Obviously, anyone paying much attention in recent weeks has been serially appalled/amazed/cynically amused by The Great Fish Dumping Fiasco, and the evidence of top Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) officials being caught in email flagrante saying such stuff as… how they don’t dare to enforce the official policy because they’d put half the industry out of business and/or would get offside with the skippers they’re supposed to be monitoring – which could be fatal for keeping a regulatory contract that’s subsequently been
(a) handed over to a company with ownership links to the industry and
(b) where the monitoring role is seemingly awarded on condition that the regulator doesn’t do anything likely to earn the disfavour of the industry they’re supposed to be regulating.
Incredibly, the MPI cameras installed on boats were put there to detect and deter the unlawful depletion of the nation’s fish stocks – but MPI then concluded that this footage could not subsequently be used in court to clinch the prosecution of those caught on camera actually depleting the nation’s fish stocks. In fact, having the MPI cameras on board ship seemed to create a virtual immunity for anyone violating the rules that the cameras were there to spot… In fact, it has transpired the cameras were there in an entirely passive monitoring role, and not an active enforcement one.
Ultimately, the legal advice to MPI was that they couldn’t use the footage compiled for one purpose – assessing the health of the fisheries – for the allegedly different purpose of prosecuting the people putting that health at risk. At least that’s assumed to be what the legal advice given to MPI actually said. In the final absurdity, the relevant legal advice is being kept under wraps, lest the government set a precedent by divulging the legal advice on which it supposedly acts. (This secrecy convention also enables the government of the day to conveniently hide the occasions when it chooses for political reasons to diverge from what it has been told it should be doing, under the law.)
Enter Prime Minister John Key. At yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference Key was in his finest wide- eyed “Problem? What problem?” mode. No, there wasn’t really a problem that top MPI officials had been at odds with each other over the meaning of the fisheries policy and how that policy should be pursued. Nor was there a problem that some former top MPI officials were being critical of prior decisions not to prosecute. Yes, Key still has confidence in MPI and its officials – and Minister Nathan Guy, who’s apparently doing such a good job.
Here’s Key, yesterday : “MPI erred – [as Mike Heron said in the Heron Report on the fish dumping issue earlier this year] in that [MPI] believed the camera footage wasn’t admissible. Now that’s because the footage as I understand it, was taken for one reason and they were theoretically applying it for another. I think some lessons have come out of that. Certainly a multitude of changes going forward.” No, Key hadn’t seen the legal advice in question. He’s just read the Heron Report.
Key was then asked about the claims by former MPI officials that it wasn’t actually the legal advice so much as other imperatives – eg the desire to curry favour with the fishing industry – that had driven the decision not to prosecute. This line of questioning took Key deeper into re-assurance mode. “Like all of these things, there’s always a judgement. Its not new news that a government or department isn’t releasing legal advice…there’s a precedent that says we don’t do that. Like all advice, its advice, its not definitive…there are no guarantees. If MPI had thought they could take a successful prosecution I suspect they probably would have, although I haven’t been in any discussions with them about it.”
As in all of these exercises in explication, Key’s job is to personally re-assure, while simultaneously being careful to put considerable daylight between himself and the events and decisions in question. Did he think it was unfortunate that those who had been dumping fish hadn’t been prosecuted? Maybe yes, maybe no, but to repeat: “I think there was just a difference of opinion, as a I understand it, whether the case would stack up, and whether the footage they had recorded would be admissible.” Should heads roll at the Ministry? “I’m not aware of that. You’d have to ask [MPI boss] Martyn Dunne about that.” And Nathan Guy? “Oh, I think Nathan has done a very good job. I don’t think there’s any question about the Minister. In fact, he’s making a lot of changes in terms of toughening up…in everything from cameras to observers. The fact that someone might have a legal view that you’re not on as strong a ground as you might think is the nature of decision-making that happens in departments every single day. There are numerous prosecutorial bodies that have to make a line call on whether they can take an action or not.” Take the Police for instance, Key said expansively, when they’re going down the opposite route : “Sometimes they’ll take a case on evidence they believe, and the judges will throw it out.“
And finally, no, he didn’t necessarily believe the leaks now coming out of MPI that the reason MPI didn’t prosecute wasn’t the legal advice – but because they didn’t want to upset the boat skippers involved. [Note the careful distancing that now follows.] ‘I haven’t seen the emails. I don’t know the people in question. I wasn’t around the event. People often have their own interpretations. Its true in government departments: one person will have one view, one person will have another. And often they’ll express the view that that’s the reason they believe to be the case…and just because someone else has a counterview doesn’t mean they’re correct. That’s their interpretation. Go around this building and on any particular event you’ll get series of different opinions ..It doesn’t mean they’re right.”
But surely these were top MPI officials – and presumably were in a position to judge? Not necessarily, Key argued. “They often are people who have their own particular perspective, or their own axe to grind. Its not as if they’re right or wrong. I simply don’t know. But what I’m saying is I don’t think MPI had a particular reason not to take a prosecution if it can successfully take one.”
So there you have it. This wasn’t a case of a Ministry being intimidated by the industry it was supposed to regulate. Nor of a Ministry riven with dissent and confused about what it was supposed to be doing, and terrified of getting offside with its captains of industry and with its Minister. It was merely a case of hardworking people having firm opinions about the causes of a course of events, whereby in his view – and not that he’d know for sure – but it seemed as if MPI might have been acting on inconclusive legal advice that could have advised erring on the side of caution.
I give this example at some length because its indicative of what Key does day in, year out. Like a soothingly sprinkled monsoon bucket, Key is there to dampen down the political fires that have been lit by his bumbling colleagues ( today Nathan Guy, yesterday Nick Smith) while ingenuously deflecting the questions meant to hold him and his government to account. Key expertly muffles the potential for public outrage. No problem here, move on. Just hard working, well meaning people doing stuff that’s really difficult – even when there’s clear evidence to the contrary of callous neglect, and of harm being heaped on the vulnerable.
It is quite a skill. Faced with similarly embarrassing evidence as the fisheries fiasco, a Labour-led government would probably have gone into a defensive crouch, shut down, and made the political fallout even worse. Key exudes a frank confidence, even when – or especially when – his government has landed itself in big trouble. It doesn’t have a plan for this country, or for its manifest problems. Its happy with that. It invites you to feel that way, too.
Fish and Politics As this early 70s soul hit by former Motown maestro Lamont Dozier says, the fish ain’t biting, and life’s so frightening. He’s hungry, broke and crumbling…while meanwhile in DC, Tricky Dick is trying to be slick. Hey, Tricky Dick/Honest John, stop that shit, Dozier says.