So the Prime Minister got booted out of Parliament last week. Well, big deal. The only surprise is that John Key had not been turfed out of the chamber before now.
Speakers are reluctant, however, to eject prime ministers for bad behaviour during question-time because that only punishes Opposition parties whose job it is to hold him or her to account.
There’s no show without Punch.
Key tends to push the boundaries and tries to land as many verbal jabs — many of them not relevant to the question at hand — on his opponents as he can before the Speaker calls time and interrupts him. Sometimes Key carries on regardless.
David Carter finally lost his patience last Wednesday. Having issued repeated warnings which Key ignored, Carter ordered Key to leave for failing to “resume his seat” when the Speaker was on his feet.
Labour tried to argue that the Prime Minister had simply lost the plot. But Key never loses the plot — especially when he knew very well that he was going to get another barrage of questions from Opposition parties on the Panama Papers, the handling of which has not seen National covering itself in glory.
Others have suggested Key deliberately got himself thrown out; that it was a stunt for the benefit of the television cameras. If so, it was something a prime minister can only do once. Were it to become a habit, he or she would stand accused of running scared of the Opposition.
Key, however, did not need to create a distraction. He had already produced one by dragging Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Red Cross into the argument over whether the latest batch of the Panama Papers further underlined the Government’s embarrassing failure to tighten the disclosure requirements of foreign trusts, ministers having ignored Inland Revenue advice to do so following lobbying from the small number of New Zealand companies engaged in the lucrative business of setting up such trusts for the benefit of overseas entries.
The papers showed that while Key has repeatedly insisted that New Zealand is not a tax haven, the country is making a very good impression of being one.
Trying to defend the indefensible, Key has continued to argue that everything is hunky dory with regard to the existing law and regulations covering foreign trusts, while at the same time giving assurances that if the official inquiry being conducted by tax specialist John Shewan found fault with the existing regime, the Government would look seriously look at any recommendations he might make for change.
With Key taking shelter under an inquiry which initially he had been extremely most reluctant to establish, the Prime Minister found himself on the receiving end of a very relevant and highly potent question from Greens co-leader James Shaw ,which showed just how weak was Key’s assertion that New Zealand did not fit the definition of a tax haven. Shaw wondered that if New Zealand was not a tax haven, why would Mossack Fonseca—a company for whom tax avoidance by its own admission comprised 95 per cent of its business —urge its clients to use New Zealand’s foreign trust and company structures.
But Key had something up his sleeve. He replied that there were quite legitimate reasons why people had a foreign trust. He then made the startling suggestion that Shaw ring Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Red Cross “because they are implicated in the papers”.
The notion that any of those organisations have dodgy trusts secretly hidden in tax havens is preposterous. Their good names have simply been hijacked by other entities setting up such trusts for possibly nefarious purposes.
It is a political maxim, however, that if you can define what the debate is about you are halfway to winning it. Key is a master when it comes to shifting the focus of an argument. Moreover, he is not that fussed about what means he employs to do just that.
This modus operandi has previously been described by Grant Robertson, one of Labour’s senior MPs, as a strategy of “distract, divert and diffuse”, the latter word meaning to spread the blame for something going wrong as widely as possible.
Labour has other “d” words to describe Key’s methodology for averting or stemming political trouble — words like deny, deflect, denigrate and demean.
Key’s confuse-to-defuse tactics were most visible in his accusation last November that Labour was backing “murderers, rapists and child molesters” by supporting New Zealand detainees in Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre.
This highly provocative assertion — made in Parliament — sparked a mass walkout by Labour MPs. Key would have been confident that both major television channels’ coverage on that night’s news bulletins would focus on the parliamentary fracas, rather than on the real story — the Government’s feeble response to Australia’s outrageous, unjust and cruel decision to deport New Zealand citizens with criminal records even though they may have lived most of their lives in Australia.
Last week’s events had Andrew Little accusing Key of being up to his “old tricks”. The Labour leader acknowledged the Prime Minister had tried to divert attention away from his support for the “grubby foreign trust tax-dodging industry”. But this time — Little claimed — Key had failed to do so.
That is arguable. Both Little and Shaw ended up going some way down Key’s diversionary path to nowhere. When Parliament met on Wednesday, both leaders demanded that the Prime Minister apologise to the three organisations which he had implied had foreign trusts.
But Key’s story had changed overnight. He was now saying that what had happened to the likes of Greenpeace was an example of how the names of innocent New Zealanders had been sullied by them having unwittingly ended up on the Panama Papers database.
Ipso facto, the database should be “taken with a grain of salt”.
As it was, by mid-week, the release of that database had not proved to be quite the treasure trove that Opposition parties had been expecting. The story would have kept running if the names of many more prominent New Zealanders had been on the database. That would have provided the local angle that more and more drives New Zealand media coverage of international events more and more.
Instead, the story was fizzing out, thus seemingly giving more credence to Key’s assertion that the Panama Papers amounted to “incrimination by insinuation”.
The real story in the papers, is how foreigners are using New Zealand’s lax regime to avoid or evade paying tax in their home countries.
The focus will now shift to the findings of the Shewan inquiry which is due to report by the end of next month. His appointment was not free of controversy.
Whatever his findings, his report will be a political football that is going to get a lot of kicking. No pressure, Mr Shewan.
As for apologies, Key finally made one on the last day of Parliament last year for his “murderers, rapists and child molesters” outburst. Greenpeace, should not hold its breath in anticipation of likewise getting an expression of sorrow from the Prime Minister.