Gordon Campbell on the inquiry into one case of dirty politics

Suddenly, we’re awash in inquiries and reviews. (It feels almost as if the Greens won the last election.) Caught out by the damning inquiry by SIS Inspector-General Cheryl Gwyn, the government’s response yesterday was utterly in character – it released two other major reports at the same time to try and distract public attention.

Let’s see…we’ve had (a) the inquiry into the SIS collusion with the PM’s senior staff and their subsequent coaching of Cameron Slater on how to quickly access SIS info in order to undermine Labour’s then-leader Phil Goff (b) the inquiry into Judith Collins’ alleged collusion with Slater and his cohorts to try and undermine the Serious Fraud Office’s then CEO, Adam Feeley….and on the side (c) the inquiry into Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee’s sins against airport security (d) the State Services investigation of the sexual harassment claims against Roger Sutton and its subsequent mishandling of the aftermath (e) the review of security legislation by SIS/GCSB Minister Chris Finlayson and (f) …the ‘independent’ ministerial inquiry into the case of the paedophile & murderer Philip Smith ne Traynor, and his dash to Rio on a passport cunningly obtained under his real name.

Inquiries are supposed to re-assure the public. What these inquiry outcomes share in common is a government culture of zero responsibility. Collins, we are supposed to accept, did not actively seek to undermine Feeley; she was merely closely associated with, and feeding information to, the cabal who were actually trying to take down Feeley. Fresh as a daisy, move on. There’s a pattern involved here. Via a medley of wilful blindness, carefully sculptured terms of reference and a deep respect for political red lights, this current slew of inquiries has found it possible to seal off the main players from any serious consequences. For example: the retired SIS boss Warren Tucker has been held entirely responsible for producing an “incomplete, inaccurate and misleading” (and politically damaging) version of an SIS briefing given to Goff about alleged Israeli spies – which the PM’s senior staff then coached Slater on how he could obtain it, (while deftly blocking other journalists seeking the same info) in a way that, as the Gwyn inquiry pointed out, gifted Slater with an exclusive attack story. Key keeps insisting that the evidence of coaching by his staff is “contested” – although as Mary Wilson pointed out in a fiery exchange with Key on RNZ’s Checkpoint programme last night, it can only still be ‘contested’ if Key chooses to prefer the word of Cameron Slater over the findings reached by the SIS-Inspector General and set out in her report.

The whole affair fails the sniff test. It looks like a politicised abuse of security data, it smells like a politicised abuse of security data – but no, we are told, this was just business as usual, if you split the hairs and separate the lines of culpability finely enough. Supposedly, only the SIS did anything wrong, and their sins have been deemed to require only a ‘sorry ’bout that, Phil’ message to Goff.

In effect, Prime Minister John Key (aka the Minister of the SIS) has been quarantined from responsibility for the actions of the security services he is supposed to oversee, and for the shenanigans of his own senior staff. Neither Key nor his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson are being deemed accountable either (a) for the way senior DPMC staff colluded in the selective use of inaccurate SIS information for party political purposes during an election year, or (b) for the way they subsequently failed to check and correct the SIS information in question, once its accuracy was called into question. Somehow, we are expected to believe it was Tucker and his SIS alone that chose to undermine Goff by handing around misleadingly edited security information, entirely off their own bat. And goodness…it was quite by accident that the National government turned out to be the beneficiaries of the political fallout. What jolly good luck!

Yes, the Gwyn inquiry deals with events that happened three years ago. Yet the pattern it reveals of collusion between DPMC senior staff and Slater persisted – as the Dirty Politics book has shown – until January 2014 at least. Incidentally, this is the same SIS organisation that Key, Finlayson etc are now seeking to invest with sweeping new powers. These include the suspension of Bill of Rights freedoms to travel, and the use of surveillance without warrants via so called “emergency” measures…that will now be kept in place until 2018. With great power it seems, comes the opportunity for great irresponsibility.

Smith Traynor Redux
As Key has previously signalled, the ‘independent’ mega-inquiry launched by State Services Minister Paula Bennett into the Smith-Traynor case will be separate from both the in-house inquiry by Corrections (released yesterday) and the multi-agency probe by the Justice Ministry into how the escape to Rio managed to occur. The terms of reference for the Bennett inquiry are available here. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the terms of reference include an assessment of:

The adequacy of information disclosure, sharing or matching between State sector agencies (including border sector agencies) that apply to those persons who would be expected to remain in New Zealand by virtue of their particular status in the criminal justice system.

Why does this sound familiar? As others have also pointed out, there was a ministerial inquiry in 2011 into how convicted child sex offender Te Rito Henry Miki managed to get back onto the teacher rolls. Apparently, he did so simply by changing his name – reportedly, he had 53 aliases – and then used that new identity to get fresh documentation and a teaching job. Easy peasy. The 2011 inquiry is available here.

It makes grim reading in the light of the subsequent ability of Smith/Traynor – also a child sex offender – to get away with much the same thing, largely because the recommendations made in 2011 to Education Minister Hekia Parata were evidently not acted upon. Incredible, really. The recommendations from the Miki inquiry can be found here. They included a number of proposals meant to cope with identity issues, name changes, documentation, and the notification of relevant agencies, such as:

Part 3, Recommendation 5: The Inquiry recommends that you [ie. Parata] refer the issue of notification of name change to the appropriate Ministers with the proposal that urgent consideration be given to require the Office of the Registrar-General to notify any registered change of name to the Passports Office, Customs Department and the Immigration Office of the Department of Labour and the appropriate protocols be put in place to govern the process.

Smith of course, wasn’t changing his name, but reverting to his real name. Still the principles of cross-referencing aliases and the sharing of information between agencies dealing with (a) offending and (b) document provision is the same. Hard to see how the Smith Traynor case could have happened, if these lessons of the recent past had been acted upon. Is this failure likely to be acknowledged in the course of the new inquiries, and is anyone likely to be deemed responsible? Let’s not hold our breaths on that one. The “independent” mega-inquiry will be so independent it will be run out of Paula Bennett’s office and will be conducted by a retired judge/QC appointed by her. To make sure it stays “independent” the Chosen One’s inquiry will have the “assistance” of Simon Murdoch, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

At Monday’s post-Cabinet press conference, I asked Prime Minister John Key how the public could feel re-assured about the Bennett inquiry’s independence, when the former head of his own office would be central to its management. In reply, Key extolled Murdoch’s many virtues and years of service and experience. When reminded that the question wasn‘t about his opinion of Murdoch, but about the public’s perception of independence, Key replied that the public too would hold a very positive view of Murdoch, and would feel re-assured. So that’s alright then. Besides, Key added, Murdoch’s experience would be invaluable, since the inquiry would span “many departments,” a point repeated by Bennett on RNZ yesterday morning. Yep, a retired judge/QC would be quite out of his depth, poor babe, without having such well-connected guidance at his elbow.

Finally…someone else with years of experience and valued service would be State Services Commissioner Ian Rennie. True, much of that expertise seems to have gone totally AWOL during his handling of the ignominious departure of CERA boss Roger Sutton. But fear not. Rennie too, will not be suffering any consequences of note. One can only hope that these charades will have some precedent value. Surely any public servant faced with the sack in future over one case of manifest incompetence will now be able to cite the example of Ian Rennie, and thus keep their job. If the boss of all bosses – the Italians would regard Rennie as il capo di tutti i capi – can get away with a monumental cockup that has broadcast a trivialising message about workplace sexual harassment to the nation, then surely a single offence shouldn’t ever again be valid grounds for dismissal, for any humble PSA foot soldier.

Sutton redux
Film director Mike Nichols (The Graduate etc) died last week. It has been over 50 years since he and Elaine May shared their three brief years of improvisational comedy genius, but this little routine – about a guy doggedly oblivious to how his romantic overtures are being received – shows that Nichols and May are still right on target when it comes to the Roger Suttons of this world.