Thursday, December 4, 2014

Stop bullshitting us, prime minister

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 3.)
The day after winning re-election, prime minister John Key warned that one of the biggest risks his government faced in its third term was arrogance. What a pity he didn’t heed his own advice.
Over the past few weeks, we have observed a National government that seems determined to live up to every stereotype about third terms. It has been arrogant, smug and incompetent.

Worse than that, it appears to have undergone an integrity by-pass.
Key has given new Labour leader Andrew Little a dream start, and Little has the ability to take full advantage of it. More by good luck than good management, Labour has found itself with a leader who could prove a real handful for National. 

I would go further and say that if National and Key carry on as they have in the past few weeks, there’s a good prospect of a Little-led government in 2017.
Let’s examine National’s performance in greater detail. We’ll start with the accusation of arrogance.

With very little warning, the government proposed radical changes to security laws and allowed practically no time for people to make submissions. It displayed utter contempt for the normal democratic process.
It didn’t even bother trying to explain why an overhaul of the security laws was suddenly so urgent. “Don’t bother your tiny little heads fretting about civil liberties and the right to be free from surveillance,” the government effectively said. “Just believe us when we say the country is at imminent risk of terrorism. Trust us, because we know what we’re doing.”

Trouble was, the legislation was introduced to Parliament in the same week as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence confirmed that the former head of the SIS was up to his eyeballs in the leaking of information calculated to damage one of the National government’s opponents.

Trust them? Yeah, right.
The perception of arrogance was compounded by the performance of the Attorney-General and Minister in Charge of the SIS, Chris Finlayson.

This is the minister charged with ensuring our rights are protected. Yet when Guyon Espiner questioned him on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report about why the security legislation was being bulldozed through Parliament, Finlayson testily replied that the government didn’t have time for “chit-chat”.
He subsequently made what purported to be an apology in Parliament, but he didn’t look at all apologetic to me. In fact he looked very pleased with himself.

Finlayson is reputedly a clever man, and knows it; but clever men have a way of tripping over their own egos. He’s also a list MP, and I wonder if he would be quite so cocky if he had to answer to an electorate.
Even before the appearance of the proposed new security laws, the government had shown signs of third-term arrogance.  Within weeks of winning the election, it had pushed through new employment laws that were widely criticised as eroding workers’ rights.

I’m not convinced that the new laws are quite as oppressive as the critics say, but it was the symbolism that struck me. Here was a newly re-elected government using its majority to ensure the speedy passage of laws that were seen as anti-worker.
If it wanted to send out a signal confirming all those old left-wing claims about National acting in the interests of the bosses, it couldn’t have done a better job.

Now let’s look at the charge of incompetence. Consider the following.
■ Murderer and paedophile Phillip Smith, a man known to be clever and manipulative as well as evil, escaped to South America because of staggering naivety on the part of the Corrections Department;

■ The State Services Commission presided over an embarrassing sexual harassment fiasco in which it was seen as supporting the senior public servant whose behaviour was the subject of the complaint;
■ As already mentioned, the former head of the SIS allowed himself to be used in an underhand smear campaign aimed at discrediting a senior Labour politician.

In each case, incompetence and bad judgment on a grand scale. But did we see any of the responsible cabinet ministers, or even department heads, volunteering to fall on their swords? 
Ministerial accountability used to be a core principle of Westminster-style democracy. Ministers carried the can for their departments’ cockups even when they weren’t personally to blame.

It’s a harsh system, but an effective way of ensuring discipline and accountability right down through the chain of command. It means someone has to pay when things go wrong. After all, if no one suffers, where’s the incentive to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
But don’t hold your breath for waiting for ministers in this government to maintain that tradition. It’s just not going to happen.

Finally, there’s the issue of Key and his relationship with Cameron Slater, which brings us to the subject of integrity.
I now seriously wonder whether the prime minister has any, given his pathetic dissembling over whether he’d been in touch with Slater. That came on top of his preposterous claim recently that when he spoke to Slater, it wasn’t in his capacity as prime minister.

For heaven’s sake, give us a break. This is altogether too cute and too cocky. People have given Key the benefit of the doubt before, but there must come a time when his credibility runs out.
You could argue, I suppose, that if he has some sort of political death wish that compels him to continue dealing with Slater, that’s his prerogative. But what’s inexcusable is that he plays us for mugs by bullshitting us.

At the very least, he should show us a bit more respect.


Brendan McNeill said...


Department heads should be held responsible for the actions of staff within their departments, Ministers perhaps not so much?

The problem with the Key / Slater ‘did they talk – didn’t they talk’ question is that it has all the appearance of a storm in a teacup. I mean really, aside from the beltway, who cares?

It may have been silly for the PM to be closely aligned with Slater, but hardly a hanging offense.

While Little is performing well, and good on him, I doubt these last few weeks will remain in voters memories for longer than a few days at most, for Key or Little.

There is a long road ahead until the next election.

Lynn McConnell said...

Well put Karl. The notion of ministerial responsibility is at the core of democracy whether pedants/trolls from any party like it or not. Your point on Finlayson and his List status is a classic example. Such politicians are so far removed from the rump of voters that they have little need for contact and rebuttal by constituents. It is frustrating that there appears so little accountability among our elected representatives at the very time the country needs it most.

Jigsaw said...

I agree about list MPs and Findlayson is a good example as is Sue Moroney on the other side-neither can win an electorate seat-no matter how hard they try. They are not electable. However the whole of the Green party are in the same boat with their whole representation based solely on list seats.

Blackdoris said...

Pity this 'epithany' didn't manifest itself before the election. Did you never watch a parliamentary session pre election. The same rubbish was going on there with the NATs giggling like little school boys at their leaders and compatriots inane responses. Believe me all this behaviour was there prior to the election but 'people' just chose to ignore it and report about a wine bottle, ghost donations and 11 year old letters. Why the change in focus now?

Unknown said...

Well said Karl. Keep up the good work. It's guys like you that we need to help wake the sleeping disinterested apathetic masses to the reality of the bad behaviour that is just so not in our best interests for freedom, liberty & peace.

Unknown said...

It seems that NZ prime ministers start to fall apart in their third term,if not before;a national character flaw perhaps?
Clark was the same in her third term.
We should seriously consider limiting PM's terms to two,as is the case in eg,USA.

cricket? said...

The whole integrity of our political system has become unstable and criminal in it use of attack politics which should be Public Enemy No.1 for anyone who would like to see us once again have respect in the house and our electorates
There is power security given to people like Slater who should be sued of the planet for being allowed to continue dragging the country into the CESSPOOL TABLOID GUTTER JOURNALISM where facts even the truth are just passed over but protected and funded by a society so enslaved by the power of advertising that they just gota buy it to find out it poisons your fish and chips and your mind and people like Key just profit from it