New Zealanders instinctively trust John Key as a straight-shooter. But at what point do voters start to see the Prime Minister as tarnished by the Dotcom spying affair?

Trust is one of the most valuable political currencies; if the public puts their confidence in you, politicians can achieve so much more, feel much safer in their jobs and demand more loyalty from your colleagues. John Key, such a successful trader of actual currency, has also proven to be astute at accumulating its political equivalent. But these days he seems to be spending more than he's saving and the question is when those savings will run out.

Thus far, his trust account, as it were, looks as healthy as ever. The latest polls show him still in a strikingly strong position as preferred Prime Minister, far and away the dominant figure in New Zealand politics. National is riding his coat tails, as it has been for years.

Voters have instinctively liked and trusted him for a long time, and don't seem inclined to re-think that impression in a hurry.

But the Dotcom saga has been eroding that trust and took another withdrawal this week, with Key's admission that he rang his old family acquaintance, Ian Fletcher, and suggested he might like to apply for the job leading the GCSB; a job that reports directly and only to Key as Prime Minister.

I've no problem with the fact Key and Fletcher knew each other as children and now work together. We're a small country with small talent pools and it's inevitable people of ability will become both friends and colleagues.

I've little problem with Key suggesting contacts for senior roles in the public sector. While any Prime Minister must be careful not to be seen to be compelling any appointments or playing favourites, there's no reason he can't chip in with the odd name.

I've a little more of a problem that he made the phone call directly to Fletcher, as it once again shows a looseness and lack of respect for proper process. As I wrote back in March and in February, Key cares about results, not about how you get there. And in government, that's a concern because the means should matter as much as the ends.

And it's a concern that attitude may be catching. State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie on Campbell Live last night defended the process of hiring Fletcher by insisting it was OK because Fletcher was doing a good job. Now that's debatable, given the handling of the Dotcom spying. But then Rennie went on to say:

"I'm still driven by the outcome".

That struck a worrying chord with me. A State Services Commissioner, more than just about anyone, should care about means as much as ends.

Still, the biggest problem for me in this week's developments is not the inappropriate hiring methods per se, but the Prime Minister's lack of full disclosure. Last week, when asked what role he played in Fletcher's appointment, Key said:

"Only that the State Services Commissioner came to me with a recommendation."

And the next day:

"I didn't undertake the recruitment, that was fully done by the State Services Commission."

Those statements were clearly false, given we now know Key made the phone call that made Fletcher aware of the vacancy. So this week he admitted:

"I rang him and said look I think you might be interested, if you are interested in finding out about the job you should go and speak to Maarten Wevers who is the head of DPMC and see if that job is of interest to you."

So voters are left to decide whether Key was hiding the truth last week or had genuinely forgotten.

Either way, that must amount to a debit to his trust account. The occasional memory lapse is human, but six high profile ones suggest either convenient and dubious excuses or a lack of attention. Either way, voters will start to wonder just how reliable the Prime Minister is.

It does stretch credibility to accept that Key could recall his family's relationship with Fletcher's, presumably discuss the political implications with his staff and be questioned at length by reporters about that relationship and his role in the appointment and simply forget that he kicked the appointment off with the phone call.

So the problem becomes not the phone call itself, but the resulting excuses. And just how uncomfortable he looked on camera.

As I pondered Key's trustworthiness this week, I remembered Kim Dotcom's assertion last year that Key has lied as to when he knew about Dotcom. Dotcom insisted he would prove Key a liar and said:

"[John Key] is running naked and telling people he has clothes on. Everyone can see he's naked."

The polls tell us that voters have a different view of Key. The question is for how much longer, as he seems to be a little less well dressed – a little less trustworthy – than he did a week ago.

Comments (6)

by Bruce Thorpe on April 05, 2013
Bruce Thorpe

Well said, Tim.

I do not usually adopt conspiracy theories but some of Campbell's questions about Fletcher's background and Rennie's "driven by the outcome" quote, are tempting. 

by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on April 05, 2013
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere

"The polls tell us that voters have a different view of Key. The question is for how much longer, as he seems to be a little less well dressed – a little less trustworthy – than he did a week ago."

I'm genuinely curious as to whether the average voter - i.e. those outside of the Beltway - cares about issues like this. The Opposition has for the longest time attempted to portray John Key as someone not to be trusted, and yet it's a narrative that has yet to stick.

Maybe this issue will be different, but something tells me that his lead as preferred Prime Minister will remain undented - just as it has after Dotcom issue. What's your view, Tim? Do voters care about irregularities in process and governance? Or is it instead a question of personality-driven politics - the details be damned?

by Alan Johnstone on April 05, 2013
Alan Johnstone

When reading this I was reminded of a section of Tony Blairs autobiography, where he writes about trust and benefit of the doubt.

He writes about it as a binary condition, you either have it or you don't. Little things like this chip away at it, but on the whole people still give you the benefit of the doubt.

Then one day, something happens, and it's gone. It's like the straw that breaks the camels back. After that day it's gone; everything you do is distrusted and you're finished.

John Key is very Blair like in his methods, outcome over process and both of them were trusted in excess of their parties and won elections on personal trust.,

What happened to Tony will happen to John; it's just a matter of time.

by Ross on April 05, 2013

Iain Rennie told John Campbell that the PM's shoulder-tapping of Fletcher was the only case he'd known where a PM (or Minister) had had such direct involement in an appointment. So, clearly it's not something that happens often (if at all).

Rennie said it was merely a coincidence that the raid on Dotcom's place happened when there was no Director of GCSB. Fletcher started the job in Jan 2012 while his predecssor left in December 2011. The police raid occurred in the interim, on 20 January 2012, just 9 days before Fletcher took over. That is some coincidence.

by Tim Watkin on April 05, 2013
Tim Watkin

Marcelo, I think Alan descibes it nicely. It doesn't matter to voters until it matters, and if you could predict the tipping point you'd be a well paid political consultant.

By and large people don't care much about process stories or have time for detail. And I think they often put themselves in the politician's place. In this case most people would see no problem in suggeting someone they knew for a job, maybe even urging a mate to apply. We've all done it. It's hard to spell out why PM's a held to different standards on such things.

But each individual story builds perception. And you're right, the untrustworthy label hasn't stuck yet. But that doesn't mean it won't eventually and these memory lapses, which look unlikely to say the least, are the sorts of things that can reinforce a perception Key's opponents are trying to build.

Hence the metaphor - Key is far from bankrupt, but I reckon a withdrawal has been made. It's probably not the one that pushes him into the red, but it's too soon to say.

by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on April 05, 2013
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere

That's very interesting analysis, Tim (and an apposite analogy, Alan) - many thanks. I guess there are plenty of homegrown examples of this happening before, too - Helen Clark was very popular until she really, really wasn't.  Hard to say what exactly the tipping point was, but it was a series of discrete events rather than one massive issue that turned the public against her.

It can't help (the Prime Minister, that is) that the media have now picked up the narrative. The Fairfax outlets seem to have been particularly keen on following this story, when perhaps even twelve months ago, it would likely have fizzled, meaning that Sir Bruce Fergusson wouldn't have been called onto Campbell Live, Iain Rennie wouldn't have expressed his doubts and we wouldn't have found out that this wasn't a one-off instance, etc. It'd be very intriguing were it not so worrying for those of us who are sticklers for due process!



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