Apology needed, prime minister

Memory lapses are a fact of life for many people. It is not only the aged who are struck down by not remembering the simplest of details - sometimes names, dates, phone calls and appointments with friends or colleagues slip from immediate recall for all of us.

The kindest of critics would suggest that is the way with Prime Minister John Key, who this week has suddenly remembered more details about the appointment of Ian Fletcher as the country's top spy.

Mr Key gained some sympathy when he was first attacked for failing to disclose he and Mr Fletcher knew each other, shrugging it off through the fact their mothers were best friends when Messrs Key and Fletcher were at school. But then more details started to emerge, including that Mr Key forgot he phoned Mr Fletcher urging him to apply for the job at the Government Communications and Security Bureau. Mr Key's call to Mr Fletcher, who was at that time working in Australia, was made after a shortlist of potential candidates, believed to include experienced military and intelligence personnel, was rejected.

Just a week ago, Mr Key told reporters he only ''vaguely'' knew Mr Fletcher. It later emerged the two men have met over breakfast or lunch on at least three occasions in recent years. Mr Key has breakfast or lunch with many people each year. New Zealand is a small country and there will be plenty of Kiwis who work at top levels who were at school together, whose parents were friends, or whose brothers or sisters married friends and so on. A lot of business in New Zealand is done through the tapping of shoulders, and that is not necessarily bad.

What is bad is Mr Key once again adopting the ''brain fade'' excuse, basically saying he has so much going on that he cannot remember everything he says or does.

To be fair, Mr Key is not the only politician to suffer from this kind of ailment. Recently, Labour leader David Shearer forgot a bank account in the United States. He has now declared it on his pecuniary interests statement. Former prime minister Helen Clark forgot she signed a painting auctioned for charity she did not paint. Act New Zealand leader John Banks could not recall donations from internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom to his failed mayoral campaign.

But Mr Key has now had a series of memory lapses, including forgetting how many Tranz Rail shares he owned, being unsure if and when he was briefed by the GCSB on Kim Dotcom, and forgetting how he voted on the drinking age. He also could not remember who was aboard a mystery CIA jet parked at Wellington airport. One slip, perhaps two, is understandable. But a litany of such prevarications is surely a step too far.

Mr Key came into Parliament as a former merchant banker, a wealthy self-made man. It is impossible to believe, given his background, that he does not know - well or otherwise - thousands of people. If he was briefed that the shortlist of candidates for the role of New Zealand's top spy was not up to scratch, it is not the end of the world that he phoned someone he knew and encouraged him to put forward his name. After all, he was not the one appointing the person, although the person does report to him. But it is beholden on the prime minister to stand up and tell New Zealanders of his actions.

It will be a step for the worse if New Zealand goes down the road of the United States, where presidential appointments are put through the most rigorous of scrutiny in front of a bipartisan group of politicians. Sometimes, the most able candidates withdraw because they value their private life. However, transparency in New Zealand politics is essential.

National's fortunes live or die on the reputation of Mr Key, such is his popularity among voters. With his recurring memory failures, he is dicing with not only his personal reputation but the electoral future of his colleagues. An apology to voters over the latest lapse is the least the public will accept.

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