For me, it comes down to the downloading and whether a refusal to even ask the question is good enough for someone sworn to protect and serve the public good
At last, this morning, Prime Minister John Key had to face a focused, serious one-on-one interview – on Morning Report with Guyon Espiner. And beyond the spin and counter-arguments this far, we got a look at how National will respond to the susbstantive issues raised.
I'll start by agreeing with the Prime Minister that social media and blogsites are part of the political and media scene now and whatever you think of a site such as WhaleOil, it's hard for senior politicians not to engage with it. While I may not like the fact #teamkey has actively cultivated ties and tried to use it to its political ends, it's a perfectly understandable tactic (avoiding independent and critical journalists to release information, but rather doing it via your non-journalist ideological allies) that's entirely common amongst current politicians. It's not worse or better than Labour or any other politicians. But that's the point. It's clear Key's operation is no better than the Clark operation before it (Helengrad, anyone?) and the suggestion Key is a post-politics politician has been firmly laid to rest.
But ultimately, Key is not responsible for Slater and Slater holds no public office, so the blogger's not accountable to anyone but the law. So let's turn to the substance... Crucially, Key seemed to accept that Jason Ede did "go and have a look" at the back-end of the Labour website and explore the material there. (As did another National Party staff member, an angle that still needs further exploration with Party president Peter Goodfellow). Key certainly didn't deny it today (and hasn't done so after five days) and instead stood by his earlier vague comments that if he did it was fair game.
And that's going to be an important point – Key's consistent position since Thursday that Ede's actions were "fair enough".
Key's justification of that prompted him to make two frankly bizarre comparisons. First, he said that it was like the Wallabies leaving their starting line-up on a website and the All Blacks going to have a look.
Well, only if the Wallabies' staff also post their players credit card details online. And only if the Wallabies thought their place in the team was meant to stay confidential, as anyone who was donating money on a website might expect.
Second, he pointed to a left-wing blogger who looked at a WINZ website. I assume he's referring to Keith Ng, who was actually informed by a political activist about the security breach in the WINZ site and then went public with the information. The activist, as I've been told the story, went to WINZ straight away and told them of his discovery. So that's a bit different. The activist did ask for a finders' fee, which I find odd but which I'm told is common practice in this sort of situation. Either way, as far as I know neither the activist nor Ng went in and download the personal data from the WINZ site.
And that for me remains the crucial question. What we can now saw with some certainty is that Ede did go into the Labour website and at very least look around. What Espiner failed to confirm in an otherwise excellent bit of interviewing, was whether Ede then downloaded the material he found there, as Hager has alleged.
That to me is critical. I agree that it would be simply too tempting for a political operator not to go and have a peek. The decent, more gentlemanly thing to do would have been to let Labour know (and then perhaps put out a press release showing its incompetent handling of people's personal data and how noble you'd been in helping those poo folk out!). That, to my mind, would have been, as Key puts it "fair enough".
But if Ede downloaded it, that moves from the act of looking to the act of taking, which for me is a bridge too far. And despite days of opportunity, Key has not yet denied that critical fact.
Not much shocks me in politics and I'm usually loathe to offer personal judgment on party political issues. But if a New Zealand Prime Minister is really telling me that it's "fair enough" for one of his senior staff to go unauthorised and secretly into any website, however open, and take the personal data of ordinary New Zealanders, then I am shocked. That, according to my moral compass, is certainly not OK.
IF (and it's the big IF) Key knows Ede downloaded that data and is comfortable saying "that's just the way it works" then he's lost perspective and forgotten that his first duty as Prime Minister is to the people, not his party. He is there to serve and protect the public and if Ede downloaded that material he was doing quite the opposite.
Finally, Key's refusal to even raise the Simon Pleasants question with Judith Collins can now reasonably be called a failure of leadership. As with the John Banks case, wilful blindness is not acceptable from a Prime Minister, or anyone claiming to lead. As Espiner stressed, Collins has confirmed on ZB on Friday that she passed the name on to Slater as Hager claimed. To refuse to even care about the context of that naming is again failing to serve and protect New Zealanders.
As I wrote yesterday, there could be an innocent explanation. But surely when the passing on has been confirmed and the allegation remains that it was for the purposes of smearing a public servant (however partisan he was or wasn't), it's your duty as a responsible leader to find out what happened.
If he is choosing not to find out, it can only be to maintain plausible deniability and that's not good enough. And if, more likely, he has asked and is refusing to say what he's learnt, then it's dishonest.
Those to me are the crucial points we have arrived at this morning. Key needs to be able to confirm that Ede did not download the personal data on that site and explain that Collins' email was a simple confirmation of a name, as she has said. Anything else tarnishes his name.