Thursday, June 04, 2015

Calling Key's bluff on Muldoonism

Yesterday in Question Time, the Prime Minister made some thinly-veilled allegations about Labour's involvement in Murray McCully's Saudi sheep bribe, threatening to release old Cabinet papers which he implied would cast Labour in a bad light:

Andrew Little : Can he confirm that in 2010 his Government renewed the live sheep export ban that lies at the heart of Mr Al Khalaf’s claims against the Government?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY : Actually, as paperwork may one day show, the heart of the issues was not actually with this Government; it was with the actions taken in 2007. And, by the way, the previous Government was well and truly aware of that.


Rt Hon JOHN KEY : Because the Minister of Foreign Affairs is doing an outstanding job, and he has done absolutely nothing wrong. He has looked for a commercial solution—and those might be words that will ring true soon. He has looked for a commercial solution. He has acknowledged that there was a problem—those words might ring true soon. He has done the right thing to remove an irritant to the relationship with Saudi Arabia—those words might ring true soon. He has done a good job of promoting New Zealand on the world stage—those words always ring true with this Government. The Minister of Foreign Affairs has done an outstanding job.

[Muldoon would be proud, wouldn't he?]

Today, its a different story. Labour - exercising the right of former Ministers to access their old Cabinet papers - obtained copies of the papers and sought to table them in the House. National blocked it. To repeat, they blocked publication of the very papers which yesterday Key was saying would make the opposition look bad. Which suggests that they don't show what Key said they show, and that he was planning on making some strategic redactions to make the former government look bad (which in turn raises significant doubts about any release of papers of past governments).

As for what should happen next, Labour should publish and dare the government to do something about it. After all, its not as if we have an Official Secrets Act anymore - its not a crime to release information the Prime Minister, for his own political reasons, wants to keep secret. And while there are crimes around wrongful or unauthorised release, they require the information be prejudicial to the security or defence of New Zealand or (generally) endanger people's lives or a legal prosecution. "Endangering international relations" or "breaching business confidence" isn't a predicate, and nor should it be. In a democratic society, the government needs a strong case to justify criminal sanctions for releasing its secrets. "Good reason" for withholding information under the OIA is not the same as "good reason" for prosecution.