John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Govt betrayal on a monumental scale

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Breach of trust will cast chill on politician-journalist relations

John Key says he takes responsibility for Henry's inquiry. Photo / Dean Purcell
John Key says he takes responsibility for Henry's inquiry. Photo / Dean Purcell

It goes without saying that journalists are by nature deeply suspicious of politicians and the motives which drive them - and vice versa.

Thrown together in the rabbit warren which passes for the parliamentary complex - a veritable hothouse fuelled by rampant ego, unrequited ambition, never-ending rumour and constant intrigue - MPs and media nevertheless have to establish a degree of trust for their mutually parasitic relationship to function effectively.

That trust works on many levels, be it MPs feeling they can talk off-the-record confident they will not be shopped to their superiors, to journalists respecting embargoes, to Cabinet ministers not blocking the release of sensitive documents sought by media under the Official Information Act.

That trust can take a long time to establish. It can be destroyed in a matter of seconds.

Even so, when trust does break down, it usually amounts to little more than a pin-prick on the fabric of democracy.

Not so this week, however. The prevailing sound was of the democratic fabric being ripped asunder.

The trawling of a Press Gallery reporter's phone logs by parliamentary authorities is a breach of trust of such mega proportions that it may well place a lingering chill on politician-journalist contact.

The legacy of the David Henry inquiry into the leaking of the Kitteridge report on the workings of the Government Communications Security Bureau may be to always leave just the tiniest question lurking at the back of everyone's mind as to who else might be listening, reading or watching.

The supplying of the phone records of the Dominion Post's Andrea Vance to the inquiry displayed a callous disregard for press freedom which is without recent precedent. It was even more reprehensible for having been done without her knowledge or permission.

Following days of Opposition claim and prime ministerial denial, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet yesterday issued around 135 pages of emails in part to verify that John Key's chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, was not complicit in dredging up Vance's phone records.

His role was confined to getting National Party ministers to comply with the inquiry and liaising with Peter Dunne's office.

Eagleson may be off the hook. Key isn't.

Yesterday's material brought a fresh and further shocking revelation that all of Vance's relevant emails were also briefly supplied to the inquiry by the Parliamentary Service, the sprawling bureaucracy which runs the parliamentary complex, as well as by a contractor working for the organisation.

Key says he takes responsibility for Henry's inquiry. As he set it up, he is obliged to do so.

However, Key has refused to take responsibility for the inquiry seeking information about phone calls and other matters which he says it should not have done.

In making distinctions between what he is and is not responsible for, Key is indulging in a convenient dilution of the already heavily watered down constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility.

This attempt to put distance between himself and the shoddy behaviour of the Parliamentary Service has him now saying he will not be appearing before the inquiry being conducted by Parliament's privileges committee which will attempt to get to the bottom of why Vance's phone records were supplied to the Henry inquiry.

Key probably feels yesterday's release of email traffic answers that question.

But his non-appearance, while depriving the Opposition of an opportunity to grill him, only reinforces the feeling that Key is not treating the matter with the seriousness it deserves.

He should. If anything, this latest episode in the political follies flowing from the dysfunctional GCSB threatens to further undermine what little public confidence remains in the country's two security agencies.

The public may not be completely au fait with the detail of the highly contentious legislation formally giving the GCSB the powers that it thought it always had.

But when institutions like the Parliamentary Service, which is supposed to understand and work within the confines of the democratic ethos, displays such a cavalier attitude to private information, what confidence can the public have that the far more secretive GCSB, along with the Security Intelligence Service, will follow the letter of the law.

No doubt Key is counting down the days to next week when the GCSB bill will finally be passed by Parliament into law.

One headache for him may be nearly over. The privileges committee probe remains.

That this committee - the most powerful of all the bodies charged with ensuring Parliament functions properly - has moved with relative speed is an indication that some of Key's colleagues realise how much the Parliamentary Service has overstepped the mark.

The suspicion will be that this apparent concern for the Fourth Estate is motivated by a fear of a wounded parliamentary media turning irreversibly against National with election year fast approaching.

That charge, however, cannot be levelled at the Speaker, David Carter, who referred the whole matter of access to phone logs, emails and individuals' swipe-card movements around the parliamentary complex to the privileges committee in order to get some protocols formulated for future guidance.

Carter is as much a victim of the monumental lapse of judgment by his officials as the Press Gallery. He has every right to be furious.

As Speaker, he chairs the Parliamentary Service Commission, the body responsible for the Parliamentary Service. The Press Gallery and its rules also fall under his aegis.

His reward from Key for making a more than reasonable fist of a job he never wanted was to be kept in the dark about the accessing of Vance's phone records.

His officials also misinformed him such that he has been obliged to correct replies to written questions submitted by the Greens. That in itself is hugely embarrassing for the Speaker, given he is responsible for the sanctity of parliamentary questions which are one of the few means open to the Opposition of extracting reliable information from Government ministers.

A head had to roll. The resignation of Geoff Thorn, the general manager of the Parliamentary Service, was deemed necessary to restore confidence in an administrative body which had long ago relinquished any confidence that both journalists and MPs might have placed in it.

With Thorn gone, the pressure shifted to Eagleson to do likewise. Hence yesterday afternoon's sudden bout of crisis management. The damage control, however, was also a case of using the old trick of a late Friday afternoon dump of screeds of paper to bury the problem over the weekend - and hopefully the journalists with it.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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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