Prime Minister John Key says he forgot about his initial phone call to public servant Ian Fletcher when asked what role he played in Mr Fletcher's appointment as New Zealand's top spy.
Opposition parties have said revelations Mr Key shoulder-tapped his childhood friend Mr Fletcher personally for the top job at the country's spy agency pointed to a lack of transparency in the appointment process and created concerns over continuing accountability.
Mr Key phoned Mr Fletcher, a longstanding friend, after a shortlist of candidates for the job as head of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) was rejected by State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie, Fairfax media reported today.
Mr Fletcher, who had been working in Australia at the time, was the only candidate to be interviewed for the position and was appointed in late 2011.
Mr Key has faced series of questions about what role he played in Mr Fletcher's appointment since it emerged that Mr Key went to school with Mr Fletcher's brother and the two men's mothers were good friends.
Asked today why he hadn't mentioned his phone call to Mr Fletcher about the GCSB job Mr Key said: "I'd forgotten that at that particular time". He said he had initially brought up Mr Fletcher's name during a "brainstorming" session with Mr Rennie after the initial shortlist was rejected. Mr Key said he also called another man whose name came up during that session.
However, he said the phone call to Mr Fletcher "wouldn't make any difference" to his answers about his role as he did not regard it as part of the appointment process.
"In principle the decision to appoint someone to the GCSB is actually a matter for the minister but we ran it through the process because in the end we wanted someone good."
Mr Key referred to Mr Rennie's statement last week in which he said Mr Fletcher's candidacy "was considered in the rigorous process all chief executive candidates are required to undergo".
Mr Rennie had run "a thoroughly professional process" and recommended Mr Fletcher to Mr Key, and "there was nothing unusual about that", Mr Key said.
"At the end of the day if Iain Rennie hadn't recommended him and recommended someone else, that would have been great. I would have been more than happy. All I wanted was someone good for that job."
Mr Key said the panel that interviewed Mr Fletcher before he was recommended was aware that he had initially approached Mr Fletcher about the job and knew of their relationship. However he did not accept that the panel would have been influenced by his involvement in soliciting Mr Fletcher's application.
Labour's deputy leader Grant Robertson said today that Mr Key's intervention in the appointment process reeked of cronyism and was further evidence of a disturbing lack of transparency.
"This looks like a jack-up to get John Key's mate appointed as our top spy. He was not even an applicant for the job, and ended up being the only person interviewed. The public of New Zealand deserve far better than this kind of cronyism, especially in a sensitive position such as this.
"Are John Key and Iain Rennie really trying to suggest that Mr Fletcher was the only person who deserved to be interviewed? And why was the position not re-advertised if the shortlist of applicants was rejected? That's certainly what would normally happen in those circumstances."
While Mr Key had told Parliament the appointment was made by the State Services Commissioner, it was very clear the Prime Minister's role in the appointment was significantly greater than he was letting on, Mr Robertson said.
Greens co-leader Russel Norman said there was no external scrutiny of the relationship between the head of the GCSB and the minister responsible, the Prime Minister, and that made it a particularly sensitive position.
"Normally you can have a bit of a look at the relationship between a head of a department and a minister because you can OIA the communications. We can't do any of that because it's all secret so it does make it a particularly questionable approach when you really want everything to be above board," he told TV3's Firstline programme.
"Of course it all became more complicated when all the illegal activities of the GCSB became known. Now that we know that the GCSB conducts illegal activities is it really the best situation to have someone so close to the minister as head of that department and that's really where the question lies now I think."
- Additional reporting APNZ