Saturday, 25 October 2014

So when is John Key not the Prime Minister of New Zealand?

Parliament opened this last week.  It is the beginning of three more years of a National led government under John Key for the third time.  Please note I'm not enthusiastic about the next three years. 

John Key and his cronies have clearly indicated that education reform remains in their sights, selling off state housing is a priority, sending soldiers to fight ISIS is on the agenda, that despite child poverty supposedly being a priority they still don't believe food in schools is an option, our environment will be a casualty to the economy, raw products will continue to be exported despite many needing jobs that could be created to enhance those products, and the TPPA will continued to be pursued despite the impacts on our sovereignty.  Oh, yeah, the flag too....

So after the traditional ceremonies of opening parliament were completed (I never knew about Black Rod and his banging stick before!), parliament opened for business with question time on Wednesday, and boy were there some questions arising from Dirty Politics that needed addressing.  Russel Norman, co-leader of the Green Party, opened the questioning to Mr Key in regards to his communications with Cameron Slater, aka, Whale Oil.  You can watch this section of question time on Wednesday 22 October here.

This was Mr Norman's opening question and the response from Mr Key (which was anything but honourable):

3. Dr RUSSEL NORMAN (Co-Leader – Green) to the Prime Minister : How many times since November 2008 has he spoken with blogger Cameron Slater on the phone and how many times, if any, has he texted him?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY (Prime Minister): None in my capacity as Prime Minister.

So this begs the question, when is the Prime Minister not the Prime Minister?

And the House wanted to know.  The media wanted to know.  New Zealand wanted to know. 

According to the 7, 8 and 9 year olds I teach, when I put the question to them the following day, if you are elected Prime Minister, you ARE the Prime Minister until someone else takes over that role.  Even when you are putting Moonbeam the cat out for the night.

But this continued with the following:

Dr Russel Norman : Given the Prime Minister’s previous statements to say that he regularly talked with Mr Slater on the phone, is the Prime Minister now claiming that when he talked with Mr Slater he was talking with Mr Slater as the leader of the National Party, not as the Prime Minister; and does he wear a different hat when he takes those phone calls?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : I am not now claiming that. That has always been the claim.
Dr Russel Norman : Did he call Cameron Slater to discuss the backlash Slater received after describing a young car crash victim as a feral who deserved to die; if so, what did he tell Slater about the dead man’s mother?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : I have never rung Cameron Slater in my capacity as Prime Minister.
Chris Hipkins : Has he ever phoned or texted Cameron Slater on a phone funded or provided by Ministerial Services?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : I am not 100 percent sure of that, but what I can say is that—as Prime Minister Helen Clark would have told him—that is not the test of whether it is in my capacity as Prime Minister.
Dr Russel Norman : I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. [Interruption] Mr Speaker—[Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER : Order! I do not need the Leader of the House’s assistance at this stage.
Dr Russel Norman : The Prime Minister gave an answer to the primary question on notice, on the basis that he never called Mr Slater as the Prime Minister. We have now established that there are occasions where he used the prime ministerial phone to call Mr Slater. I would ask you to rule as to whether the Prime Minister’s original answer was within the Standing Orders of the House, given that he himself has now acknowledged he used a prime ministerial phone to call Mr Slater.
Mr SPEAKER : Order! In regard to the answer given by the Prime Minister to the first question, that answer was definitely in order.
Rt Hon Winston Peters : I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. There is something particularly disturbing about the Prime Minister’s answer, because it would appear that any Minister can make this claim and say: “Not in my capacity as a Minister.” Around about now, we have got no accountability at all in this Parliament if you allow that to stand.
Mr SPEAKER : In regard to the very first question that was asked, the Prime Minister is perfectly entitled to answer it in the way he did. He is then responsible for that answer. Further supplementary questions have been asked that attempt to tease this issue out. They are equally in order.

It seems that Russel Norman, Chris Hipkins and Winston Peters were unimpressed with Mr Key's responses.  Chris Hipkins sought to clarify when he had done these things using a phone provided by Ministerial Services to show that if you are using government property that you are on government time.  Mr Peters raises valid points in regards to the "Not in my capacity as a Minister" because anyone could then use that claim and get away with actions not becoming of a Minister.  More on this later.

Russel Norman then goes on to challenge Mr Key on how his government, Ministers and staff communicate with bloggers, The Whale in particular:

Dr Russel Norman : Is it not the truth that until the Dirty Politics book came out, he chose to have regular dealings with Cameron Slater, a man who is a hired gun for the tobacco industry, whose blog subjected a public servant to death threats, and who celebrated the death of a car crash victim, calling him a feral?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : Over the time I have been Prime Minister, the answer to that question is no.
Dr Russel Norman : Is it appropriate for the Prime Minister or his staff to use an attack blogger like Cameron Slater as a platform to “get their message out”, as the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman described it on 12 December last year?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : The Government and Ministers do talk to bloggers, for a variety of reasons. The reason we talk to social media is that they are part of the overall media that communicates with New Zealanders. That would be no different from other political parties. I have seen that member quoted on numerous blog sites. One assumes that he and his office talk to them, and I am sure he and his office probably talk to Nicky Hager.
Dr Russel Norman : Did he instruct his staff to cease all links with Cameron Slater after the blogger accused an alleged sexual attack victim of bringing it on herself, or after Slater described a car crash victim as a feral who deserved to die? Did the Prime Minister direct his staff to cease all contact with Cameron Slater after Slater made those comments?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : No.
Dr Russel Norman : Does he not think that he should set a standard for the Prime Minister’s office by directing his staff to cease all contact with the attack blogger Cameron Slater, after Cameron Slater accused an alleged sexual attack victim of bringing it on herself, and Slater described a car crash victim as a feral who deserved to die? Would it not set a standard for the Prime Minister’s office to direct his staff to no longer have contact with Cameron Slater?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : I have made it clear that we do not endorse many of the stories or comments that are run by a range of different bloggers, but, no, I will not be instructing my staff to do that.
Dr Russel Norman : Is he saying it is business as usual for the Prime Minister of New Zealand and his staff to deal on a regular basis with the most vicious and notorious blogger in New Zealand and for his staff to leak information to that blogger in order to intimidate public servants and silence his political opponents?
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : I do not believe that to be an accurate statement.

Note in the highlighted passage above how Mr Key attempts to turn the attack back onto Mr Normal by insinuating that Mr Norman was a source for Nicky Hager when he wrote Dirty Politics.  This is a traditional method of Mr Key to deflect from himself, to get the heat of him and onto another, and during this process he was clearly rattled.  Some of his responses were as short as a simple "No" which demonstrates his unease when he resorts to short answers rather than trying to be his witty self.  Fran O'Sullivan in the Weekend Herald (Saturday 25 October 2014 - Key misses opportunity to clear air with more questions to come) made these cutting observations:

When it's the Prime Minister who is being asked to account for his own actions during Question Time, resorting to semantic gymnastics and logical contortions to avoid accountability just looks too cute by half.

After all it was just a few months ago that Key was confirming he regularly called Slater "to see what he's got on his site and mind".

He could just as easily have explained this week that one of the hallmarks of New Zealand is that we are a free society and while he wasn't going to go into all the detail of his private calls, he did often touch base with media - including Slater.

This may have inevitably led into a "dirty politics" cul de sac.

But surely there comes a point where Key should just simply stand up to Opposition attempts to cement Nicky Hager's book as the only political narrative of his Government?

He could also have quickly cleared the air by saying his Government was reassessing its communication strategies - it would be open with news media, not suppress material that should be released under the Official Information Act and was prepared to engage in debate on substantive issues.

Instead the Prime Minister's dismissive approach has simply resulted in him being the subject of criticism.

Hubris is a close companion to third term Governments and their leaders.

These comments are cutting, because O'Sullivan is normally one of Key's greatest cheer leaders.

Due to Mr Key not giving full and frank answers, Chris Hipkins from Labour then raised a point of order asking the Speaker to review the answers given and to come back to the house with a further substantive ruling on whether or not the Prime Minister was speaking in his capacity as the Prime Minister when talking to The Whale.

Chris Hipkins : I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask that after question time you review the overall question here today, because I suspect this issue is going to arise again around the distinction between the Prime Minister’s other capacities and his capacity as Prime Minister. The issue that I would like you to consider—[Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER : Order! This is a point of order.
Chris Hipkins : —is that, in fact, it is the content of the communications and not the means by which they are transmitted, or the hat that the Prime Minister claims to be wearing at the time that he makes the communication, that is at issue here. So if the Prime Minister is communicating with someone about matters relating to his role as Prime Minister and about activities he has undertaken as Prime Minister, then they are, by nature, prime ministerial activities that he should be answerable for. So I ask you to give some further consideration to the interchange today, and, in fact, perhaps come back with a more substantive ruling on the matter, because it seems to me that the Prime Minister could stand up and give any answer to any question and say: “Well, I wasn’t doing that as Prime Minister.”, and therefore would not be held to account.
Rt Hon JOHN KEY : I think it has been well established in this House for a very long period of time that Prime Ministers wear a variety of different hats, and that includes as leader of the National Party, and can include as a citizen. I fondly remember sitting in this House for years hearing Helen Clark saying that she made statements, or had conversations, or undertook actions as the leader of the Labour Party. I happen, for the record, to use my Ministerial Services – funded cellphone to ring my wife. When I ring my darling wife and when I put the cat out at night, I do that in my capacity as a husband, not as Prime Minister. [Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER : Order! I am on my feet. In regard to the very first point Chris Hipkins raised, I certainly give an assurance I will review the interchange today. As to the appropriate course of action following that review, I will be bound. If it is necessary to come back with a further more substantive ruling, I will consider doing so.

Again you will see in the above highlighted passage where the Prime Minister has again attempted to be cute and deflect from his own actions.  The deflections were to take on Helen Clark's statements about having conversations or doing actions as the leader of the Labour Party rather than as Prime Minister.  But the cute part comes to Moonbeam the cat and his wife Bronagh.

NZ Herald commentator, John Armstrong, in his column early in the morning on Wednesday 22 October, Shadow lingers on National, called several warnings to John Key and his government: 

No doubt many in the party are instead quietly revelling in what comes close to state persecution of Hager for the trumped-up crime of exposing the ugly truth about the true level of National's adherence to New Zealand's fundamental democratic and constitutional principles. No doubt many think the party has got off relatively scot-free despite indulging in some pretty abominable behaviour.

They would be very unwise to make that assumption. The laws of politics are like the laws of physics. What goes up tends to come down. Things that might seem to be working in your favour can suddenly turn around and bite you in the face.

True, National has suffered casualties. Judith Collins was sacked. Jason Ede has exited. Or was exited.

There are men and women of honour at the higher levels of the Beehive - Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Anne Tolley and Chris Finlayson come to mind - who must be appalled by what was being done in the name of the party for which they serve. But no one in National has yet to express any regrets.

It might be politically wise to do so, however. The new Parliament is up and running. Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First yesterday all flagged they would be using whatever mechanisms available to them to make those responsible for National's dirty tricks accountable for their actions.

National might think it is all over. It might be just the beginning.

This was a blunt warning to Key and National by Armstrong, who is another very vocal supporter of the National led government and Key.  Although I would like to point out that Tolley is not squeaky clean - on page 43 of Dirty Politics her office, when she was Minister of Education, through her press secretary Gillon Carruthers, leaked the names of principals and school BOTs who were actively opposing National Standards being implemented.  But Armstrong was very pointed in his column the following morning (Thursday 23 October - Hard work pinning down slick PM):

You do not need to be a mind-reader to spot when the Prime Minister is under real pressure in Parliament. His answers to Opposition questions suddenly get drastically shorter, often being pared-down to a one-word "yes" or "no" and his reply is followed by what is now almost a trademark sharp and very audible intake of breath.

There were plenty of those yesterday as the Greens' Russel Norman sought to skewer John Key on the question lingering after Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics. Did the Prime Minister know more about what was going on in National's dirty-tricks department than he has been letting on?
Norman asked Key how many times he had spoken to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater or sent a text.

"None in my capacity as Prime Minister," Key replied. That wording was very deliberate.
Key's argument is that any communications with Slater occurred in his capacity as leader of the National Party, not as Prime Minister. The distinction is important. It allows Key to wriggle free from his detractors, even if it is not very becoming.

As Prime Minister, Key is accountable to Parliament for his Government's actions. He is not accountable to Parliament for the actions and behaviour of the National Party. Any Opposition question straying into the latter's territory must be ruled out of order by Parliament's Speaker.

Labour's Chris Hipkins, however, sought to close off this escape route by asking whether Key had ever phoned or sent a text to Slater on his Government-supplied phone.

"I am not 100 per cent sure of that," Key replied to mocking laughter from the Opposition benches.

But Winston Peters suggested there was something "particularly disturbing" about the Prime Minister's first reply. If the Speaker, David Carter, allowed it to stand there would be no accountability to Parliament at all. Carter dismissed Peters' argument, but later agreed to have another look at transcripts of the question time exchange.

The question to be resolved is whether Key should get away with determining which particular hat he is or was wearing at which particular time, and more so when the hat-switching is designed to get him off a very uncomfortable political hook.

It looks that Armstrong is trying to give Key an out - but it also looks that Armstrong knows that the Opposition are not going to let this go lightly, and that the Speaker needs to be very definitive in his ruling.

Mr SPEAKER : The attempt to raise a point of order is not actually adding to the situation. I have given an assurance following the point of order raised by Chris Hipkins that I will have a look. I always review the transcripts of question time. As to what action may then be required, that will be determined by the conclusions I make in that review.

So we waited with baited breath as to the Speaker's rulings over the Prime Minister's answers during Wednesday's question time.  The answer came the following afternoon (Thursday 23 October) and the NZ Herald reported the Speaker's ruling and Mr Key's response in Key should have answered Whale Oil question - Speaker as follows:

Having reviewed Mr Key's responses overnight, Mr Carter today said that was likely correct for most of Dr Norman's questions. However, one where Dr Norman asked if Slater was correct when he said Mr Key had told him the mother of a car crash victim was "the same woman f-ing feral bitch that screams at him when he goes to Pike River meetings" should have been answered.

The question "made a connection to the actions of the Prime Minister in response to Pike River Mine Tragedy," Mr Carter said.

"A connection having been made to a matter of ministerial responsibility an informative answer should be given."

Earlier today Mr Key stood by his claim that his conversations with Slater were not in his capacity as Prime Minister.

"I wear a number of hats obviously, one as the leader of the National Party, one as Prime Minister of New Zealand and one as a citizen."

Which capacity he was acting in was determined by "the context around what I think I was doing".

On that basis Mr Key was "quite comfortable that in the correspondence and discussions I've had with Cameron Slater, which are not that great in number, are done so not in my capacity as Prime Minister".

Mr Key denied that stance was deceptive.

So one now wonders if Mr Key will actually answer the question that the Speaker has determined should have been answered at the next question time.  Mr Key might be "quite comfortable" about his discussions with The Whale, but I consider that many members of the New Zealand voting public are not comfortable, especially given his views of when he is and is not the Prime Minsiter.

One wonders which hat Mr Key does wear when he speaks with The Whale..... this was one response on Twitter to Mr Key's quip that he wears many hats:

To view the full transcript of the question time in question from Wednesday 22 October 2014, click here.

And this is where I want to come back to the question about when is the Prime Minister not the Prime Minister.  Because after John Key sacked/(demanded) received Maurice Williamson's resignation as a Minister after it emerged Mr Williamson had rung the police to enquire as to the status of Donghua Liu's assault case, Mr Key said that MPs can not be seen to interfere with police business.  Of course Mr Williamson wasn't just an MP, he was a Minister, and as such, it was an even bigger no-no to ring the police, despite the fact that he was ringing the police in his role as a friend of Mr Liu, a National party donor, and as Mr Liu's MP - not in his role as a Minister.

So how does Mr Key's actions in ringing The Whale to discuss the big blow out The Whale had when he called a young man who died in a car crash on the West Coast a feral differ from Mr Williamson's phone call to the police?

And Martyn Bradbury of The Daily Blog wondered a similar thing when he wrote in his post When I mean me, I mean my office & when I call whaleoil I mean not as me the PM on Thursday 23 October: 

So when Key rings Slater to gossip about dirty politics and plot and feed each other information, he doesn’t do that as the Prime Minister, even though he might be using his ministerial phone? It’s convenient who John Key wants to be when it suits him. When he made self reference to being briefed on giving Cam SIS information, he claimed he was speaking about his office, now he’s having out of body experiences with Cameron Slater as just John, not as the Prime Minister.

Did John talk to Cam as John while he was being asked as the PM to be briefed by his office over handing Cam Secret Intelligence Service info? Or did John’s office brief Cam as the PM? Do they even know who the other is when they are talking to each other? Does John reassure Cam he’s calling just as John Key, money trader and laid back chap you’d love to have a beer with over the barbie or does he call as the leader of the National Party?

This is only going to get a lot funnier.
- See more at:

And the following comes from Cliff Allen, Labour candidate for Hamilton East, who was so vexed by John Key's stance on when he is and isn't the Prime Minister, that he put a great deal of thought into how you and I can tell, and then posted it on Facebook:

Ok. So I have been worrying about when is the PM the PM because JohnKey says that when he is putting out the cat he is not the PM. Normally when the PM cedes responsibility it is to the deputy, or so I thought. So if the PM is not the PM when he is putting out the cat, and presumably whenever he is performing other domestic chores such as chatting to Cameron Slater, how are we as citizens to know whether we actually have a PM or not? When is he on the job and when isn't he? I... have an idea how we can overcome any uncertainty. It would be very unwieldy, difficult and expensive in both time and money but what price democracy?

I suggest that the PM is required to preface all his statements when he is acting as PM with the words "Speaking As the Prime Minister" so we all know that he is speaking in an official capacity. Obviously what capacity he is, or chooses to speak in, PM or not PM, is related to context so him stating his capacity every time would be very boring. A solution could be acronyms. So "Speaking As the PM" would be SPASPM. Relatively quick to utter and we would all know this was an official Prime Ministerial statement. So far so good. The alternative signifier is of course SPASKEY, which would signify the PM was Speaking As John Key.

It gets a bit trickier after hours of course when we are more likely to encounter domestic situations (putting the cat out) and many other chores and tasks when John Key is not the PM. Perhaps he could tweet in advance so we all know if we have an acting PM. For Putting the Cat Out a simple PCO tweet would let us all know that we were temporarily ungoverned. Similarly DTD would be Doing The Dishes, WTV watching TV etc. This simple expedient of tweeting his current status would enable foreign powers to monitor where we are at government wise. So if Barack is monitoring JK's tweets he would see DTD and know he shouldn't ring to discuss world affairs because there is nobody home, so to speak. When he sees the tweet FDTDPMA (Finished Doing The Dishes PM Again) he would know that JK was back on deck as PM. 
There could be difficulties in certain situations. It would, for example be quite a complex discussion if JK was to have a conversation with Cameron Slater and John Campbell at the same time. JK would need to make clear to each of them in what capacity he was speaking. So John Campbell would ask a question and JK would respond SPASPM and then not answer the question as he usually does.

If, however, JK spoke to Cameron Slater he would have to preface his remarks with SPASKEY because he doesn't talk to Slater as the PM which would also mean that John Campbell would pretty much ignore anything JK said because who is interested in what JK (as not PM) has to say? Some people are not very interested in anything JK has to say ever but, at the end of the day he is the PM, or is he?

Quite frankly, in my opinion, Mr Key has not met the standard of being a Prime Minister, leader of the National party or even a decent human being in his dealings with The Whale.  He certainly has not met the standard in his ability to answer questions as the Prime Minister of New Zealand in parliament.  John Key has simply failed the standard.

(All cartoons sourced through Twitter or the NZ Herald website - they were too brilliant not to use!!).

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