The story of the appointment of John Key’s acquaintance/childhood friend/soul mate (pick one) to the position of head of our government’s den of spies and buggers* has been revealing. And not just because it’s exposed again the Prime Minister’s convenient memory, or lack thereof.** (If John Key has really and truly forgotten all that he’s claimed over the last four years not to have remembered, isn’t that grounds to question his competence? And who, any longer, believes his memory is that convenient?)
Key was asked, in Parliament, whether he had had contact with Ian Fletcher since his school days. "I cannot recall particular occasions; I am sure I may well have done so." Turns out he did do so, and quite intentionally: In 2011, Mr Key called Mr Fletcher in Queensland, where old Fletcho was working at the time, to suggest he apply for the position of Key’s Bugger in Chief.***
I say Key’s Bugger in Chief because, whatever the actual relationship between Key and Fletcho, this one phone-and-forget call puts paid to any notion of independence between branches of this government. Because it indicates a little noted but more important point even than his frequent failure of memory: that this Prime Minister—who at the behest of his coalition partner has instituted a constitutional inquiry—appears to know nothing whatsoever about the constitutional importance of the separation of powers, which in the Westminster system function more by convention than by constitutional entrenchment. Convention that, at the drop of his little black book, he’s all ready to circumvent.
You see, at the behest of the State Services Commission, four names were put forward as candidates for the position of the head of the agency that eavesdrops on our conversations—somewhat unprofessional eavesdropping, if the Kim DotCom debacle is any guide. In the normal course of events, the State Services Commissioner (on behalf of the bureaucracy) would then have recommended to the PM one of these four for the position, which decision the PM (on behalf of the executive) would have normally rubber stamped.
The intent of this seemingly drawn-out “due process” being to ensure, as far as possible, that jobs holding enormous power over citizen’s privacy, property and lives are not—as they so often are in banana republics—stuffed with the the ruling political party’s cronies. Hence the nominal separation between selection and appointment, between bureaucrats and executive.
But Key himself it seems chose to shortcut this process, to sever the separation, to throw out the list of four names and make a call to a fellow he’d known since childhood and have him installed forthwith.
I very much doubt that Key made the call and the subsequent appointment because he wanted a crony to be his bugger in chief.**** But if anyone’s constitutional antenna had been turned on at all, this should all scream “Don’t do it!”
That it didn’t is possibly because, despite years in the job, Key still sees no difference between how things are done when he was in the private sector (“let’s make that call and get it done”) and in government, where due process is important (“let’s make sure justice is done, and is seen to be done,” or, more succintly, “let’s make sure we don’t become a banana republic.”).
This isn’t the first phone call Key has made to stymie due process by initiating collusion between his government and a private party. Both Fletcher Building and Sky City have been the beneficiaries of Key’s willingness to ignore constitutional niceties and give away rather more than should constitutionally be done.
That he was so quick to do it again this time raises once again very serious concerns about his qualifications to oversee any recommendations his constitutional “panel” might come back.
And it makes one wonder whether the reason his childhood friend came so quickly to mind as the candidate for the job, being that this page in his phonebook so frequently falls open, was because the gentleman’s surname was Fletcher.
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* This particular den being the GCSB, whose roles include spying and planting bugs. Although, given their frequent cock ups, it’s clear they’re not very good buggers.
** Given the PM is so forgetful about phone calls, conversations, share holdings and who his friends are—and John Banks and David Shearer are equally forgetful about rides in helicopters and overseas bank accounts, respectively—perhaps prospective politicians should be required to pass an Alzheimer’s test before registering as a candidate? Just a thought?
*** That is, Chief of the Government’s Coven of Spies and Buggers (GCSB).
**** Has the pun been worn out yet? I don’t think so.
UPDATE: The sophisticated Stephen Franks disagrees with me. (But did he miss my comment that “the separation of powers … in the Westminster system function more by convention than by constitutional entrenchment…” ? )