Thursday, May 05, 2011

"Not in the public interest"

Yesterday we learned that John Key had taken a free helicopter ride from a pair of dodgy businessmen, then paid for it when he realised it would look bad. His excuse was that he needed to use a helicopter to make an urgent national security meeting in Auckland. Today in Parliament, Bill English (acting on his behalf) claimed that it was "not in the public interest" for him to say whether Key could have made that meeting if he had used a car.

To quote the beer ad, yeah, right. Clearly, its not in Key's interest, because it makes him look like an extravagant joyrider. But the public interest? Its difficult to see how that is compromised by learning whether our Prime Minister is scheduling his time and using public resources properly. Quite the contrary - it is clearly in the public interest for an answer to be given.

Unfortunately, this is not something we will ever get any answers on. Standing Order 377 gives Ministers an absolute right to refuse to answer questions in the House if they believe it is not in the public interest to do so. The only check on this is that Ministers will pay a political penalty with the public if they abuse this privilege. But this requires the media to step in, and name and shame Ministers who hide behind the public interest (and conflate it with their own political interest) to avoid giving answers which would make them look bad. The ball is now in their court; the question is whether they will do their job properly, or not.