John Key can't be complacent over Henry

It is nothing short of bizarre that the utterances of a breakfast television host have damaged the huge effort in recent years that New Zealand has put into strengthening its relationship with India.

Here we were having our own internal debate about what Paul Henry said, what it meant, and what should be done when, suddenly India imports itself into the discussion.

The news that India called in New Zealand's High Commissioner in New Delhi on Thursday to protest over Paul Henry's offensiveness to Indians is a disturbing development.

It is disturbing on one level, because to elevate what a shock-jock says about Indians into a formal bilateral issues is a misuse of diplomatic channels by India.

It is inconceivable that New Zealand would contemplate doing anything similar if the tables were turned.

Bilateral disputes are largely confined to matters like trade blockages, foreign spies using New Zealand passports and aid activists on flotillas being massacred.

It is disturbing on another level because New Zealand does not want to fall out with an increasingly important friend.

When Prime Minister John Key sought a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last November at the Commonwealth summit in Port of Spain and it was considered a coup when he got it.

Mr Key and officials were ushered in quickly and there was little time for small talk with the diminutive Mr Singh being the most sought-after leader in attendance.

The pair discussed a hiccup in the embryonic free trade talks and Mr Key also got what he and the foreign ministry were angling for, an invitation to visit New Delhi.

India's demarche - formal protest - this week is probably more designed for domestic consumption.

The Commonwealth Games were to be the thriving symbol of India's assertion as a world power and a magnet for national pride.

When I was in New Delhi a year ago, the expectations of what the Games would do for its image in the world was far greater than anything New Zealand is going through with the Rugby World Cup - expectations so high that it would be near impossible to meet.

With New Zealanders being the leading critics of the organisation a few weeks ago, New Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit rescued the situation.

When the mockery of her by a hitherto unknown TV host came to light, India's Government saw the benefit domestically in taking New Zealand down a peg or two.

It has not confined its actions to calling in New Zealand's High Commissioner in New Delhi.

India's High Commissioner in Wellington has sent a letter to Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman, asking that appropriate steps be taken.

Reading between the lines, it is calling on the Government to sack Paul Henry.

The letter will give the Government the distance it is looking for.

The Government might own the television network Mr Henry works for, but the way it works in New Zealand is that politicians do not interfere in operational decisions, and foreign governments stay well away.

And any perceived pressure by the Indian Government to see Paul Henry sacked will be the very thing that saves him - if indeed he wants to be saved to return to his show.

 

The broadcaster, a former National Party candidate, may be taking the advice of former radio host and cabinet minister Steven Joyce and contemplating his future.

Paul Henry was respected by a cross-section of politicians in the past because he often subjugated his own right-wing opinions and played devil's advocate.

He was more careful when Labour was in office, whether consciously or not.

Helen Clark welcomed him to New York to do her first big media number of the United Nations.

But under National, he has taken, and TVNZ has allowed him, a freer rein.

That has morphed into a situation where he will say outrageous things - things he hopefully does not believe - to get the attention he and the channel's advertising executives crave.

In the formal complaints process that follows, comments about Sheila Dikshit, comments and suggestions that New Zealand's ethnically Indian Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand is not a real New Zealander, and the role of Television New Zealand itself will be in the spotlight as much as Paul Henry.

In New Delhi, High Commissioner Rupert Alberto acted quickly to address the formal complaint with the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Wellington.

He did not consult Foreign Minister Murray McCully who was in the air returning from Europe, nor the Prime Minister.

Mr Alberto in his response on behalf of the Government had no compunction about referring to Henry's comments about the Governor-General as "racist", something that neither Mr McCully nor Mr Key has done.

It is a word used sparingly by politicians in Government, as it should be.

Mr Key avoided it when Maori Party MP Hone Harawira expressed concerns about his kids coming home with Pakeha girlfriends or boyfriends.

It was evident at Monday's post-Cabinet press conference that Mr Key thought there was an overreaction to Paul Henry's comment about the Governor-General.

It is a widely shared view.

There has been an equally strong feeling that Mr Key has been too complacent and has misjudged this from the start, views that do not fall neatly in a left-right split.

Mr Key must have been delighted on Monday night to see that TV One put it well down the bulletin, wanting to avoid bad publicity, and TV3 put it well down its bulletin wanting to avoid any publicity for a rival.

It is over, he must have thought, just as it was starting to gain steam.

Four days later it has turned into an international story with serious implications for New Zealand's reputation.

India may have overreacted but John Key cannot afford to be complacent.

The events of this week make it imperative that he takes up Dr Singh's invitation to ensure that the damage to the relationship is no more than a superficial wound.

Audrey Young is The New Zealand Herald's political editor

 

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