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Chris Ford: John Key and Ponytailgate - he may have won the political battle but may not win the legal war

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Last week's revelations about John Key and his forceful pulling of Auckland waitress Amanda Bailey's hair in the cafe she worked at caused a real storm.

For the first time in Key's premiership, this prime ministerial act truly became a talking point, even among those usually disinterested in politics.

The viewpoints on this issue fell into two camps. One were the John Key 'apologists' who felt that while the PM had gone too far, it was believed by many in this camp that he had apologised and that it was time to move on. The second camp constituted those who were appalled by what Key did and felt it was both a misuse and abuse of his power over Bailey and that his apology did not go far enough.

It would come as no surprise to readers of my blogs that I'm staunchly in the second camp.

Yet, I would have to concede that given the anecdotal feedback derived from reading social media commentary and overhearing conversations in the pub and on the street that he's gotten away with it politically. Many Kiwis in the legendary 'Middle New Zealand' of political lore are prepared to forgive Key by arguing that he has apologised (however imperfectly) and that it's time to move on. Furthermore, some within this camp have taken both the Beehive's and the New Zealand Herald's cue to indulge in some victim blaming against Bailey. In fact, as a good friend of mine pointed out, this is not unusual within the context of an electorate which has become more right-wing and reactionary in its attitudes over the last few decades.

Nevertheless, I believe that while Key has won the political battle (for now) - which might show itself in very little movement for National and Key in the next round of polls - there's still the potential for a long and drawn out legal battle to erode his authority.

In fact, the legal battle has been commenced by a man who (despite his own eccentricities and past wrongdoing) has turned out to have a better legal prosecution strike rate than anybody within the police or Crown Prosecution Service - Graham McCready. Key should fear McCready as the one person who, more than any other (aside from Bailey herself), could ultimately bring down the prime minister.


While a significant proportion of the public may well want Key to remain in office come what may, it may still  turn out that if Key is tried before a court of law and found guilty of assault, then that carries a two year prison sentence. While Key (thanks to a bevy of well paid lawyers) may well escape that fate, a conviction would, as in the case of John Banks, require him to resign as an MP and hence he would no longer be able to legally serve as Prime Minister as - under New Zealand law - only an MP can serve as a Minister of the Crown.

Besides, Key could have to face proceedings before the Human Rights Commission as well if another complaint by McCready makes it through the system. In this instance, if Key admitted harrassment or was found to have committed it by the Commission, then he would not have to resign as an MP but would still be humiliated and taught a lesson nonetheless through being potentially fined and subjected to counselling orders.

This is why the assault charge could prove a greater threat to the PM's career than the sexual harrassment one, even though both potential charges are equally serious.

None of the political ramifications of these potential cases have yet been discussed by the mainstream media. Furthermore, the mainstream media have not speculated whether there could be any more similar allegations waiting to be made against Key from any historic behaviour as prime minister or, indeed, from the deep and distant past. If further historic allegations concerning his behaviour are made, then that may well shift the tide of public opinion forcing the PM to either resign or be ousted by his caucas in a sudden revolt.

That's why I believe that, should the Bailey case make it through the next set of legal hurdles, that the risk of Key going early will substantially increase. I think he might even be considering his options with Bronagh and a few select aides while on his current Middle East trip. Therefore, I wouldn't be surprised if he set a planned resignation date of later this year (following the flag referendum) or early next year and perhaps coming before any legal hearings commenced. I would argue that this might be the most logical route for him to follow as, no doubt (in that event), he would want Steven Joyce and not Judith Collins to take his place and the longer he leaves things, the more likely it is that his preferred successor will not be chosen to lead National into 2017.

Yet, the PM has survived Dirty Politics, the resignation of various ministers, gaffes and faux pas due to the hold he has over the minds of a significant number of New Zealanders. I don't entirely rule out that (sigh) he might even survive the latest challenges being faced by him. In essence, though, the veracity of these allegations and their having been substantiated by all parties concerned raises the high probability of a legal conviction and/or ruling against Key being recorded should these cases proceed further.

And that's why it may well be that, with Ponytailgate, it will not be politics that determines the fate of Key but the legal system and the law itself.









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