Fran O'Sullivan: Key needs to tighten up political oversight

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Lack of inquiry unsurprising but PM should consider changes

John Key clearly feels uncomfortable about the week's events, which top the scandal where an SIS briefcase containing a Penthouse and some pies was found in the street. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key clearly feels uncomfortable about the week's events, which top the scandal where an SIS briefcase containing a Penthouse and some pies was found in the street. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Key's decision to rule out a further inquiry into the latest government fiasco involving New Zealand's spooks fraternity is hardly surprising.

There is an old maxim in politics that it is not a wise idea for Cabinet ministers to "kick your own ass with your own boot". Apart from being physically inelegant (and for some impossible) it has the net effect of making it rather clear that the Cabinet minister in question is happy to shoulder some of the blame for a political disaster.

The net effect of holding any further inquiry as the Greens want is that it would inevitably bring into public view Key's own ministerial oversight of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

This is not an area that the Prime Minister is going to probe any time soon.

In effect, he is in the privileged position of being judge and jury on his own performance.

Take it or leave it.

But his sensitivities were apparent when business people at an Indonesian event in Auckland yesterday were told: "There will be no questions on Kim Dotcom."

Indonesia is going gangbusters. It is a market which holds great potential for New Zealand business people. We have just a tiny toehold in this market and there is a great appetite for New Zealand to latch onto this Asian growth story.

So much so that Key himself was quick to offer to take business people up to Bali on the air force plane next year so they can attend the Apec CEOs summit which Indonesia will host.

The Prime Minister was clearly enjoying some respite at the Pullman hotel from the unwelcome attention he has faced in recent days since the latest fiasco involving New Zealand's spooks fraternity became public.

But his own discomfort on this score didn't stop the Dotcom affair from being one of the talking points during networking sessions.

The incompetence the New Zealand police and Government Communications Security Bureau have displayed by illegally intercepting Kim Dotcom's communications has truly astounded many of the country's movers and shakers. While there is some entertainment value in watching Dotcom make sport out of Act MP and leader John Banks, the display of rank incompetence by our police and the GCSB in spying on a New Zealand resident is frankly appalling.

A bevy of reporters waylaid Key immediately after he gave his keynote address at the Indonesian forum in Auckland yesterday wanting to know why he wouldn't go along with the Greens' request for a major inquiry. Key was dismissive of the Greens and described the fracas as being the result of "a massive brain-fade by one person who actually reviewed the file".

I talked to him later over why the GCSB didn't immediately report their oversight to him on his return from the United States. He didn't really want to engage on this score. It would appear that behind the scenes there has been a dressing down. But this hasn't really occurred in public.

Heads should roll. But they won't.

My own take is that Key does need to tighten up his political management. He has looked ham-fisted this week as he sought to cauterise the fallout from the Dotcom affair.

Some front-bench ministers are underperforming. Notably Hekia Parata with her political mismanagement of plans to close Christchurch schools.

Gerry Brownlee - who is under enormous pressure with the Canterbury earthquake recovery - needs more support from another skilled minister. His job is too big for one man.

In Key's case: does he really need to hold the tourism portfolio when there are so many issues that need to be driven hard from the top?

His Government has started to fray around the edges. This is not terminal by any means but it does require more focus.

One useful area for Key to focus on is how many marginal business people came into New Zealand under the previous rules.

The Government authorities clearly have no truck with Dotcom. But he came in under some rather crazy immigration rules that essentially allowed foreign "entrepreneurs" to buy residency in New Zealand simply by investing in government bonds. These rules have since been tightened, and rightly so.

Key also needs to take a hard look at what is happening with the SIS and the GCSB.

The first big story in my own journalistic career was not a result of fearless investigative digging by me.

Like many "scoops" it was pure happenstance.

My 10-year-old son brought home a briefcase that had been left on the fence outside another press gallery journalist's house.

It was of course the infamous SIS briefcase.

Then - like now - I can't name the spook whose briefcase contained the legendary Penthouse magazine and three cold meat pies, plus notes of a dinner party conversation hosted by a German diplomat and much more. The spook had three ID cards.

The SIS later tried to respin the affair by telling the late Graeme Hunt, who wrote about it in a book on the security services, that the contents of the briefcase were not as reported.

The GCSB's incompetence is even more alarming as it has resulted in a person being unlawfully spied on - not just tipping a bucket of the proverbial over the spooks.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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