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.

Comments (16)

by Alan Johnstone on August 18, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The political management of this by Key is awful, but he's in the impossible position of defending what can't be defended.

However if he takes even one step backwards the whole thing collapses around him. Its lose / lose

Its going to be a very long 5 weeks.

 

by Tim Watkin on August 18, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan, that's why I think Thursday's stand-up was so crucial. Key chose a high risk approach that left him little if any wriggle room should the facts turn against him. He now appears tied to Ede and Collins regardless, which was dumb. Unless, of course, he can show that neither acted improperly – and to be fair to them I'm not ruling that out as we don't have the full facts.

And really, if it can't be defended, then he should admit his error. At least, that's where it's hard being a politician, because it's the human thing to do, but it would damage him.

by mickysavage on August 18, 2014
mickysavage

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".

Not sure that I agree with you there Tim.  Karol at TS prepared a transcript of Key's media interview that TV3 filmed and records him as saying:

KEY: There’s a couple of allegations that Hager’s made that are completely and utterly wrong.

REPORTER: Which are?

KEY: A: National’s been nowhere near Labour’s website, as I said. Mr Slater’s made it quite clear this morning that he found the way in there and that’s because it was completely open and Labour didn’t have any protection on it. Nothing to do with National.

REPORTER. Hager has emails showing that Jason Ede was talking about tr0lling through the Labour Party website:

KEY: yeah, well that’s not correct. It’s nothing

REPORTER: Are you saying those emails are false?

KEY: What I’m saying is that it is nothing to do with us. What happened was – Mr Slater’s made it quite clear on his website today, that in fact it was nothing to do with the National Party.

REPORTER: [?] goes back to your office?

KEY: No I don’t think that’s right. Nothing to do with our office."

The passage reads to me like an initial denial in which case Key has shifted his position.

The transcript is at http://thestandard.org.nz/john-keys-defence-to-hagers-book-starts-to-unwind/

by Kat on August 18, 2014
Kat

Tim, you are being admirably moderate, however as Josie Pagani said recently:

"Forensic examination of the evidence in Hager’s book could destroy this government. The specifics are indefensible".

So far from my observation Espiner, Armstrong, Gower, Wood and Owen from the 'main stream media' have risen to the challenge and are to be commended.


by Alan Johnstone on August 18, 2014
Alan Johnstone

He's clearly decided to tough it out,  if t was a matter of firing a low level staff member and blaming him I'm sure he'd do it.

Its not though,  he'd need to fire Collins. I'm not sure he's able to do that. Would the party base stand for their idol being flung in the bonfire?

by Lee Churchman on August 18, 2014
Lee Churchman

I just saw Matthew Hooton quoted on Twitter as saying:

Leaks ‘may even include, I am told, recent information about..Key’s staff attempting to smear the reputation of a rape complainant’

I really hope that's not true. It's worse than anything in the book.

by Tim Watkin on August 18, 2014
Tim Watkin

Micky, I pointed to that stand-up and quote last Thursday here on Pundit; check out the post. I've said those broad denials were a high risk strategy. My point is on the specifics. He hasn't specifically addressed whether Ede downloaded the data.

But you're right, on Thursday it was 'nothing to do with us', but by the next day it was, 'well if we did, so what?'.

by Tim Watkin on August 18, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan, Ede was always referred to as a "senior advisor" and Key's defence of him suggests he realises he can't pretend he's at arms length. And yes it's remarkable Collins hasn't gone – given his promise to improve ministerial standards.

 

by stuart munro on August 19, 2014
stuart munro

But ultimately, Key is not responsible for Slater

Depends on the frequency of contact/use. If he is a frequent or regular conduit that becomes a tacit acceptance or endorsement of his behaviour.

by Alan Johnstone on August 19, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Until he fires Colins and condemns Slatter Key pretty much owns them and is responsible for them.

by Steven Price on August 19, 2014
Steven Price

National seems to have admitted that files were downloaded, in a letter to Labour:

 “We do accept that one of our staff visited your public website via http://healthyhomeshealthykiwis.org.nz and read files that were publicly available. It appears that he downloaded a file named Labour Newsletter and several compressed files with the view of reading later. In fact the compressed files remain un-opened”.

by Mark Derby on August 19, 2014
Mark Derby

Can anyone tell me if we still have a Minister of Justice? If so, what is she doing with her time?

by Gilbert on August 19, 2014
Gilbert

The gobsmacking revelation for me is the revelation of the magnitude of total contempt that Mr Key & his gang(sters) have for the public, their intelligence & the democratic process. Particularly so Collins & Joyce. Bill English has now joined the fray. After working out which way the wind is blowing, his "not a style I like" comment today, has a distinct wiff of a rodent escaping an unseaworthy vessel. There will be more clambering onto his life raft soon no doubt.

by Tim Watkin on August 19, 2014
Tim Watkin

Mark, according to Twitter she's campaigning in her electorate and getting great support.

by Matthew Whitehead on August 19, 2014
Matthew Whitehead

Which is of course completely irrelevant to whether she's actually qualified to be a minister, or even whether she should remain in the National Party caucus.

by Jane Beezle on August 20, 2014
Jane Beezle

For those interested in a complete rebuttal of the "he's making stuff up" argument, see this excellent article by Nicky Hager's lawyer, Steven Price.

http://www.medialawjournal.co.nz/?p=635

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