Summer read: From Key to Ardern to Collins, Air NZ’s airside oasis is a mainstay of our great political story. Toby Manhire makes for the cheese board.
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Originally published on May 25, 2021.
Copperfield’s Café. The prime ministerial mini-van. The ninth floor of the Beehive. All important New Zealand political settings. But none comes close to the highest corridor of power in the land. No, not the SkyCity box at Eden Park. The Koru Lounge.
This week the home from home for Air New Zealand’s most loyal flyers and other assorted patricians was invoked by Judith Collins in defence of her totally turbulence-free leadership. It was just the latest appearance of the Koru Lounge in the nation’s political story. Here we rank all the examples we can think of, from the most trivial to the most momentous.
(Editorial note: To forestall complaints that most of these are not remotely “scandals”, I have put “-gate” on the end of each, meaning they’re irrefutably scandals. Meanwhile, the perennial cancel-culture call-outs against Koru Lounge “free-loaders” (yuck) and “children” (ugh) have been ruled out of scope. We’re looking only at the big fish.)
8. Getyougate: The great Duncan Garner vs Chris Carter showdown
In late 2009, as Platinum Elite frequent flyers picked at the muffins and grapes, there was a “foul-mouthed exchange” between Duncan Garner and Chris Carter, according to the Herald on Sunday. The Labour MP, one of the big spenders exposed in the expenses scandal, told the paper that the pugnacious political editor had declared: “I’m going to fucking get you. If it takes me to Christmas I am going to destroy you.”
Garner later rejected the account as “very, very wrong”, adding: “Carter behaved disgracefully in the Koru Club that evening and provoked the incident.” Oh to have been a fly on the buffet.
7. Congregate: A scene from the Hollow Men featuring Don Brash
In May 2005, Don Brash, then leader of the National Party, caught up with “senior Brethren” at the Koru Lounge in Wellington, according to Nicky Hager’s revelatory book The Hollow Men. Disappointingly, this is all that so-called investigative journalist Hager has to say about the Koru Lounge. He does note that around the same period, Brash had similar catch-ups with Brethren people at a range of lovely places, including the Millennium Hotel, Christchurch, the Mission Estate, Napier, and, of course, Ōtara Markets.
6. Breakfastgate: Judith Collins vs John Key
The Koru Lounge often has the buzz of the staff cafeteria at the Roman Senate on the ides of March. “Mischief,” you might hear someone say as they stuff an apple in their pocket to eat on the flight, “thou art afoot.”
Speaking following the publication of her book Pull No Punches, Judith Collins told Q&A that she had felt betrayed, thrown under the bus even, by her former leader, John Key, after he withdrew her honorific in the fallout from the Dirty Politics scandal.
Did Key like her, she was asked. “I don’t know if he did,” said she. “I used to think he did because we would have breakfast in the Koru Lounge in Auckland together.” Et tu, John?
5. Departuregate: When Gerry Brownlee avoided security
Former transport minister and suspected panda bear operative Gerry Brownlee proffered what political insiders call a “boarding pass to resignsville” after being caught slipping out the secret Koru Lounge door to the departure gate without going through the security process on the morning of July 24 2014. Brownlee and his aides had decided they didn’t need to go through the usual screening because they were late for their flight and that. A CAA investigation subsequently said: so running late you had time to buy chewing gum and a can of soda pop before boarding, Gezz.
Brownlee said sorry a lot of times, was fined $2000 and offered John Key his resignation, which was declined. Signs deterring would-be security-skivers have since been installed, together with a one-way turnstile, a monument to the man who besmirched forever the foundations of trust upon which the Koru Lounge is built.
4. Interrogate: part one
Just over five years ago, the big story around the world was the Panama Papers, a trove of material about the use of offshore trusts. Responding to questions around the influence of his lawyer, Ken Whitney, who cropped up in the leaks, John Key explained that he routinely heard views from ordinary people.
“If I go to the Koru Lounge for instance, I don’t sit off in the corner, I stand out in the middle,” said the prime minister. “People come up to me from all walks of life every single day.”
3. Interrogate: part two
As the windsock by the runway is to the weather, so the Koru Lounge is to the mood of everyday New Zealand. A reality confirmed just this week by Judith Collins, who was challenged by Newstalk ZB to reveal private polling numbers following the revealing of dismal public polling numbers.
Her confidence, she said, was based on what she had heard directly from the populace. “What I’m getting,” she said, “is people stopping me in the streets, stopping me at the Koru Lounge, telling me that we’re doing the right thing and we’re standing up to the government.”
2. Interrogate: The secret of high-level surveillance in New Zealand
In July 2013, at the height of a debate around the powers of New Zealand spy agencies the SIS and the GCSB, a former spook revealed one of the most powerful tools available to the surveillance community. The member nations of the all-powerful Five Eyes network deploy a range of high-tech gadgetry and old-school subterfuge to gather their intelligence. But it’s hard to imagine any of the others have what we have: hanging around in the Koru Lounge.
That was the best way to find out what was going on in Wellington, former GCSB boss Sir Bruce Ferguson told NetHui. “You have a whole raft of politicians and businessmen coming through, most of whom are so important they must talk to either the person next door or very loudly on the phone.”
1. Beergate: Jacinda Ardern hands a bottle opener to another person
Every so often a political event transcends the daily news cycle and speaks directly to the viscera, plunging down the windpipe and into our collective national soul. So it is with the greatest political Koru Lounge story of them all: the time Jacinda Ardern assisted a person she didn’t know in his efforts to open a bottle of beer.
The story, broken by Newshub on February 20, 2020, bears repeating at length:
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a “f**kin G”, according to [a] man whose beer she helped open at an airport Koru Lounge recently.
Twitter user Javed, who tweets under the handle @PastTenseOfJav, said on Wednesday night he “grabbed a beer at the airport”, but had nothing to open it with.
“A lady’s pouring herself a wine, I wait cause the bottle opener’s front of her. Mid-pour, without even looking, she hands me the opener,” he said.
“I say thanks, crack my beer, look up. Turns out that lady was our whole ass Prime Minister. What a f**kin G.”
‘G’ is slang for ‘gangsta’, which according to Javed himself in a later tweet “can be used in place of mate, bro etc”.
Responding to other Twitter users, Javed said Ardern’s pass was “pro as hell” and he was very impressed.