Opinion: Key violates protocols limiting politicians' prerogative

Like every good public servant inculcated with the bureaucracy's ethos of caution and restraint, Iain Rennie chooses his words very, very carefully.

So when the State Services Commissioner says he is ''surprised'', he actually means he is quite shocked, even stunned.

As someone for whom the boundaries between politics and political neutrality are second nature, Mr Rennie would certainly have been startled when he learned back in 2011 the prime minister had phoned an old school chum, family friend or passing acquaintance - we are still none the wiser as to which description is accurate - to apply for the vacant post of director of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

During his press conference on Thursday and subsequent interviews that day, Mr Rennie stressed there was nothing wrong with John Key putting forward the name of Ian Fletcher - then a New Zealand expatriate and high-flyer in the British and Australian civil services.

But the subsequent phone call to Mr Fletcher raised ''issues of perception''. It was a matter of judgement as to whether that was ''worth the candle''.

In other words, Mr Key had infringed the delicate protocols which limit how far politicians should go and decree what is best left for officials.

Mr Rennie's arcane language may have been lost on many - but not on the ninth floor of the Beehive. It was about as close as the country's most senior civil servant could come to reprimanding Mr Key for overstepping the mark between acceptable assistance and political interference.

Only gently, of course. That is because, at the end of the day, as any good public servant also knows, the minister - especially the prime minister - is always right even when he or she is clearly in the wrong.

Mr Rennie has had his detractors - including this writer - during his five-year term as commissioner. But on Thursday he rose to the occasion in decisive, yet strictly nonpartisan fashion.

His intervention was in stark contrast to the prime minister's office, whose idea of damage control was simply to tough things out amidst a media feeding-frenzy of almost biblical proportions.

Mr Rennie spent some time explaining that unlike the appointment of most chief executives where the relevant minister only has the right to veto the State Services Commissioner's final recommendation, the position of director of GCSB is one of a handful of statutory offices where the appointment process allows far more say by the minister. Mr Key thus had more leeway than his attackers were crediting him.

Mr Rennie expressed ''disappointment'' - another heavily loaded word - with the misinformed criticisms levelled by a former boss of the GCSB, Sir Bruce Ferguson. Mr Rennie rubbished the notion that the job required a background in the military or the intelligence community.

He indicated that even before last year's mega embarrassment surrounding the surveillance of Kim Dotcom, it had been realised that the spy agency was in desperate need of someone capable of restructuring and modernising it.

Most crucially, however, Mr Rennie drew something of a line in the sand that prime ministers should not stray across even if unintentionally.

He made it clear Mr Key should have left contacting Mr Fletcher to him. Had Mr Key done so, he would have avoided some of the flak he copped this week. It might not have been practicable, but had Mr Key withdrawn completely from the appointment process after suggesting Mr Fletcher for the job - and left it to Deputy Prime Minister Bill English to make the decision - he would have avoided all of the flak.

The important point here is perception - not just whether Mr Key leaned on the officials but whether by his actions he was perceived as doing so.

Alarm bells would have rung in Mr Rennie's head when told of Mr Key's phone call to Mr Fletcher. The commissioner would have redoubled efforts to ensure the integrity of the appointment process, including setting up an an appointment panel of absolutely unimpeachable quality, which would not be seen to be swayed by Mr Key's actions.

The result would still have been the same. Mr Rennie would have taken the hint. Mr Key would have got the man he wanted for the job. Mr Key would have created sufficient distance from the appointment process to negate Opposition claims he was guilty of political interference.

Mr Key's prior association with Mr Fletcher instead became a skeleton lurking in the prime minister's political closet. Once that association became public, the capacity of both men to be seen to be functioning independently of one another would be compromised. Given Mr Key's responsibility as the only person with oversight of the GCSB's secret operations, this is especially troubling.

The lid was kept on this unsatisfactory state of affairs until Labour's Grant Robertson struck gold by asking Mr Key in Parliament what role he had played in Mr Fletcher's appointment.

Mr Key must have been worried the question indicated Mr Robertson knew something. Mr Key consequently blurted out that he had known Mr Fletcher, having gone to school with his brother.

But Mr Key did not answer the main question about his role in the appointment. Then again, how could he without ending up with huge egg on face?Things turned to custard this week anyway when it became known that Mr Key had rung Mr Fletcher about taking the job. Mr Key was deemed guilty by opponents of lying by omission, prompting calls for all manner of official inquiries and breach of parliamentary privilege hearings.

None of those are likely to eventuate. But Mr Key may have stretched credulity too far this time with his claim to have forgotten he made the call to Mr Fletcher. The memory lapse is just too convenient. As a way of ducking questions it is becoming too frequent. But Labour's problem is getting anything to stick to Mr Key. While eyebrows might be raised over his bouts of assumed amnesia, Mr Key is unlikely to incur too much lasting damage from this episode.

The procedures of public service recruitment are hardly riveting. Moreover - and this is the truly telling point - if Mr Key has committed a political crime, the public has yet to be convinced there was a truly base motive, such as money, political favour, patronage or something equally venal.

Mr Key is guilty of cutting corners. He may deserve crucifying for helping a mate - or a mate's mate. But there was nothing else that Mr Key got out of it. Finding a job for someone who really did not need his help and who was also more than qualified to do that job does not quite meet most people's definition of real cronyism.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald's political correspondent.

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