The press gallery, the prime minister, and Peter Dunne’s casting vote

by Tom Frewen
Love is blind. So it is with the parliamentary press gallery and the prime minister. Still honeymooning with John Key, the media remain blind to his faults and weaknesses.

If love is blind, so is hate. The contempt that political commentators have for Winston Peters — the Dominion-Post’s political editor Tracy Watkins recently called him “toxic” — distorts their view, not just of him, but of politics in general.

Whereas Key is the media’s darling, Peters is their voodoo doll. Their relationship with him is essentially one of competitive rivalry. He has nothing but contempt for their lack of professionalism, their preference for fantasy over fact, speculation before analysis and general intellectual sloppiness. Moreover, unlike his colleagues, he is not afraid to tell them exactly what he thinks of them.

As a strategy for attracting the media exposure that it is the oxygen of modern politics, it pays handsome dividends — his face large on the cover of The Listener last week! Jane Clifton promised to reveal “what Winston’s really up to.” Gearing up for the next election, she thinks. Doh.

The likely composition of the next parliament is a giant red herring that diverts Clifton and her colleagues from the fascinating reality of the present one, in which Key’s National party is two seats short of a majority on legislation not supported by the Maori Party.

One of those seats, Epsom, is occupied by John Banks, now facing a court case which will test the judiciary’s tolerance of “brain fade” as a viable defence. The other is Ohariu, long held by Peter Dunne, who is set to launch the fourth or fifth coming in his long career down the political centre line.

What Winston was really up to when he outed Dunne was doing Clifton’s job for her. The close Twitter contact between Dunne and Dominion-Post reporter Andrea Vance had not gone unnoticed by the gallery. But they seem to have missed a vital clue as to motivation which Peters added to the circumstantial evidence linking the minister and the journalist in his final question to Key in the House on June 4.

— As Prime Minister and chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, does he believe there is a leak in that committee and, if so, who does he believe is that leak — Mr Shearer, Mr Norman, Mr Banks, the Prime Minister himself, or the remaining member of that five-member committee who wrote of the Government Communications Security Bureau on 24 October last year: “I am starting to feel very uncomfortable.”?

Dunne had written that in his blog, while Vance’s pursuit of the Key-Dotcom angle in the GCSB story had been apparent in her articles.

Unwilling to admit that they had been scooped by Peters and distracted by the potential for a romantic interpretation of the Dunne-Vance relationship, political commentators kept their eyes wide shut on the bigger picture.

Bumbling towards the end of yet another embarrassingly ill-informed interview on The Nation, TV3’s Rachel Smalley asked Dunne yesterday if there were any bills “perhaps from the right” that he would not support in the House. Replying that he would be voting on a case-by-case basis, he said:

“I will be looking closely, given recent circumstances, at the GCSB legislation, for instance, in terms of whether it achieves what it sets out to do, or whether it goes too far.

“I think there is a conflict that needs to be resolved between the role of our domestic spy agency, the SIS, and the external agency the GCSB, and where they coincide.

“And I must say that I am increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that because the GCSB might have better technology, for example, it can do work on behalf of the domestic agency.

“I accept that there are cases where that may be appropriate. But I think there needs to be a much clearer delineation and a much clearer statement about where one’s role ends and the other’s begins. Otherwise, I think the situation could remain as blurred as it was in the Dotcom case.”

As “the Dotcom case” continues to haunt Key’s second term and could eventually define it, Dunne’s political future will depend on what he makes of his new role as the sensible person’s reluctant whistleblower. Banished from the Intelligence and Security Committee that is now considering the GCSB amendment bill, Dunne ironically has much greater influence over its content than he did as one of five committee members. The bill’s referral to the committee was opposed by all parties except National, ACT and United Future. Its future back in the chamber now rides on Dunne’s casting vote.

And this is no ordinary bill. It has the prime minister’s name on it. The GCSB is his responsibility. So far, his performance as its minister has been appalling. A spy agency’s worst nightmare is public exposure. Key has not only exposed the previously-obscure agency to public gaze but, with this legislation, has opened it to an unprecedented degree of examination and loss of public confidence.

If the parliamentary press gallery were not so infatuated with the prime minister they would be telling you what a mess he’s making of the one portfolio that you never used to hear anything about.

PM on Twitter: What do you think?
Peter Dunne on YouTube: his party is no longer recognised


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