Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: ACC, media mess puts left on right track at last

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David Shearer and his colleagues finally have the Government in their sights. Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Shearer and his colleagues finally have the Government in their sights. Photo / Mark Mitchell

This has been a good week for the left. Labour has been useless for so long we've forgotten what it's like for it to have the National Party on the back foot in Parliament.

This week Labour was on fire. I know parliamentary maneuvering is not something the public pays much attention to. But in terms of morale and media perception, the performance in the bear pit is taken seriously.

In the past two weeks, the National Party has taken a hiding.

Apart from the stupidity of National's Gerry Brownlee making a fool of us by lambasting the Finns, the ACC fallout keeps spreading.

First scalp was frontbencher Nick Smith, whose ministerial career came to an abrupt end. This week, the formidable Michelle Boag looks to me likely to follow him into the dustbin of history.

For years, the former party president has been the ultimate insider. Boag makes sure her nominations play key roles in the government bureaucracy. I'm surprised at her judgment in representing someone with strong links to her in an ACC dispute.

ACC senior honchos infer Boag and Bronwyn Pullar, the woman who received thousands of ACC files by mistake, wanted something she may not have been entitled to. The matter is now in the hands of the police. Whether it's true or not doesn't matter.

If I were in her inner circle, I wouldn't touch her with a barge pole.

After Boag sent Judith Collins, the current ACC Minister, an email that could bring her down too, every parliamentarian will be scouring their email inboxes dreading they'll find correspondence with her. Boag will be on their spam list and no calls will be returned.

John Key is rattled enough to seek assurances from Collins that she didn't leak Boag's or Boag's clients' emails to the media. Now the Privacy Commissioner is investigating. Labour knows it's on to a winner. Despite Key's protestations, the media smell a rat. The Opposition's chief head-kicker, Trevor Mallard, and Labour ACC spokesperson, Andrew Little, are pressing the attack, calling for a full inquiry. Collins foreshadowing a defamation case against both men and including National Radio only raises the stakes.

National's error is that it doesn't understand the media game has changed. Any second-term government has tougher dealings with the media than in the first three years, and the teacup scandal fallout has made it much worse.

When the teacup incident occurred last year, most of the media played along with the Prime Minister when he faked outrage over the leaked recording. They understood he didn't want the contents published, as it had risks for the relationship with Don Brash's Act and could give Winston Peters' NZ First a boost (which he unwittingly did anyway).

Lucky for him, the editor of this paper, who was handed the recording, decided not to print it after considering the ethics of publishing a private conversation, no matter how juicy. Frankly, I would have printed it.

Instead of thanking the editor, Key not only ordered the police to go after the photographer who made the recording, but he attacked the press, likening them to the cretins who worked for Rupert Murdoch in Britain, who were at the time secretly hacking people's phones.

The situation here was the very opposite, as Key knew full well. The news media here didn't set up the teacup recording, nor did they use it when it was given to them.

When the police started visiting media offices collecting so-called evidence, that was the last straw. The media lovefest with the affable Key was over.

This week the police predictably announced there would be no prosecutions. If the Prime Minister had any graciousness, he would have apologised to the media for his cynical manipulation and to the police for wasting their time. But Key's smugness at getting away with it is illusory.

Key will rue the day he let his affable mask slip. Some in the fourth estate don't trust him now.

As a result, Labour finally gets to nail him on ACC without the media giving Key the benefit of doubt like they used to. Key won a teacup battle, but I suspect he'll lose the war in the long run because of it.

- Herald on Sunday

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