A hands-off policy might avoid some problems, but it can
create others ... and it won't work if a spy agency goes
feral. It illustrated how keen John Key was to put plenty of
distance between him and the Government Communications
Take your pick. So sloppy has been the Prime Minister's
handling of the GCSB's illegal monitoring of Kim Dotcom that
Mr Key's opponents have deemed he must be guilty of either
large-scale managerial incompetence or super-sized economy
with the truth.
It matters little to Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First
- all singing in rare unison - which charge people choose to
pin on Mr Key because when it comes to muddying the Prime
Minister's "Mr Clean" image, the one accusation is just as
destructive as the other.
The pertinent question is whether the mud will stick and
whether Mr Key has consequently suffered major and lasting
damage after being obliged to admit he was wrong and that he
was briefed - if only in passing - on the GCSB's
participation in January's police raid on the Dotcom mansion.
As his popularity has been very much the salient factor in
National maintaining buoyant poll ratings in the face of the
normal erosion of support for second-term governments, the
revelations and reverberations of the past two weeks ought to
be of significant worry for the governing party.
You cannot keep issuing denials that you were informed by
officials of something only to then turn around and admit you
were told about that something after all.
The lapse brings back memories of Jenny Shipley's
election-year clanger as prime minister when she had to
apologise for making up a claim that TVNZ had paid $1 million
to former news reader John Hawkesby as an exit settlement.
The blunder had a negative effect on her image, but National
was already facing defeat regardless.
Mr Key's misdemeanour also invites comparisons with Helen
Clark's speeding police motorcade to get her to the rugby on
time or the incident in which she was pinged for signing a
painting and passing it off as her own work for a charity
But neither event made a blind bit of difference to her or
Mr Key's bumbling behaviour is of more significance, as it
involves highly sensitive matters of state.
The saving grace for him is that, like Miss Clark, he is seen
as someone who is usually straight with voters. He has long
shared Miss Clark's approach of "fessing up" to problems and
Indeed, his biggest frustration during this affair is the
time it took for the GCSB to give him the information he
needed to bring matters to a close.
Such was the agency's reluctance to hurry things that Mr Key
hauled in officials this week for a dressing down.
The net effect may well be that Mr Key will now exercise the
full oversight of the GCSB that Opposition politicians have
accused him of failing to provide.
Much will hang on the overhaul of procedures likely to flow
from the review of the agency to be conducted by the Cabinet
Secretary, Rebecca Kitteridge.
Mr Key's recovery may be helped by him graciously accepting
the word of others present that there was mention of the GCSB
assisting the police during a briefing he was given on the
agency's wider role and responsibilities, even though he
could not recall that mention.
Some prime ministers would have stubbornly clung on to their
position of denial. That would have been a serious error of
On top of that, there is the question of how much Mr Dotcom
and the workings of the GCSB really matter to the average New
The same measure applies to Mr Key's handling of John Banks.
Neither issue alone is a vote-changer.
What may be damaging to Mr Key, however, is that his poor
handling of the Banks episode has been rapidly followed by
his equally woeful, if not worse, performance in the
In that, the Prime Minister has been punished by the fatal
combination of his indifferent oversight of the GCSB and the
organisation's lax attitude to following the letter of the
Quite plainly, the GCSB was an accident waiting to happen.
Moreover, it had clearly been an accident waiting to happen
for some time.
That is apparent from the agency's audit of other examples
dating back to 2009 of where it had helped law enforcement
The audit, carried out on Mr Key's orders after his bombshell
announcement the agency's monitoring of Dotcom had been
illegal, threw up three other cases of 58 where the GCSB
could not assure the Prime Minister its legal position was
Three cases might not sound like a lot. In terms of abuse of
power, however, one case is one too many.
The results of the audit, released on Wednesday, were
inevitably overshadowed by the revelation on the same day Mr
Key had been told about the GCSB's involvement in the case
when he had claimed he had not.
The Prime Minister's biggest error was a seeming desire not
to be informed of operational matters being undertaken by the
GCSB and presumably the Security Intelligence Services as
On the day he revealed the GCSB had acted illegally, Mr Key
refused to accept ministerial responsibility for what had
happened on the grounds he had been kept in the dark by the
That stance was astonishing. It illustrated how keen he was
to put plenty of distance between him and the GCSB even
though doing so was constitutionally untenable.
As Labour pointed out, the law that established the GCSB as a
department specifies that the Prime Minister is "in charge"
of the organisation, rather than its chief executive, which
would normally be the case.
So the buck stops on Mr Key's desk, and his desk alone.
His cavalier view of ministerial responsibility has been in
sharp contrast to Miss Clark's.
She likewise may not have been comfortable with the security
For her, however, that was doubly reason to maintain rigorous
oversight and a hands-on grasp of detail.
Mr Key is very uncomfortable with such an approach. This
week, he lectured journalists on the perils and pitfalls of
the prime minister getting too close to the operational
decisions of the intelligence services, going as far as
raising the spectre of Sir Robert Muldoon.
Being briefed on operational matters does not necessarily
mean you are interfering in those operations.
But ultimately only the prime minister can stop a spy agency
going feral. That is the lesson from the Dotcom disaster. But
it is not clear whether Key has learned that lesson in its
John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political