Cause for introspection

The Dirty Politics ''snowball'' has finally caught up with Prime Minister John Key, despite his best efforts to outrun it.

After more than two weeks dismissing the contents of investigative journalist Nicky Hager's book as a left-wing conspiracy and a smear campaign against the National Party with no truth to it, the latest accusations have seen a flurry of weekend activity and brought the situation to a knife edge.

The book, the result of hacked emails, appeared to show National Party activists, staff and Justice Minister Judith Collins had worked with Whale Oil's Cameron Slater and other right-wing bloggers to try to destroy reputations and advance the party's cause, and raised questions about how much Mr Key knew about the underhand tactics and his own conversations with Mr Slater.

Ms Collins, already on a ''last warning'' over the Oravida affair, had managed to retain the Prime Minister's confidence since the book's publication, despite Opposition calls for him to sack her.

The straw that broke the camel's back came on Saturday, with the release of emails that allege Ms Collins had worked with Mr Slater and others to try to remove the then head of the Serious Fraud Office, Adam Feeley.

A phone call from Mr Key resulted in Ms Collins' resignation as a minister, although she denies any wrongdoing and has vowed to fight to clear her name.

But further accusations came thick and fast, with more emails on Sunday appearing to show Mr Slater, friend and blogger Cathy Odgers and public relations consultant Carrick Graham, a tobacco industry lobbyist, plotted to work against the Financial Markets Authority on behalf of former Hanover boss Mark Hotchin, who was being investigated by it and the SFO.

The accusations are especially unpalatable given 16,000 investors lost more than $500 million after the failure of the finance company.

Mr Key has now announced he will instigate an inquiry into the issues between Ms Collins and Mr Slater. The arguments are now over how far-reaching the inquiry should be, and whether Mr Key should also be called to task. Labour has called for a full commission of inquiry into the matter.

A parallel situation is under way in an inquiry by the Inspector-general of Intelligence and Security into allegations in Dirty Politics over an Official Information Act release from former SIS director Warren Tucker to Mr Slater used to discredit then Labour leader Phil Goff over spying concerns. (Mr Key is not required to give evidence.)

The whole saga is unedifying and undoubtedly complicating policy issues in the lead-up to this month's general election. Mr Hager's book and the email releases have been dismissed by many as politically motivated, but their serious nature means they cannot be ignored, and the veracity of the claims must be determined.

While the finger has been pointed at National Party ministers and staff, the saga raises questions that go to the heart of politics and journalism, particularly in the age of social media.

While it is hardly news that political parties have spin doctors and contacts within the media who are deemed more sympathetic than others, the public may not be aware of some of the machinations that go on behind closed doors. Shining a light on such dealings keeps everyone honest.

Politicians, the mainstream media and the public should all have cause for introspection about the very real influence individuals with agendas can have on the democratic process and its integrity, and the absolute importance of holding political figures to account.

Faith needs to be restored all round. The difficulty Mr Key now faces is whether to act promptly, given his past weeks of ambivalence, or whether to wait until after the election for a more comprehensive inquiry with cross-party support and without the intense pressure of a looming election.

Dirty laundry has been aired, and there may yet be more in the offing.

The most vital factor is that the inquiry is wide-ranging and has broad terms of reference, to ensure everything comes out in the wash. New Zealanders deserve as much.


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