The day after winning re-election, prime minister John Key warned that one of the biggest risks his government faced in its third term was arrogance. What a pity he didn’t heed his own advice.
Key has given new Labour leader Andrew Little a dream start, and Little has the ability to take full advantage of it. More by good luck than good management, Labour has found itself with a leader who could prove a real handful for National.
Let’s examine National’s performance in greater detail. We’ll start with the accusation of arrogance.
With very little warning, the government proposed radical changes to security laws and allowed practically no time for people to make submissions. It displayed utter contempt for the normal democratic process.
It didn’t even bother trying to explain why an overhaul of the security laws was suddenly so urgent. “Don’t bother your tiny little heads fretting about civil liberties and the right to be free from surveillance,” the government effectively said. “Just believe us when we say the country is at imminent risk of terrorism. Trust us, because we know what we’re doing.”
Trouble was, the legislation was introduced to Parliament in the same week as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence confirmed that the former head of the SIS was up to his eyeballs in the leaking of information calculated to damage one of the National government’s opponents.
Trust them? Yeah, right.
The perception of arrogance was compounded by the performance of the Attorney-General and Minister in Charge of the SIS, Chris Finlayson.
This is the minister charged with ensuring our rights are protected. Yet when Guyon Espiner questioned him on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report about why the security legislation was being bulldozed through Parliament, Finlayson testily replied that the government didn’t have time for “chit-chat”.
He subsequently made what purported to be an apology in Parliament, but he didn’t look at all apologetic to me. In fact he looked very pleased with himself.
Finlayson is reputedly a clever man, and knows it; but clever men have a way of tripping over their own egos. He’s also a list MP, and I wonder if he would be quite so cocky if he had to answer to an electorate.
Even before the appearance of the proposed new security laws, the government had shown signs of third-term arrogance. Within weeks of winning the election, it had pushed through new employment laws that were widely criticised as eroding workers’ rights.
I’m not convinced that the new laws are quite as oppressive as the critics say, but it was the symbolism that struck me. Here was a newly re-elected government using its majority to ensure the speedy passage of laws that were seen as anti-worker.
If it wanted to send out a signal confirming all those old left-wing claims about National acting in the interests of the bosses, it couldn’t have done a better job.
Now let’s look at the charge of incompetence. Consider the following.
■ The State Services Commission presided over an embarrassing sexual harassment fiasco in which it was seen as supporting the senior public servant whose behaviour was the subject of the complaint;
■ As already mentioned, the former head of the SIS allowed himself to be used in an underhand smear campaign aimed at discrediting a senior Labour politician.
In each case, incompetence and bad judgment on a grand scale. But did we see any of the responsible cabinet ministers, or even department heads, volunteering to fall on their swords?
Ministerial accountability used to be a core principle of Westminster-style democracy. Ministers carried the can for their departments’ cockups even when they weren’t personally to blame.
It’s a harsh system, but an effective way of ensuring discipline and accountability right down through the chain of command. It means someone has to pay when things go wrong. After all, if no one suffers, where’s the incentive to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
But don’t hold your breath for waiting for ministers in this government to maintain that tradition. It’s just not going to happen.
Finally, there’s the issue of Key and his relationship with Cameron Slater, which brings us to the subject of integrity.
I now seriously wonder whether the prime minister has any, given his pathetic dissembling over whether he’d been in touch with Slater. That came on top of his preposterous claim recently that when he spoke to Slater, it wasn’t in his capacity as prime minister.
For heaven’s sake, give us a break. This is altogether too cute and too cocky. People have given Key the benefit of the doubt before, but there must come a time when his credibility runs out.
You could argue, I suppose, that if he has some sort of political death wish that compels him to continue dealing with Slater, that’s his prerogative. But what’s inexcusable is that he plays us for mugs by bullshitting us.
At the very least, he should show us a bit more respect.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. This article was first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.