Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Is John Key compromised?

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Persistent cases of brain fade makes Goldfish Bowl seem a more appropriate name for home of our politicians.

The Beehive. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Beehive. Photo / Mark Mitchell

At this rate, the Beehive will have to be renamed the Goldfish Bowl. And not just because we peer through the glass at the strange creatures swimming around - I'm thinking more of their memories. There was the Act Party one-man caucus who couldn't remember travelling in a helicopter to visit New Zealand's most memorable man. There was the leader of the Labour Party, whose small fortune in a New York bank account slipped his mind. But, most of all, there's the boss of the fadey-brain: John Key.

Where he stood on the 1981 rugby tour. A meeting about convention centre plans with SkyCity. How he voted on the drinking age. That picture the spies showed him with Kim Dotcom's face on it. And to the archive of prime ministerial brain fades another can now be added: that phone call to childhood friend Ian Fletcher, advising of the vacancy for New Zealand's top spook.

When Labour's deputy leader, Grant Robertson, asked Key in Parliament last week about his relationship with the director of the Government Communications Security Bureau, and his role in his appointment in late 2011, the PM gave him the Muldoon sneer.

Enough with the "conspiracy theories", he flounced. Key could hardly be condemned because he "went to school with Ian Fletcher's brother" - who, he added for good measure, was "way brighter than Grant Robertson".

It was of a piece with the eye-rolling and counterpunch of a few weeks earlier when Key laughed off suggestions the Deputy Auditor-General's findings on the SkyCity convention centre deal were something other than pure vindication. "Nothing to see here!" he snorted, over and over again.

Last week, asked by reporters to detail his role in Fletcher's appointment, Key was clear: "Only that the State Services Commissioner came to me with a recommendation. It's normal." Nothing to see there. So we moved along.

Except that John Key had left something out. He had called Fletcher personally, it was revealed, to advise him of the vacancy at the GCSB. "I'd forgotten that at the particular time," came the Prime Minister's explanation on Wednesday. "But, I mean, that wouldn't make any difference anyway."

Whether or not it would have made any difference to Fletcher getting the job - and it's hard to take that at face value - this seems mightily convenient. The whiffs of cronyism might well have wafted away fairly swiftly had Key been frank at the outset. What really gets the nostril hairs twitching is that the fact magically floated from the Prime Minister's memory at this "particular time". Such a weird and puzzling oversight invites a throng of questions. Was the proper process followed in the appointment? Is Fletcher the best man for the job? Former GCSB head Sir Bruce Ferguson appeared on Campbell Live on Wednesday calling it all "intriguing" and "disturbing" and questioning the failure to interview at least one qualified and short-listed candidate in favour of Fletcher (the only applicant interviewed).

Does the longstanding Key-Fletcher connection, "friends" or not, undermine the accountability of the GCSB?

Mysterious and in many ways necessarily secret, this outfit spies in the name of our national interest. Key, who acknowledges the agency needs a "major overhaul", is entrusted with the checking and scrutiny of its actions on our behalf.

Is he compromised? And, though it's a bore to say it, we're back at Kim Dotcom, the great spindle around which New Zealand politics infuriatingly weaves. Did John Key really know nothing of the illegal spying? When it was revealed that he'd been shown a GCSB slide featuring an image of Dotcom, it seemed plausible that he could have failed to notice, or forgotten it. The head of the GCSB, after all, said he hadn't recalled it, either. Then there was that kerfuffle about the supposed video recording of Key's post-slide-show cafeteria chat, which ended up backfiring on the Labour leader. Suddenly, that starts to look like that might amount to more than just a storm in a teapot.

The stakes for the Prime Minister are huge. His remarkable and enduring popularity is founded on the image of a straight-talking, no-bullsh*t kind of guy. Most of his support base are likely to understand that he would want someone he knew, someone he could trust, in such an important role. Much less certain is whether they could stomach the sneaking suspicion that he sought to hide that fact.

And remember this: John Key is an accomplished trader. You needn't be a conspiracy theorist to wonder: if he did knowingly conceal his role in Fletcher's appointment, might that mean there is, after all, something more to see here?

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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