Is Key really driving with his hands off the wheel?
John Key's management style has always appeared to be relaxed and laid back, but this is clearly a cultivated image heavily supported by his huge team of spin doctors. The budget for the Prime Ministers Office has increased dramatically over the last six years.
Key operates like a swan, he glides over troubled political waters and constant scandals, while under the water his feet and his team of advisors are franticly using all available to them to maintain the image and momentum. I am sure Jason Ede has been replaced by someone else responsible for black ops and I wouldn't be surprised if he continued his work for longer than claimed.
Three strategies seem to be commonly used. The most important tactic is keeping the Prime Minister well removed from any poorly performing Minister and MP or any scandal. The second tactic is shifting the blame and responsibility elsewhere, including his own staff. The third is diversion, and it will be interesting to see when the flag discussion is brought up again or a drummed up accusation against Andrew Little.
The Mike Sabin affair has obviously had all the above applied.
Key has again made sure there is no direct connection between himself and Sabin, and this stretches credibility. One would have thought that the Prime Minister would have had closer contact with any MP he was thinking of making a Minister and would want to be reassured of their competency and stability.
I also struggle to believe that Sabin wouldn't have made sure that the Prime Minister, or his office, was made aware of any personal problem that may impact on the party or his future performance. Most parties would have this expectation drummed into their candidates fairly strongly (a no surprises clause) so that any future risks can be determined and managed if necessary. The NBR has claimed that Key actually was informed of a problem in April 2014.
Even Labour advised the Prime Minister's Office of concerns about Sabin in November while Key insists he had no knowledge until December. This could allow Key to use the defense that his office failed to inform him before. It won't be the first time his substantial office has apparently failed in its responsibilities and it is appalling how much is supposedly withheld from the Prime Minister and how many major decisions are therefore being made by staff without ministerial oversight.
It is my guess that a decision was made to allow Sabin to stand in the hope that nothing substantial got into the public arena until at least after the election. Having a high profile MP withdraw his candidacy before the election (the only ethical option) would have brought attention to his problems and a negative focus on the party, especially when the election result was far from certain. The cost of a later by-election and negative press would be considered a minor issue once the Party was returned to the government benches.
It would make sense to maintain an illusion of business as usual as long as possible and Sabin's appointment as chair of the Law and Order select committee and Key's refusal to engage in questions related to the assault investigation was clearly part of the plan. Obviously once the appointment was made it would be even more important to distance the PM from any deeper knowledge of Sabin's situation as that would make the appointment totally inappropriate. Interestingly Cameron Slater contradicts the PMs claim that Sabin was an effective and respected MP and worthy of the support he was receiving.
I guess some may say that this is all just a conspiracy theory and that John Key has been honest in his representation of events and is totally innocent of any implication that he knew more than he claims. In many ways the PMs version is more worrying as it means we have a Prime Minister who has had a number of Ministers and MPs behaving inappropriately and yet he has often claimed ignorance at what was revealed (he even refused to read John Banks' police report). His Ministers and MPs do not inform him of important issues and his office is making decisions in his absence that should have Ministerial oversight.
Either we have a very dishonest Prime Minister who deliberately uses his public office to unethically control the opposition, micro-manage events and regularly lies to the New Zealand public. Or we have a Prime Minister who has his hands off the wheel of Government and is genuinely ignorant of much that occurs around him. Both scenarios are equally scary.