Plum job for Brash as National attacks cronyism

JOHN KEY plans to appoint former party leader Don Brash as high commissioner to London if National is elected later this year, sources have told the Sunday Star-Times.

Key discussed giving Brash the top job in either London or Washington when he replaced him as party leader in 2006. Since then this has firmed into Key planning, if elected, to offer Brash a three-year posting as high commissioner to London, a position that costs the taxpayer about $600,000 a year.

Key told the Sunday Star-TImes yesterday that no decision had been made “at this point”. However “we’re not saying it’s not possible that he could be used in some capacity by a future National government”.

Brash told the newspaper that he had “absolutely no knowledge of what Mr Key even plans”.

The original discussions occurred in the tense days around Brash’s demise as leader in November 2006. National strategist Murray McCully worked day and night with Key to install the new Key-English leadership team and deal with the losers such as Brash. In the 20 months since, McCully has led a vitriolic National Party campaign against Labour making political appointments to official jobs.

Brash, as leader, criticised the appointment of former Labour MP Jonathan Hunt as high commissioner to London in 2005. “My view is an important post like Washington, London or Ottawa should be filled by people who have qualifications appropriate to the role,” he told the Press. “I think it is inappropriate to appoint a politician just because it is convenient to get him or her out of the way.”

Brash said he accepted that National had made such appointments in the past “but they should be made on merit, and not be used as a dumping ground for political has-beens” and a “convenient way of removing [them] from the political scene here”. He also said that, if elected, a National government would “stop the regular practice of governments . . . sending former MPs to top diplomatic posts”.

The 2006 discussions were kept quiet. One newspaper published a rumour of the Brash job offer shortly after Key became leader, but when questioned by journalists, Key refused to comment.

Only two weeks ago a large New Zealand Herald profile, based on interviews with Key, said Brash handed Key the leadership without a bloody battle and “could be forgiven for thinking Key owed him something in return”. But Brash “waited for a job offer from Key and it never came”.

A week ago Radio bFM’s Mike Havoc followed up the Herald story and asked Key whether he had promised Brash a job for resigning: “So, there was no ‘here you go, buddy, you have this one and you leave’? It was a genuine step down?” Key replied: “It was a genuine step down.”

Governments from the left and right have given diplomatic posts to old politicians, including Hunt, Russell Marshall and Hugh Watt from Labour and Jim Bolger, Paul East and party president John Collinge from National. The difference this time is that National has been specifically criticising “cronyism” and political appointments to diplomatic posts.

The initial plan was for Washington or London. But a Washington posting risked reminding the public of Brash’s memorable comment to visiting US politicians that New Zealand’s nuclear propulsion ban would be “gone by lunchtime”. Key decided on London.

The current high commissioner in London is career diplomat Derek Leask, who took the job when Hunt came home earlier this year. However Key plans to end Leask’s posting early and replace him with Brash in 2009. According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade figures, the high commissioner receives a $130,000-$169,000 a year salary, a $113,000 a year chauffeur, a $222,000 a year house, $107,000 a year domestic staff and a generous entertainment allowance.

Brash said yesterday that “prior to my leaving parliament [Key] indicated that if I was interested in being involved in some way post-election, in some particular post, then he would certainly regard that positively but there was nothing specific discussed at all”.

Asked whether London or Washington had been discussed, he said: “There was a general allusion to offshore posts and I’m well aware of the fact that the number of offshore posts which are filled with political appointments are not very large, and that’s certainly true. But no promises had been made.”