - to misquote Oliver Hardy - here's another nice mess you've gotten yourself into.

Once again, John Key finds himself a victim of his own making by not being completely upfront from the very beginning.

The latest episode concerns his past associations with Ian Fletcher before the latter's appointment as the director of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Key has been all over the paddock. He has downplayed contacts with Fletcher after their school days, saying initially that he could not recall any particular occasions when they had met, though they might well have done so. Then it was revealed the pair have breakfasted together at least twice.

It has now emerged that the Prime Minister rang Fletcher and urged him to apply for the top job at the spy agency, which falls directly under Key's responsibility.

Key neglected to mention this rather pertinent piece of information when questioned in Parliament a week ago about the appointment process.

Key consequently got a grilling from the media yesterday. He answered most questions in a plausible, if somewhat curt fashion such that you might have been left wondering what the fuss was about.

His body language spoke otherwise. Something was not right. His trademark self-deprecating humour failed to make the journey from the Beehive to his lunchtime engagement at the Porirua Club.

He explained that State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie had come to see him after a head-hunting agency had produced a short-list of four applicants for the GCSB job.

Rennie did not consider any of them as suitable. He and Key then started tossing a couple of alternatives around, including Fletcher on Key's suggestion.

You can interpret that two ways. That the brainstorming was perfectly in order. Or you can see it as Key making sure he got the person he wanted.

That the appointment panel was put under impossible pressure by the Prime Minister's intervention - more so given Fletcher was the only applicant.

It is impossible to prove that was the case. With a mightily impressive CV and a lengthy public service pedigree, Fletcher was - as Key argues - no rabbit suddenly pulled from the hat. Had he installed a real bunny, then Key might now be in more serious strife.

The big puzzle is why Key does not tell the whole story when he knows the full facts will catch up with him sooner or later. He was caught out on the size of his shareholding in Tranz Rail Shares. There was ambiguity over whether he was briefed on Kim Dotcom by the GCSB ... He forgot how he voted on the drinking age.

Key seemed to have put last year's "brain fades" behind him. Watching him once more playing Russian roulette with his reputation must be of some worry for the National Party.

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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