Election 2014

Policies gazumped in a week of controversy

8:21 am on 18 November 2011

[18 November 2011]

This column should be about the 120-point economic action plan the National Party released earlier in the week and the rash of other policy announcements by it, Labour and the other parties contesting the election.

But the 'tea tape' recording controversy has gazumped all those, helped along by National Party leader John Key's bungles.

Mr Key complains he wants to talk about the issues - the economy, jobs, labour market reform, health - but through his botched response to the secret recording of his conversation with ACT's Epsom candidate John Banks he has made it centre stage of the campaign all week.

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First, whether accidental or not, recording what Mr Key and Mr Banks believed was a private conversation was ethically questionable.

But this was at a publicity stunt engineered by Mr Key to signal to his supporters to vote for Mr Banks in Epsom. By doing that it offers ACT a lifeline to stay in Parliament and National a reliable ally in government.

Both men were surrounded by news media before reporters, photographers and television crew were ushered out of the cafe to give the two men some private time.

In the melee a freelance camera operator Bradley Ambrose, who was working alone, says he was unable to pick up his recording device. So it remained sitting inside a bag on the table as the two men talked.

Neither Mr Key nor Mr Banks noticed it. Mr Key's media staff and his diplomatic protection staff did nothing to remove it. If Mr Ambrose was unethical, as Mr Key alleges, then the National Party leader's own staff were incompetent.

The camera operator passed the recording on to the Herald on Sunday. TV3 also has a copy.

Mr Key responded to news the recording had been made by comparing it to the News of the World scandal in Britain. It was an astonishing claim given the News of the World saga involved years of hacking the phones of celebrities and even victims of crime.

Recording the conversation of two politicians in what was a scripted political stunt is an entirely different thing.

But Mr Key, whether acting on poor advice or his own misjudgement, then laid a complaint with police.

He justified this action by saying he had to draw a line in the sand to protect other New Zealanders. He then made another incredulous claim that the next time could involve the secret recording of a high profile couple discussing their suicidal child.

Mr Key appeared more and more desperate to defend his decision to go to the police.

Winston Peters leads the charge

Meanwhile, it provided plenty of fodder for his political opponents, particularly New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

Mr Peters has been able to weave a narrative around the secret recording which includes references to conspiracy theories and a fawning news media.

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And he has slowly released details of what was supposedly on the tape, finally disclosing on Thursday that Mr Banks and Mr Key had discussed replacing Don Brash as leader of ACT, suggesting Catherine Isaac could take over. As well, Mr Key reportedly referred to Mr Peters' constituents as "dying".

Mr Key has always said his conversation with Mr Banks was bland but comments such as those could be embarrassing.

Just when the issue looked as though it might die the police began contacting news media organisations, including Radio New Zealand, demanding access to material related to its inquiry into the recording.

Radio New Zealand is refusing to release any material and does not, anyway, have a copy of the recording itself. Now the police will execute search warrants in an attempt to get the information they are after.

Mr Key says he had nothing to do with the police investigation, apart from laying the complaint. When questioned about the police searching news media organisations he responded that having got the crime rate down the police now have "spare time".

And while in many ways it is a distraction and a sideshow it also goes to the character of Mr Key. What persuaded him to take the holier-than-thou stance he has adopted on the issue?

He argues he is taking a stand to ensure the ethical standards of the news media are maintained.

Mr Key hardly sees the irony of doing a deal to encourage his supporters to vote for Mr Banks in Epsom. That is a political decision, not an ethical one.

What Mr Key is relying on is the public's negative perception of the news media.

This issue is, however, unlikely to die and will probably run into the final week of the campaign.

Mr Key could put an end to it by spelling out clearly what was said in those roughly eight minutes he spoke to Mr Banks. There might be some embarrassment for him but at least he would clear the way for a proper debate next week.

He could then argue his case to partially sell State assets and spell out the policy prescription National promises will deliver New Zealand its brigher future.

In turn other political parties would have the oxygen to promote their own policies rather than also being dogged by questions about the cup of tea recording.

Only one politician might be disappointed by a clearing of the air.

If any politician has reason to thank Mr Key for his handling of the matter it is New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.