Opinion: Dotcom voodoo takes shine off Key's halo

This was the week the emperor found himself with no clothes, new or otherwise; this was the week John Key was revealed to be human after all; this was the week his Government looked distinctly ordinary.

In short, this was the week when Mr Key was found out. For Opposition MPs who have long resented Mr Key's deceptively easy ride up the greasy pole of politics, it has come not a moment too soon.

Yet, if you had said on Monday morning that by Friday, the Prime Minister would be issuing an apology to Germany's version of the Michelin Man, you would have been deemed certifiable.

The apology capped a huge public relations triumph for Kim Dotcom, thanks to some monumental bungling by New Zealand authorities.

The episode should serve as a reminder to the prime minister that while he is still hugely popular, he is also mortal.

The Grim Reaper wears many disguises - but none as bizarre as the internet tycoon.

Opposition parties are punting on this being the turning point in their fortunes after witnessing - perhaps for the first time - Mr Key really struggling during question time in Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

Mr Key's cautioning people to postpone judgement until the release of the report of the prime minister-instigated investigation by Paul Neazor into why the Government Communications and Security Bureau had illegally eavesdropped on Mr Dotcom and associates sounded hollow.

So proved the case. The report added little to what was already public knowledge. But it gave the Opposition grounds for a snap debate in Parliament on Thursday. Mr Key was in Christchurch, but was the target of relentless volleys of vitriol denigrating his record as prime minister.

Even so, the Dotcom scandal will probably be more a nuisance for National than a game-changer.

Take the current round of job cuts as a reference point, for example. The lay-offs and restructurings announced this week will arguably have far more political impact than the fate of Mr Dotcom.

However, even redundancies will not hurt National until they start cutting swathes through the ranks of middle-income earners.

What was a traumatic week for National may not mark the turning point that Opposition parties are punting on it being.

What has changed, if only briefly, is the prime minister's demeanour. His natural effervescence and self-confidence seemed to desert him in the House, and his normally precise answers to questions sounded vague and uncertain. On Wednesday afternoon, he had to return to the debating chamber to correct one of his answers.

The Dotcom voodoo, which turns the normal into the abnormal and vice versa, had struck Mr Key the week before. For some reason known only to himself, the prime minister indulged in a charade which required him not to read the police report on John Banks' mayoral campaign donations, so that he would not be obliged to sack or discipline the Act New Zealand MP.

Surprisingly, Mr Key's gambit might just have worked. But only because the tawdry Banks affair was dramatically upstaged by a Government intelligence agency that opted not to tell its minister of its involvement in the most high-profile police operation this year.

It begs a question: if Mr Dotcom did not make it on to the agenda, just what was so big in the tiny world of New Zealand intelligence that it could shut out the attempt to extradite Dotcom to the United States?

Therein lies a clue. Helping the Americans may have been deemed politically tricky. The fewer who knew the better.

It still beggars belief that the Prime Minister was not told. It would have been more than somewhat embarrassing if he had learnt what the GCSB was up to from the Americans.

If it is correct he was unaware of what was going on, there was a woeful failure of communication between the various intelligence units in the Prime Minister's Department and the GCSB.

But that seems most unlikely, given the seniority and experience of the bureaucrats in the department.

The more you look at the shemozzle, the less things stack up.

For example, the GCSB told Mr Key of the unlawful operation against Mr Dotcom earlier this month. But Mr Key did not find out for another week that Bill English, as Acting Prime Minister, had signed what is effectively a suppression order under the Court Proceedings Act to stop the GCSB's involvement from seeping out into the public domain.

Mr Key tore strips off the GCSB after the release of Mr Neazor's report, which laid responsibility more at the police's door, at least in terms of avoiding a repeat mix-up. In laying into the GCSB, Key is trying to distance himself from taking individual ministerial responsibility for the botch-up.

The purest form of that concept would require Mr Key's resignation.

That would be going too far, but Mr Key's initial refusal to take any responsibility for something that happened in his portfolio on the grounds he did not know about it totally devalues the concept of ministerial responsibility.

It takes it to a level even lower than Bob Semple's famous 1940s dictum about a minister being responsible but not to blame.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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