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Pattrick Smellie: A letter we’ll never read

Thank you for re-electing a National Party-led government.

It looked a near-run thing at times and I had to grin and bear some appalling misbehaviour by people I would have thought had the wit to realise how much damage they were storing up for me, my Government, and the National Party.

However, elections being gladiatorial contests, I had to tough it out. But I’m willing to say now: mistakes were made, which could have cost us the election, if our opponents had just been a little stronger.

In other words, at the end of the day, we were lucky. Not nearly enough people wanted to vote for the other guy. A more compelling offering from Labour and we might have been toast. We are less trusted and far less liked than we used to be, and one thing a politician quickly learns is that trust once lost is devilishly difficult to regain.

One of the things we believe about ourselves as New Zealanders, let alone what others may think of us, is that we are on the whole honest and trustworthy. That’s why it’s so easy to sell us fake branded watches, hand-woven rugs of dubious quality and shoe-shining services we really didn’t want when we travel overseas. Our honesty has a downside: naivety.

When that naivety is exposed, however, it makes people angry. While it didn’t necessarily change the way many people voted, the Dirty Politics saga produced a new wariness and distrust in politics, and in me, that I will now have to work hard to rectify.

For example, I know how distressing many of National’s most loyal supporters found what was happening in my office, in my former Justice Minister’s office, and among a bunch of misguided blogosphere vigilantes.

It was a profound wake-up call to me to have bedrock National Party supporters telling me they thought less of me and my Government, that our party had dishonoured some of New Zealand’s most important strengths as a nation. National characteristics that include: integrity, honest dealing, fair-mindedness, and strong public institutions.

These are the factors, along with an independent and competent judiciary and a police force almost devoid of corruption, that underpin New Zealand’s high rating in numerous international surveys. This is more than a source of pride. It is a source of competitive advantage.

Take the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, for example. We come out top or second across the range of measures relating to integrity in public and commercial life. While our scores in areas such as technological readiness, quality of infrastructure, ability to innovate and capacity to grow global firms tend to be very much middle of the pack or worse, being able to deal with us fairly and efficiently is prized and respected by our trading partners.

That being so, it is every New Zealand government’s duty not only to maintain but also to entrench New Zealand’s reputation for honesty, trustworthiness and transparency precisely because we have so precious few sources of world-beating competitive advantage. So, now that the dust has cleared, I want to be very clear about one thing: we will be cleaning house.

There will be no one in my office or any of my Ministers’ offices whose job is to run so-called “black ops”. When we want to go on the attack, we will stab our opponents in the front rather than the back. When it comes to dealing with the news media and bloggers, we will only deal with journalists and media organisations that join the revamped Press Council. It’s not a perfect system, but it does indicate who is willing and who is not to abide by an industry code of conduct.

There will also be transparency about the process and speed with which Official Information Act requests are actioned, so that there can be no suggestion of favouritism or swift release for political gain to favoured outlets. While we’re at it, we will extend the OIA to cover the Parliamentary Service Commission, so that the management of Parliament is no longer secret.

While secrecy is inevitably part of our security intelligence services, I will also be beefing up the Office of the Inspector-General of Security Intelligence to rebuild public trust that we are only spying within the law and to an agenda of our own making.

I will never applaud the theft of personal correspondence but I accept that, on balance, a public service was done by their publication in this case.

I am committed to doing better, and to upholding the best in Kiwi values. And if anything of this kind is discovered again on my watch, I will resign. You have my word on it. × Yours sincerely,

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