As the political fallout from the Panama papers begins to settle it is clear that the debate has become quite simply the Prime Minister against the Leader of the Opposition.

National politicians over the weekend at the party’s regional conference were all perplexed by Labour’s tactics and most concluded that the party appeared to have no organised strategy.

Instead, it had been left to Labour Leader Andrew Little to go head to head with Prime Minister John Key.

But that was Labour’s strategy.

Labour sources say they want  Mr Little focus on the Prime Minister and portray him as a rich foreign exchange dealer looking after his “mates” from the finance sector.

As part of this strategy it has been decided Mr Little will be the sole spokesperson the Panama papers.

Labour has argued for some time that the soft National vote flakes off because of concerns about the Prime Minister’s style and approach to politics.

But the problem for Labour is that when the voters do depart National, they tend to go to New Zealand First.

That was the trend that allowed Winston Peters to win the Northland by-election just over a year ago.

POLITIK understands that there is polling currently available which confirms that and shows a sizeable shift out of National and into NZ First.


Mr Key has taken the prospect of the release of the Panama papers very seriously.

He has admitted to having spent eight hours one Sunday on the phone trying to track down the person who ran the Merrill Lynch super fund that he had money in to check that it was not involved in any tax haven investments.

And over the weekend he was largely absent from his party’s Northern Regional Conference; instead spending his time locked away in a private room.

He later told journalists at one of the two press conferences he called to discuss the papers that he had been talking to Inland Revenue officials.

And he was confident about where he stood.

“I know my own financial positions so I’m not the slightest bit worried about that,” he said.

Labour has to tread a fine line on this.

They can’t be seen to be accusing the Prime Minister of any personal involvement but instead have to focus on Mr key’s personal lawyer, Ken Whitney, who is mentioned in the papers.

Hence this exchange yesterday during Parliament’s Question Time.:

Andrew Little: “How does he reconcile his claim that his close personal adviser had assured him that he had no links with Mossack Fonseca with today’s revelations that show that Mr Whitney has had dealings with that firm?”

John Key: “Firstly, I have got no responsibility for Mr Whitney or any other New Zealander. But I stand by the statements that I have made in relation to Mr Whitney. I think incrimination by insinuation could be a very dangerous game, because I took a moment to just look in the database, and guess who is a beneficiary of one of the trusts? Oh, Greenpeace International. “

Labour’s tactics drew a surprising criticism yesterday from veteran left wing commentator, Chris Trotter.

On his blog, he wrote: “Bringing down John key has become an abiding obsession of the New Zealand Left. As if all of New Zealand’s problems have their origins in the actions of a single individual.”

And he goes on “All of which suggests that the Left’s obsession with bringing down Key isn’t about the National Party Leader at all, but about its own inability to attract and hold the same level of popular support that keeps him in power. All of which raises the possibility that the Left’s real problem isn’t with Key at all – but with the democratic process itself.”

Mr Trotter is not that popular inside Labour’s caucus anyway.

But this should surely mean that if he does have an invitation to their caucus party this week, he may find it withdrawn.

However, there was other slightly more polite criticism of Labour’s position from a former candidate and accountancy lecturer, Dr Deborah Russell.

She took issue with Mr Little’s proposal to ban all foreign trusts.

“Having foreign trusts as part of our tax rules is probably necessary,” she wrote on the Spinoff blog.

“Are the foreign trust rules a tax haven?

“That probably depends on what you think a tax haven is.

“If you think that a tax haven is a country that explicitly sets out to create a benign tax system and enable people to hide assets and minimise taxation, then no, we’re not a tax haven.

“On the other hand, if you think that intent doesn’t matter, and what really counts is the way the tax system and secrecy rules operate in practice to allow people to avoid and evade tax, then we are a tax haven.”

But that level of nuance does not play well in Parliament’s debating chamber during Question Time.

The reality is that Labour does see this whole issue as Little v Key, or at least the opening round for what will be the main event as we move into election year.