Gordon Campbell on the non-apology to Tania Billingsley

The refusal by Prime Minister John Key to issue a personal apology to Tania Billingsley has been accompanied by an array of excuses. Yes, there are judicial proceedings to be considered, as well an “independent inquiry” into how the incident was handled by MFAT officials. But really…would a personal apology to Billingsley prejudice either of these investigations? Hardly. With the Pike River inquiry, Key hadn’t hold back from offering effusive expressions of compassion to the victims, for fear of prejudicing the outcome.

Yesterday though, Key’s choice of words indicated that an apology was the last thing on his mind. By saying that he reserves his apologies for “serious” matters, the Prime Minister – quite deliberately – belittled (a) Billingsley’s request for a personal apology from him (b) her sense of outrage at how this incident has been handled by his government, and ultimately (c) what has happened to her. No wonder the spokesperson from Rape Crisis was expressing concern on RNZ this morning about the Prime Minister’s response.

Why has Key chosen to react in this fashion? Billingsley had described as “incompetent” Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s handling of the incident. With Key, she had said that he seemed “bored” and “dismissive” and “annoyed” to be having to comment at all on an incident that he – like McCully – had ignored for the seven weeks between when the assault on her occurred, and when its diplomatic implications blew up publicly in the media. In short, Billingsley felt that Key’s inaction and public attitude had trivialised the attack on her. It was a verdict that his claim yesterday that he reserves his apologies for serious matters, confirmed in spades.

Key was being gratuitously offensive yesterday, and you have to wonder why. If ever there was occasion for one of those faux apologies – “I apologise if you happen to feel that way” – this was it. He could have chosen several different responses. So why this one? Clearly, he is annoyed at Billingsley, and has taken her comments as a personal criticism, as they were intended to be. Rather than accept that criticism as valid – and at the very least, as the response of a serious assault victim who honestly feels your response has been less than sympathetic – Key dismissed her concerns as unworthy of the remedy being sought.

Plainly, the government resents Billingsley for not following the script of virtuous victimhood, whereby the victim is humbly grateful for whatever attentions she is given, and is willing to collaborate in positive photo opportunities. The reality is that McCully (and his ministerial office staff) bungled this incident from start to finish, and Key seemed blasé- to-irritated when to came to answering questions about it. He was disinterested then, and he is disinterested now.

The upshot is that we have an “independent inquiry” that has been set up as a “blame the officials” process in order to whitewash the Minister. If you’re confident that the officials really were to blame, why write terms of reference that deliberately exclude the role of the Minister from scrutiny ? Deliberately, the political dimension of the investigation has been surgically removed. To date, McCully’s apology to Billingsley had been issued through the media, and not in person. Key is not interested in apologizing at all. The aim is to shut down this affair and keep it out of the election debate.

It really shouldn’t be kept out of the election campaign. Apparently, this is what that nice Mr Key thinks of Uppity Women who talk back and criticize him. The incident offers the public one of those rare glimpses into the person behind the ‘nice guy’ persona. Women voters in particular, may find his response illuminating. When a woman dares to find this man personally wanting, he will belittle her.

Colin Craig’s Delayed Gratification
And so Conservative Party leader Colin Craig still waits and waits to hear whether National will give him a free run at East Coast Bays and a free ride into Parliament. At least Craig can’t complain about the work ethic involved. The process is a mirror image for Craig’s position on welfare : that you should be required to work hard for whatever relief you get.

The longer that Prime Minister John Key delays, the harder the Conservatives faithful have to work to try and reach the 5% threshold, and thus…the bigger bang National gets for its buck, via Craig getting more of his colleagues into Parliament. It a handout disguised as a hand up. Gratifyingly for all involved, the delay enables Craig to whip his troops into greater exertions (and a bigger payoff) than would have been the case if Key had simply gift-wrapped East Coast Bays and handed it to Craig weeks ago, and let everyone go home and put their feet up. The alternative scenario of course, is that it is the very prospect of not only getting Craig but a whole posse of the virtuous, that is making National get cold feet.

Tokyo Soul…
Is this what the inside of Colin Craig’s head looks like? “Ponponpon” by the J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a fever dream that packs every conceivable image – big striped candy! plastic horses! time! fluorescent death skulls! white bread! bones! flights of crows! pink dancing women with blacked out faces! eggs , eggs and more eggs! – without losing its sweetly insistent, bubblegum pulse for a moment. Will innocence finally drive you insane ? It would seem so. Avril Lavigne has been taking notes.