Greens break up with Nats: government and media response

Pundit’s scoop this week got a muted response, from both ministers and the media

Don’t you hate that? When you try to write a balanced story, and can’t, because the government won’t talk to a blogger. Perhaps others will pick up the slack: journalists, who are paid and qualified to ask politicians hard questions until they get some answers. But they don’t seem all that interested either.

Greens’ energy efficiency spokesperson Jeanette Fitzsimons had talked exclusively to Pundit about the Greens’ reasons for partial withdrawal from the National-Greens memorandum of understanding (MOU). Contrary to Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee’s assertions, there were serial lapses in involving Fitzsimons, as agreed, in rewriting the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (EECS). We verified this: an important briefing was released to me by Brownlee under the Official Information Act, that Fitzsimons had not seen. There were a number of other examples.

Brownlee and the Prime Minister were asked for comment. In Brownlee’s case, he has been offered a guest spot on Pundit to put his side of the story. Kevin Taylor, John Key’s chief press secretary, replied:  “Hello Claire. FYI, we do not engage with blogs, as a general rule. Regards, Kevin.” As yet, there is no word from Brownlee’s office. It remains unclear whether Taylor’s response should be taken as the government response, or was just on behalf of Key.

It’s the classic first line of ministerial defence: lie low for a few days, and hope it goes away. The Prime Minister is off to APEC now; he’ll be looking statesmanlike on the telly, chalking up another success story.

Media response was muted too. There was a short piece in the National Business Review on Wednesday; a page four article in Thursday’s New Zealand Herald; and, I’m told, a news clip on Radio New Zealand National, in which Brownlee is said to have downplayed the issue as a Green party tantrum.

Given Taylor’s refusal to talk to Pundit, it’s tempting to conclude that the government has no comment: that the particular allegations about process failures are not denied, there is nothing to say in mitigation, so it’s better to say nothing at all. Maybe that’s not a million miles away from the truth, because when comment finally emerged in the Herald yesterday, this is what Key said:

Mr Key said he rejected Ms Fitzsimons’ suggestion that the Greens had not been consulted on policy. “It’s not that we didn’t consult with them, but we don’t agree with each other … They made it clear in terms of energy efficiency that they no longer want that to be part of the MOU. We are totally accepting of that, the MOU covers a number of other areas, home insulation, the cycleway, therapeutic goods ... At the end of the day we have a philosophical difference of opinion in terms of that particular issue.”

Of course, there’s always another side of the story. It’s just that Key hasn’t told us yet what it is, because his comments don’t address the story.

Articulating the philosophical difference is a good start: we can debate the merits of that, as Fitzsimons was attempting to do, in her guest Pundit post. We’d love to have one from Brownlee, and see the information or advice on which the government’s conclusions have been based.

But I’m more interested in the process, why it failed, and what that tells us. Six months ago, Key agreed to involve Fitzsimons in the development of the new EECS. He signed an agreement, and published a press release. Now it appears that she has not been involved, and that Brownlee, perhaps, has been pursuing a hidden agenda to repeal the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act. That raises serious questions about Key’s veracity, and the government’s, as well as Brownlee’s.

Note Key’s change in language: he’s talking about “consultation” now, as opposed to “involvement”. I wrote about that here. When the MOU was signed, it envisaged a closer, working relationship. But okay: so how did Brownlee “consult”, exactly, and what is the explanation for the list of times when he didn’t? Fitzsimons can give chapter and verse; can the government?

Key knew about the Greens’ defection before we broke this story. Green Party co-leaders had written to him. He could have contacted them, or issued a press release. After we published the story, it took around 36 hours for any public comment to emerge from the government. Here’s another allegation, to which Mr Taylor may wish to respond: I think they were hoping to keep it quiet; and failing that, to slow it down.

Not engaging with blogs, as a general rule, is a flimsy question-dodging excuse. The engagement might be selective, but engagement there certainly is.

Last year, then student journalist Sandra Dickson wrote about the rising influence of blogs, in which Matthew Hooton is quoted as saying, about Kiwiblog: “David Farrar would be in daily contact with John Key and Bill English during an election campaign, I’m sure” and “Kites get flown by serious politicians through Kiwiblog and The Standard”. Hooton is a well-regarded pundit and former National party staffer—a so-called “Hollow Man”. In short, he ought to know. In the same piece, Farrar himself commented on the 2005 election campaign, when his blog previewed National Party billboards, including the infamous “iwi-kiwi”, and National Party campaign manager Steven Joyce is said to have monitored the comment thread with great interest. “They jokingly said it’s the best, cheapest focus group we’ve ever had …” said Farrar. Kiwiblog is in a class of its own, traffic-wise, but it’s also partisan—as Hooton mischievously said to Dickson, injecting just enough criticism to give a veneer of objectivity.

Is Taylor’s general rule a sensible rule? The line between blogging and journalism is getting fuzzy. What distinguishes a columnist or commentator from a blogger: is there anything, other than quality and forum, and in circumstances where the online forum is the only difference, why should that matter?

Pundit lives in a factionalised, fractious little blogging community, but the professionalism and generosity of the online response to our story was a joy to watch. Taylor may find it ironic. Scoop had the story on its front page for 24 hours, so they must have thought it was news. Kiwiblog, Red Alert, The Standard, and Frogblog quickly picked it up and gave credit, linking through to Pundit. Contrast that with the performance of the newspapers: the New Zealand Herald ignored Pundit in its article. Pundit reader Kate logged on to tell us she had complained to an unnamed “major metropolitan newspaper”, then found that references to “Claire Browning” and “Pundit” in her letter had been deleted.

I’ve been the first to admit that it might be hard to find the public interest angle in this story: partial withdrawal by a party that’s not a support party from an agreement people probably didn’t know about. I can only assume that gallery reporters think if it was news, someone important would have told them. But if they didn’t consider it a story in its own right, the government's evasion ought to get them at least a bit excited, as a matter of principle.

I thought we lived in a proud, healthy little democracy, where ministers are accountable to the public, and journalists snap at their heels. The Prime Minister’s office can brush off an unknown blogger; in their position, I would do the same. But the media lack of response is far more disheartening.