Given the already surreal shemozzle, otherwise known as the Great Saudi Sheep Saga, the likelihood of more embarrassments emerging from official documents should have had National feeling like a lamb to the slaughter on Tuesday afternoon.

Labour and New Zealand First should, by contrast, have been pigs in muck or rather sheep in clover when the papers were released after countless Official Information Act requests.

The next morning's papers and news bulletins would have been expected to highlight fresh revelations to go with the farm in the desert and sheep flying Singapore Airlines on what might be termed the Shrek Trek from the verdant uplands of New Zealand to the parched sands of Saudi Arabia.

It could have been the script from a Wallace and Gromit movie. But it did not happen.


One reason was that the Prime Minister outmanoeuvred Opposition parties. John Key had a simple line and he stuck to it whatever question was asked. He laid all the blame on Labour for the failure of New Zealand to create a free-trade pact with the seriously wealthy oil-rich Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Labour had imposed the ban on live sheep exports which created the problems that National was left to sort out.

He didn't mention that National could have simply overturned the ban. The official papers reveal ministers spent considerable time discussing that possibility but had been reluctant to upset the powerful animal rights lobby.

Mike Hosking says we're moving in the right direction with the part of the world we want to do more business with, we've appeased a guy who's spent a fortune investing here and we're showcasing our talents. He asks where is the crime in this Saudi sheep deal?

The other reason National's opponents failed to make an impact was that the thrust of their attack was that National's payment of $4 million to a Saudi businessman, who had taken big losses as a result of the export ban, amounted to a bribe to make him stop using his influence to block free-trade talks.

But the notion of a bribe in most people's minds is that the briber gets some personal benefit. In this case those offering the money - the New Zealand Cabinet - could be seen as acting in the national interest rather than personal interest.

Key's strategy undoubtedly worked to a large degree. The following morning's stories had Labour "defending" the claims it was making. Once you're defending, you're not attacking. It was all over bar what little was left of the shouting.

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