Tone it down, John: Sydney seige words seem self-serving

Until we know more about Man Haron Monis and his motivations, John Key should avoid leaping to assumptions and using the case to justify his own political goals

Clunk. That's the sound of John Key mishandling his comments over the Sydney seige.

The hostage drama in central Sydney ended early this morning with three dead, including the hostage-taker. It's a terrible event and it seems likely religious sentiment was part of gunman Man Haron Monis' motivation.

We've seen the black flag held in the cafe window, but know now that it is a simple and famous statement of muslim faith ('there is no God but God') and while appropriated by terror groups, is not affiliated with a particular one.

There's a lot we don't know so we should be reluctant to jump to conclusions, but at this stage it looks more like a criminal act than a terrorist one. Terrorism is defined as the "use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims" and while Monis certainly was a man with a political agenda in large part motivated by his faith, we don't yet know of any political demands made in this attack.

What we do know is that he was facing criminal charges and the questions in Australia today are about its bail laws, not its anti-terror laws.

Which raises the question why John Key has felt the need to use the tragic events to push an anti-terrorism and, let's face it, self-serving political line, in comments today.

Does he know more? Has he been briefed about Monis' as yet unpublicised motivations? Or is he chancing his hand?

Two comments leap out. First, Key said this morning on National Radio that this is the kind of situation the government had in mind when it passed new anti-terror laws last week. Really? Those laws were changed to stopped mentally ill criminals on bail from taking hostages?

Because when he laid out his thinking on The Nation a few weeks' back, the closest he got to this sort of situation was "people that might take actions" as a result of the wars in Iraq and Syria:

So there are three things happening at the moment in terms of threats, as I see it. So number one is a domestic threat, and they are foreign fighters either returning to New Zealand or people that might take actions — sort of, domestic beheading as we sort of potentially saw in Australia. Number two is those who are in-country — so they're young New Zealander— Well, they might not be young, necessarily. They're aid workers or they're even our military people that are in the Middle Eastern countries that are associated with us. Again, both those groups are quite small. But of the number of foreign fighters currently in Iraq and Syria, we think that total number is about 3000. And many of those come from Muslim-based countries in our region. So it's regional activity. If you take a step back to, say, the Bali bombings, that was a terrorist group, domestic in nature. If you look at what is possible, it is that you could see foreign fighters going back to those countries, and they are countries where New Zealanders are likely to holiday or to travel, and so they present a threat. So I guess all I'm sort of saying to New Zealanders is we need to consider what we might do.

So if Monis is shown to have had a political, and specifically terror-provoked, motivation, then Key has a point. But we just don't know that yet and the early evidence is that we was a lone wolf, rather than someone connected with a terrorist organisation. At 50, Monis is much older than your typical terrorist profile.

In other words, if he committed such an act here and was alive to be convicted, it would likely be under some other criminal law rather than any terror laws.

Second, he said our intelligence agencies were monitoring people with"not identical but similar characteristics". Again, that seems opportunistic. We have no evidence that Monis has been in contact with I-S, inspired by their video or is part of any terror network.

Perhaps there's more to come. But at this stage we have to ask: Are the laws really being changed and the intelligence agencies beefed up to monitor sick, loner criminals? The argument has been that the extra powers are needed to counter much more organised attacks than this.

Key seems to be shifting his argument and grabbing onto this case to suit his own political ends. At these sorts of moments, it's better for leaders to avoid politics and take the higher ground; if there are reasonable points to be made (and scored), that can come later.

We may yet see a more direct terrorist link to Monis, but as it stands Key's comments leave a bad taste, because they reek of political gain. He comments clearly seek to justify his government's actions of recent weeks and his longer term goals in the Middle East, whether or not this case is a justification or not.

Contrast Key's comments to those of New South Wales Premier, Mike Beard:

"The police are being tested, the public is being tested, but whatever the test we will face it head on and we will remain a strong democratic, civil society."

Now that's a classy and decent response.