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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Who-Dunne-it adds spice to dreary day

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It had all the makings of a classic whodunit. Or should that be a who-Dunne-it?

Whatever, the sequel to Winston Peters' mid-morning claim Peter Dunne had leaked the contents of a highly sensitive report dealing with the Government Communications Security Bureau added some much-needed spice to an otherwise dreary afternoon in Parliament yesterday.

Sure, by the time the House had gathered for the day's sitting, several hours had elapsed since the lone United Future MP had denied Peters' claim made under parliamentary privilege at a meeting of the finance and expenditure select committee.

But the leaking of Cabinet secretary Rebecca Kitteridge's report on the troubled spy agency's legal lapses, outdated structure and antiquated working arrangements is now the focus of a high-level inquiry.

As a minister, Dunne was one of the few people handed pre-release copies of the report.

His vote in the House is also crucial to National passing some of its legislation. That would not change were Dunne found to be the leaker. But having to sack him is not a scenario National would want to have to contemplate.

It was hardly surprising, then, that Labour was stirring the pot and siding with Peters when the House began even though he had failed to furnish any evidence to back up his claim.

Labour's strategy was to shake the tree and see what fell out after plying the Prime Minister with questions on the access Dunne and his staff had to the report.

Labour was also seeking to drive a wedge between the NZ First leader and Key, a likely post-election suitor.

The latter tactic worked better than the former. Soon enough Key and Peters were launching tit-for-tat attacks on each other.

At one point, Key surmised that National MPs on the select committee might have been trying to block Peters' questions to stop him using parliamentary privilege "to say something he did not have the courage to say" outside the committee meeting where he would have no protection from the defamation laws.

It is against Parliament's rules for one MP to accuse another of lacking courage. Speaker David Carter ordered Key to withdraw the remark, which the Prime Minister did.

But Peters was not happy. Normally such a withdrawal is accompanied by a (usually grudging) apology. It took Peters four attempts to get the Speaker to agree that Key should stand, withdraw and apologise.

As for Dunne, not a word as he watched proceedings. He is the most unlikely leaker. Being uncovered as such, however, might do wonders for the reputation of someone with the dull title of Mr Common Sense. But not for his longevity as a minister.

Read more: PM 'needs to ask hard questions'

- 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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