"Dunno. Wasn't There.": The Prime Minister's ordeal by press conference over his allegation that Standard & Poors had warned economists that a credit downgrade was more likely under Labour has hopefully cured him of relying too heavily on the "inferences" of businessmen-spies.
THE PRIME MINISTER can count himself very lucky that the House of Representatives stands adjourned and the Speaker is abroad. Were they not, it is difficult to see how John Key could have escaped the scrutiny of the Privileges Committee. Had the timing been just a little different, he could easily have found himself in the same position as Winston Peters in 2008: diverted from the election campaign to answer charges of misleading Parliament.
But, then, Mr Key has always been lucky – as lucky as his principal opponent, Phil Goff, has been unlucky. Even so, the adjournment (and imminent proroguing) of the House, and Dr Lockwood Smith’s absence have not protected him from several days of acute political embarrassment.
His claim to the House that a change of government would increase the likelihood of a credit downgrading by Standard & Poor’s has been exposed as, at best, a false conclusion – drawn from an unjustified inference.
We know this because a spokesperson from Standard & Poor’s has taken the highly unusual step of publicly contradicting a prime-minister.
Melbourne-based Kyran Curry, who was present at the S&P-sponsored meeting of economists where the discussion of New Zealand’s credit-rating took place, stated unequivocally: “I would never have touched on individual parties. It is something we just don’t do. We don’t rate political parties; we rate Governments.”
In the face of such a public slap-down, Mr Key had no choice but to concede that his understanding of Standard & Poor’s position was based entirely on information received from an anonymous source who had been present at the meeting. Fierce questioning from a highly sceptical Press Gallery then forced the Prime Minister to release his “evidence” – an e-mail in which his (still anonymous) informant declared:
“There was a key one-liner that I thought you could well use. S&P said that there was a 1/3 chance that NZ would get downgraded and a 2/3 chance it would not, and the inference was clear that it would be the other way round if Labour were in power.”
That word “inference” should have caused Mr Key’s political radar warning system to light up like a tilted pin-ball machine. Prime Ministers do not rely on inferences – no matter how “clear”. They rely on facts.
Nor should they allow their parliamentary opponents to assume that they were present at a meeting which, in reality, they did not attend. Unless, of course, they enjoy repeating, over and over again, to a roomful of stony-faced journalists: “I wasn’t there.” “I wasn’t at the meeting.”
And, never – under any circumstances – should they twitch back the curtain of Prime Ministerial omniscience to reveal the tacky truth that he or she is the receptacle for an endless stream of petty gossip and partisan innuendo.
How long does Mr Key think it will take a clever journalist to track down the full list of economists present at the Standard & Poor’s meeting? When, by his own admission, one of the names on that list is a prime-ministerial spy, how long does he think it will take before a shrewd process of elimination identifies the guilty party?
The bank economists representing the ANZ and the BNZ have already been forced to deny any part in the leaking of their colleagues’ private deliberations to the Prime Minister. Others are bound to follow. And none of them will be happy.
Contemporary economics reminds me of nothing so much as the huckster’s shill. And, like any confidence trick, it only works while people keep believing what they’re told. Just as in Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, where the smooth running of the Emerald City depends on no one discovering what lies hidden behind the curtain, faith in the Government’s economic management depends upon people believing their leader is guided by more than anonymous spies peddling “one liners” and “inferences”.
Mr Key’s remarkable luck may have preserved him from the Privileges Committee, but in the Court of Public Opinion he stands convicted.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 14 October 2011.