Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Key plays risky game over taping

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John Key and John Banks' very public cuppa was designed to exploit the media to the full. Photo / Dean Purcell
John Key and John Banks' very public cuppa was designed to exploit the media to the full. Photo / Dean Purcell

John Key's stance seems hypocritical given his changes to the law on surveillance, writes Brian Rudman.

Even a relatively new boy like John Key has been around Parliament long enough to know playing the ethics card is a high-risk strategy. Like the mysterious black bag left unnoticed on his tea party table last Friday, it could suddenly explode in your face.

Trotting off to the police on Monday full of injured innocence about a nasty cameraman recording his open invitation, "secret" meeting with Epsom Act candidate John Banks is all very well. But isn't this the same John Key who shoved through retrospective legislation last month legalising widespread covert and unlawful videotaping by police.

Illegally recorded conversation tapes which the police claimed, if they were not allowed to produce them in court, would affect up to 40 pending trials and more than 50 police operations.

The tapes recorded police spying on a diverse range of suspects, capturing images ranging from the alleged Urewera revolutionaries through to, according to Mana Party leader Hone Harawira, speaking in Parliament, "a very high-profile politician caught during surveillance of a woman as part of a P investigation ..."

Mr Key's rushed legislation, overthrowing a Supreme Court ruling, met with universal outrage from civil rights experts. Dr Rodney Harrison, QC, counsel for one of the Urewera defendants, attacked the initial bill as "validating illegal conduct deliberately engaged in by the police".

It was "contrary to fundamental constitutional principle and a serious violation of individual human rights". Canterbury law professor Philip Joseph said it undermined the basic principle that no one was above the law. The move was "constitutionally objectionable". Auckland QC Grant Illingworth said the Government was taking away the fundamental right of citizens not to be monitored in their private lives. Like other experts, he attacked its retrospective nature.

For Mr Key to now get all sanctimonious about his right to privacy is, what's that word ... ah yes, hypocritical. As for calling in the police, after the surveillance tape legislation disgrace, it reads like a case of you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.

I'm no lawyer, but it's surely pushing the limits of credulity to call the stunt that Mr Key and Mr Banks got up to last Friday a private meeting. They courted each other courtesy of newspapers, radio and television for weeks beforehand. The whole world was signalled of the very public venue, where the first date would take place.

The whole point of the meeting was to exploit the media to the full, to ensure the message was delivered loud and clear to Epsom voters that the Prime Minister was calling on National Party supporters in Epsom to rort the MMP voting system in the hope that Mr Banks, the NACTional candidate, would win and drag in by stealth his unelectable leader, Don Brash.

The journalists had been invited to look and listen. To treat a table in a public coffee shop as private is rather naive. What if the media trapped behind the glass window had brought along a lip-reading expert? Or slipped a few dollars to a keen-eared waiter or adjacent diner?

If I'd been Mr Key, my first complaint to the police would have been why my highly trained protection staff hadn't spotted the suspicious black bag on my table and raised the alarm. It could have been a bomb.

In putting ethical behaviour on the agenda, the National leader has also drawn attention to the deliberate gaming of the MMP system that this stunt was all about. Mr Key has already declared he wants to replace MMP with SM, the disguised version of the old discarded First Past the Post voting system. By exploiting a loophole in the MMP rules with his Act allies, he's not just trying to get himself an extra vote or two in the House, he's also discrediting the voting system he wants replaced.

A clever political move. But hardly a smart one for a man preaching ethics to the rest of us.

In July, after National selected Mr Banks' biographer and friend Paul Goldsmith to be its "non-candidate" in Epsom, and let it be known to supporters they should vote for the Act candidate instead, I suggested opponents could always play the same game. Instead of fulminating about this manipulation of MMP, they should join in and vote for Mr Goldsmith.

It's entertaining to see former Labour leader David Lange's brother, Peter, is doing just this, encouraging Epsom Greens and Labour supporters, and even National Party backers, to "hold your nose," vote Goldsmith and try "to put a stop to the insulting behaviour of the politicians who are trying to manipulate the voters of Epsom".

He points out that the "nose-holders" can still vote for their favourite party in the party vote.

For those put off a voting system that allows such jiggery pokery to occur, two thoughts. No system is perfect.

The other is that in a majority vote to retain MMP in next week's referendum, the Electoral Commission will conduct an independent review of MMP next year to recommend any changes that should be made to the way it works.

Among issues to be examined will be the loophole exploited by right-wing parties in Epsom for three elections in a row.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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