Harry S. Truman famously said that “The buck stops here” at his desk, when asked about his responsibilities as President of the United States. It was a play on the saying “pass the buck”, but also an acknowledgement that the President bears the ultimate responsibility for what happens in the United States. As the third term of Prime Minister John Key progresses, how well are he and his Ministers shaping up?
How many times have we heard a Minister of the Crown in this Government or the Prime Minister himself admitting to a “brain fade”, a moment where the facts of a matter are somehow conveniently forgotten? And more to the point, how many times have the media just taken the Minister or Prime Minister at their word?
Quite a few times it would seem. And with such an uncritical eye (and ear)being cast over the utterances that there was nothing wrong or improper behind these fades, New Zealanders are willingly being led up the long, windy and ever more treacherous path by a fourth estate that has forgotten what its purpose is. And in media outlets, competent journalists who want to fulfill their job descriptions in a professional manner are being shunted aside in favour of “Yes-men” who report politics in a way that reflects favourably on the Government of the day, never mind how good it is.
But the brain fades are growing in number and frequency. Ministers of the Crown seem to have developed a notion that it is now acceptable practice to have them and expect the public and media to find it acceptable. Minister of Trade, Todd McClay is the most recent to have developed this notion. As allegations of Chinese pressure to drop the investigation into substandard steel swirl around the Minister, he has been less than straight forward in telling his side of the story and what the Ministry knew. It has been long known that Chinese trade diplomacy can take on a selfish childish tantrum like state when other nations do things that Beijing does not like, threatening to throw its toys out of the cot.
This was precisely the reaction when word reached Beijing that New Zealand officials were becoming concerned about the influx of cheap (and often substandard) steel from China. But when Mr McClay was approached by Prime Minister John Key for an explanation he assured Mr Key that there was nothing to worry about. Only later after media reports started to come out about Zespri and other major exporters being warned by China that if the inquiry went ahead, it would put up tariffs or other trade barriers as punishment, did Mr McClay acknowledge that there was more going on than he had admitted, calling these moments of truth economy as the Government likes to, “a brain fade”.
Another well known brain fade was that of Minister for Foreign Affairs Murray McCully when he was found to have orchestrated a reform of his Ministry, that went wrong. Mr McCully dived for cover and the fall person was the unfortunate Chief Executive John Allen. Mr McCully also knew about poor legal advice surrounding some unfortunate sheep being exported to Saudi Arabia, but instead of owning up to the mistake, someone else had to carry the can. Again. When Paula Bennett was Minister for Social Welfare she would call bad performances on her part, “operational matters”. When the Opposition expressed concerns about Government security briefings for the Leader of the Opposition, Warren Tucker who was Director for the Security Intelligence Service was made to carry the can by the Prime Minister who has responsibility for Intelligence and Security.
And yet Teflon John, as the Prime Minister is known because nothing seems to stick, however incriminating, just sails on. But how long will the public put up with this, especially seeing as such gaffes cost several Ministers their jobs under the tenure of Prime Minister Helen Clark?