Right now, Prime Minister John Key seems intent on limiting the scope of any inquiry into his government’s dealings with Cameron Slater. The declared aim is to make that inquiry solely about Judith Collins’ behavior with respect to the Serious Fraud Office. Nice try, but it won’t wash. What the Dirty Politics book and other emails have revealed is a pattern of misbehavior that has involved the SIS, ACC, Cabinet Ministers and staff in the Prime Minister’s office. Meaning : it is a problem that seems to have involved the systematic misuse of government information and procedures (such as the Official Information Act) in order to launch attacks on public servants and political opponents alike. Finally (see below) there is email evidence that could even entail criminal behavior.
Despite the hard evidence contained in the emails (written by the individuals involved) in Hager’s book, Key has been living in denial since its publication. For well over a week now, Key has tried in vain to discredit the book until finally on Friday, the room for living in denial finally ran out. Collins has been jettisoned. It is still an untenable position for the Prime Minister. Key has acted on one particular email against Collins, while continuing to ignore and/or slag off the equally incriminating emails and other evidence contained in Hager’s book. It’s a selective response that isn’t sustainable.
Tomorrow or (more likely) early on Wednesday, Key will reveal the terms of reference for the inquiry that will be conducted in the wake of Collins’ resignation. Yet on RNZ this morning, Key was plainly set on limiting the inquiry solely to Collins’ relationship with the Serious Fraud Office. This is shaping up to be what people used to call a Claytons’s inquiry – the inquiry you have when you’re not having an inquiry.
One can set aside the constitutional niceties of launching such a highly politicised inquiry on the eve of an election. (Deferring an inquiry until after the election would obviously be just as politically fraught.) The truly outrageous gambit is to do with National’s attempt at hanging all the Dirty Politics problems around the neck of Judith Collins, and – even then – to hold her technically responsible for only a very, very narrow ambit of what she has done. This is the sort of cynical politics that landed National in this mess in the first place. Blame it on Judith, but give her an escape route by limiting the scope of what she stands accused.
It could well be that constitutional law expert Mai Chen was right on one point on RNZ this morning. Maybe the terms of the inquiry can contain a “ plus anything relevant ” clause that would still enable the inquiry to look into any matters it deems fit. Yet that seems the wrong way to go. It would be dangerous to trust in the hunting instincts of an inquiry that is being told everywhere else in its terms of reference to keep things tightly focussed. The better option would be a wide ranging Royal Commission of inquiry into the government’s relationship with Slater. Fat chance of that.
These days though, Key must be dreading his encounters with Guyon Espiner. This morning’s RNZ interview – even though Key limited it to only five minutes – was another rout. Key still seems to be totally blind to the relevance of his own direct involvement in receiving and laundering attack information through Slater. Again, Key seems just as serenely unconcerned that by standing in the political sewer alongside Slater, he is diminishing the office he holds. For someone supposedly blessed with keen political instincts, his radar seems switched off when it comes to all things Slatyer.
So… where we do we now stand? Currently, we have the inquiry being conducted by the SIS Inspector-General into the speedy release of the SIS information that undermined Phil Goff. That seems likely to be a purely technical and descriptive exercise. This week, we will get more details about a similarly constrained inquiry into Collins’ relationship with the Serious Fraud Office. It will come as no surprise if we should learn that she got along with them famously and respected them enormously. Meanwhile, the evidence in the Hager book will remain in plain sight.
Those issues at stake have now gone beyond the content of Hager’s book, disturbing as that content still is. Yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times story has revealed that the email that triggered Collins’ resignation/sacking was almost certainly part of a wider campaign being run by failed financier Mark Hotchin, apparently to undermine the SFO/Financial Markets Authority investigation into the collapse of Hotchin’s Hanover Finance company, in which some 13,000 investors lost $465 million of their savings. Carrick Graham and Slater were allegedly being bankrolled by Hotchin as part of that effort. This development not only goes to verify and expand our knowledge of the Graham /Slater connection alluded to in Hager’s book. Ultimately, it could embroil Collins in a criminal investigation. Already, there would seem to be evidence of a conspiracy at the very least, to thwart the course of justice.
This is why – right across the political spectrum from Matthew Hooton to the Labour Party, who are rarely bedfellows – there is now talk about a potential perversion of justice, the need for the Police to get involved and the imperative, perhaps, for information on computers in Collins’ office to be immediately sealed and seized. For now, the inquiry – and its terms of reference – looks likely to provide the next chapter in this saga.
No doubt, Key will be uncomfortably unaware that Richard Nixon won a landslide re-election in 1972. This victory came just as inquiries were getting under way into what looked like a peculiar, but surely unimportant form of attack politics being run out of the White House. Things got worse – a lot worse – once the election was over.