The Prime Minister began his third term by warning National MPs and ministers that he did not want to see any hint of arrogance creeping into their behaviour.

Fast-forward a month and that very trait was implicit in John Key's response to questions in Parliament about the nature and frequency of his conversations with Cameron Slater.

He had not, he said, spoken to the Whale Oil blogger "in my capacity as Prime Minister". Any communication had been in his capacity as leader of the National Party. Cute as this evasiveness may have been, it revealed a cavalier disregard for the accountability and integrity of his office.

As Prime Minister, Mr Key is accountable to Parliament only for his actions in that role or for the actions of his Government. He is not accountable for those of the National Party. His response to questions from the Greens co-leader, Russel Norman, offered an easy escape route. But it is one that carries unacceptable implications if taken to its logical conclusion. In effect, Mr Key was suggesting that any of his ministers could claim they were acting not in their ministerial capacity but as National MPs to duck questions about their activities.

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This was an explanation offered by Maurice Williamson this year before he resigned his ministerial portfolios for meddling in a police inquiry into domestic violence charges brought against National Party donor Donghau Liu. It cut no ice with Mr Key. Judith Collins could, similarly, have claimed to be acting for National, not as the Police Minister, in her communications with Mr Slater over the former Serious Fraud Office director, Adam Feeley. In that case, Mr Key did not hesitate to accept her resignation after an email emerged that suggested she was involved in a plot to undermine Mr Feeley.

During the proceedings in Parliament, NZ First leader Winston Peters told the Speaker, David Carter, he was setting a disturbing precedent by allowing ministers to refuse to answer questions by claiming actions were not performed in their capacity as a minister. He is right. No amount of glibness by the Prime Minister - "when I ring my darling wife and when I put the cat out at night, I do that in my capacity as a husband, not as Prime Minister" - can disguise that. Nor can his claim that he is merely mimicking the behaviour of his predecessor, Helen Clark, who talked of prime ministers wearing many "different hats".

The simple fact is that most people assume the Prime Minister is fulfilling just that role. If they took a telephone call from Mr Key, they would not think to ask whether he was speaking as the Prime Minister or as the leader of the National Party. The obvious exceptions to this preoccupation are his involvement in party conferences or election campaigns. Then, quite clearly, he is a party leader.

As much should have informed Mr Carter's examination of the transcripts of the question-time exchange. This makes the outcome of the Speaker's quick inquest and his effective sanctioning of the Prime Minister's behaviour all the more unsatisfactory.

Mr Carter said yesterday that Mr Key's non-informative responses were correct for nearly all Dr Norman's questions. The only exception involved one dealing with the Pike River tragedy, in which a clear connection was made with ministerial responsibility.

In large part, Mr Carter has invited the Prime Minister and his ministers to don their hat of choice at any time as a means of evading awkward questions.

It is hardly a recipe for integrity or the engendering of a greater degree of public respect for the nation's politicians.

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