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John Armstrong: Fortune's favourite comes unstuck

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Fallout from GCSB's spying on Dotcom has left John Key exposed and the Opposition scenting a turning point

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

This was the week the Emperor found himself with no clothes, new or otherwise; this was the week John Key was revealed to be human after all; this was the week his Government looked distinctly ordinary.

In short, this was the week when Key was found out. For Opposition MPs who have long resented Key's deceptively easy ride up the greasy pole of politics, it has come not a moment too soon.

Yet, if you had said on Monday morning that by Friday the Prime Minister would be issuing an apology to Germany's version of the Michelin Man, you would have been deemed certifiable.

The apology capped a huge public relations triumph for Kim Dotcom thanks to some monumental bungling by New Zealand authorities.

It should be noted, however, that Key's contrition was more on behalf of those authorities than himself. Its purpose was also to garner Key some kudos for doing the right thing and retrieve something positive from this unholy mess, for which he holds ministerial responsibility.

However, the episode should serve as a reminder to the Prime Minister that while he is still hugely popular, he is also mortal.

The Grim Reaper wears many disguises but none as bizarre as the internet tycoon.

Watching for such swallows and hoping for summers, Opposition parties are punting on this being the turning point in their fortunes after witnessing - perhaps for the first time - Key really struggling during question time in Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

Key's cautioning people to postpone judgment until the release of the report of the Prime Minister-instigated investigation by Paul Neazor into why the Government Communications Security Bureau had illegally eavesdropped on Dotcom and associates sounded hollow. So it proved.

The report added little to what was already public knowledge. But it gave the Opposition grounds for a snap debate in Parliament on Thursday. Key was in Christchurch, but was the target of relentless volleys of vitriol denigrating his record as Prime Minister, the most savage critique being delivered by Winston Peters.

It was as if Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First had previously been hiding the depth of their antipathy towards Key, wary of invoking the wrath of the political gods, who had obviously decreed him to be the Chosen One. That notion is now myth as far as the Opposition is concerned.

Even so, the Dotcom scandal will probably be more a nuisance for National than a game-changer.

Take the current round of job cuts as a reference point, for example. The lay-offs and restructurings announced this week will have arguably far more political impact than the fate of someone perceived to be not only rich and eccentric but still a foreigner, despite effectively buying New Zealand residency in exchange for investing a few mega-bucks locally.

However, even redundancies won't hurt National until they start cutting swathes through the ranks of middle-income earners.

What was a traumatic week for National may not mark the turning point in fortunes that Opposition parties - already heartened by a slight closing of the gap in two polls - are punting on it being.

What has changed - if only briefly - is the Prime Minister's demeanour.

His natural effervescence and self-confidence seemed to desert him in the House.

His normally precise answers to questions sounded vague and uncertain.

On Wednesday afternoon, Key was required to return to the debating chamber to correct one of his answers - a rare lapse for a Prime Minister.

The Dotcom voodoo, which turns the normal into the abnormal and vice versa, had struck Key the week before. For some reason known only to himself, the Prime Minister indulged in a charade which required him not to read the police report on John Banks' mayoral campaign donations so that he would not be obliged to sack or discipline the Act MP.

Surprisingly, Key's gambit might just have worked. But only because the tawdry Banks affair was dramatically upstaged by a government intelligence agency which opted not to tell its minister of its involvement in the most high-profile police operation of the year, despite GCSB officers having given Key no less than 15 formal briefings on their work this year.

It begs a question: if Dotcom did not make it onto the agenda, just what was so big in the tiny world of New Zealand intelligence that it could shut out the attempt to extradite Dotcom to the United States.

Therein lies a clue. Helping the Americans may have been deemed politically tricky. The fewer who knew, the better.

It still beggars belief that the Prime Minister was not told. It would have been more than somewhat embarrassing if he had learned what the GCSB was up to from the Americans.

If it is correct that the Prime Minister was unaware of what was going on, then there was a woeful failure of communication between the various intelligence units in the Prime Minister's Department and the GCSB. But that seems most unlikely, given the seniority and experience of the bureaucrats in the department.

The more you look at the schemozzle, the less things stack up.

For example, the GCSB told Key of the unlawful operation against Dotcom on his return from Russia and Japan earlier this month. But Key did not find out for another week that Bill English - as Acting Prime Minister - had signed what is effectively a suppression order under the Court Proceedings Act to stop the GCSB's involvement from seeping out into the public domain.

Key was furious with the GCSB and tore strips off the organisation after the release of Neazor's report, which laid responsibility more at the police's door, at least in terms of avoiding a repeat mix-up.

In laying into the GCSB, Key is trying to distance himself as much as possible from taking individual ministerial responsibility for the botch-up.

The purest form of that concept would - as Peters pointed out - require Key's resignation. That would be going too far. But Key's initial refusal to take any responsibility for something which happened in his portfolio on the grounds he did not know about it totally devalues the concept of ministerial responsibility.

It takes it to a level even lower than Bob Semple's famous 1940s dictum about a minister being responsible but not to blame.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

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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