John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: A farce upon farce reaching to the highest level

Bill English. Photo / Greg Bowker
Bill English. Photo / Greg Bowker

The phone on Bill English's desk rings. The Finance Minister picks it up."Much happen while I was away, Bill?" comes the familiar voice down the line. "No, not really, John," English replies with his typically laconic understatement.

Real life does not work quite like that. When overseas, prime ministers are constantly in touch with what is going down back home.

Or think they are. Little wonder Opposition parties thought they had struck paydirt yesterday when John Key confirmed that English had kept him in the dark about major developments in the Kim Dotcom saga while Key was out of the country and English was Acting Prime Minister.

Of all the working relationships within a government, none is more vital to the health of that government than that between the prime minister and his or her minister of finance.

It goes without saying that that relationship is even more crucial when the finance minister is also deputy prime minister.

During a torrid parliamentary question time, Key confirmed English had known nearly a month before him that the Government Communications Security Bureau had helped law enforcement agencies ahead of the police raid on Dotcom's mansion.

English did not ring Key or brief him about that on the Prime Minister's return from overseas.

It was perhaps the first time since becoming Labour's leader that David Shearer has had Key floundering in the House. A more severe test of that would have been a snap debate pitting the two leaders against each other. But Speaker Lockwood Smith turned down Shearer's application for one.

That did not stop Shearer claiming the "spy debacle" had exposed chaos and incompetence in the upper echelons of the Beehive, while Winston Peters argued the fiasco was evidence of a "woefully dysfunctional" working relationship between Key and English.

While it might be evidence of woeful neglect on English's part, there are no signs or suggestions the pair's relationship is in trouble.

Sure, they do not agree on everything. Never have. There is an inevitable tension between English, the more right-leaning driver of the Government's reform programme, and Key's innate pragmatism and caution. Still, English has had a pretty free hand to do much of what he wanted to do over the past four years. But Key ultimately holds veto powers by virtue of two thumping election victories and National's continuing bull run in the opinion polls.

English's behaviour is inexplicable. But the Dotcom affair has seen farce increasingly piled on farce. You would accordingly have to favour botch-up on English's part ahead of conspiracy.

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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