State Of It: Minister Nick Smith’s Resignation Rocks National-Led Government (updated)
Analysis: By Selwyn Manning. See Also:
Radio 5AA Australia: Selwyn Manning & Peter Godfrey On Minister resigns + Urewera 4
Video courtesy of InTheHouse.co.nz
Nick Smith, the Minister of Local Government and Minister for the Environment, resigned his Cabinet portfolios Wednesday. The resignation followed a week-long expose by opposition parties Labour and New Zealand First into inappropriate use of ministerial office when Nick Smith wrote to ACC on ministerial letterhead supporting a friend’s (Bronwyn Pullar) compensation-claim.
Smith will be staying on as a backbench MP for Nelson.
The resignation is a huge loss to the National-led Cabinet and a significant blow to Finance Minister Bill English. As a member of the loosely referred to group, the Brat Pack, Smith provided a bridge between English’s isolated centrist faction and the powerful right-leaning factions inside National, the latter led by Steven Joyce.
Smith’s competent handling of Executive Government process was highly skilled, and Cabinet relied on Smith for his ability to turn ideology into law – past evidence being ACC reforms, and future expectations included the reform of Local Government into a cumulative group where each body would be forced to subscribe to Central Government economic strategy. To that effect Smith issued a statement only two days ago. (See Govt Statement: Better local government reforms announced.)
Smith’s intellectual grunt was also needed in The House, where his oratory skills and sense of theatre were equal to the best. He remains an Member of Parliament whose debating skills will be lost to the cut and thrust of politics during Question Time. In time, he may liven up the General Debate, a feat that wouldn’t take much effort.
Prime Minister John Key’s handling of the affair was placed under question today.
Labour leader David Shearer asked during Question Time: Does he (the Prime Minister) expect all his Ministers to comply with the responsibilities set out in the Cabinet Manual?
Video courtesy of InTheHouse.co.nz
In the past, PM Key’s judgment has been swift. Particularly when Ministers have displayed inappropriate behavior (Richard Worth) or given an impression of having brought the Government into disrepute (Pansy Wong). But the Nick Smith affair tested Key’s loyalties and requirements. He knew Smith was integral to implementing the Government’s strategic plan and for all the reasons outlaid above was reticent to move on Smith, or send him a signal his time had come, until a damning pattern of inappropriate use of his ministerial position became public.
By Tuesday, a cringing sense of unease had crept into this affair. Here we had whiffs of a repeated incidence which gave the impression of a Minister having used his office to assert influence over a friend’s compensation claim. In some courts of public opinion this is referred to as cronyism, in others corruption. By Wednesday a second incident surfaced where Smith had earlier similarly written with respect to the same woman’s ACC claim, again on Ministerial letterhead. What was on Tuesday (in the Prime Minister’s view) an uncomfortable situation that could be defended, became untenable by Wednesday afternoon.
While in his Personal Statement to Parliament, Smith mitigated that he had expressed in letters that he did not wish to, nor could, interfere in Ms Pullar’s claim, perhaps it was this reference (see following paragraph), when given the light of day, that brought Smith to the conclusion that he must resign:
In Smith’s letter of recommendation to ACC dated July 2011, Smith wrote: “I can confirm, however, that in my contacts with Bronwyn prior to the accident she was well and a dynamic, capable person who worked hard and achieved a lot. I wish to put this on record to assist in any comparative assessment of Bronwyn’s current health.”
After receiving Smith’s resignation, Prime Minister Key issued a statement that included the comments: “It is important that Ministers are seen to actively manage both real and perceived conflicts of interest in the exercise of their duties.
“I have always expected high standards from my Ministers – and I will continue to do so. Dr Smith has been a hard-working and diligent Minister, but perceptions do matter and he knows he has let himself down. I am very disappointed to have lost such a capable Minister,” John Key said.
Evaluating the week it is difficult to accept the Prime Minister did not know ahead of Wednesday’s events that there had been a series of exchanges between Smith, ACC and Ms Pullar. On Tuesday, even New Zealand First leader Winston Peters alluded to it being more serious than the Prime Minister had indicated. There were suggestions that Smith and Ms Pullar had been in a relationship – a suggestion Smith refused to be drawn on on Wednesday. But Labour insiders will know, that suggestions of a relationship go back to when it was in office, when its Cabinet Ministers were sometimes heard to mention Operation Bronwyn. Outsiders will be left wondering whether Labour’s mission on this issue has been over a decade in the making.
One thing is certain, members of Labour’s front bench suggested in December that they had set themselves a task to facilitate the exit of a National Party Cabinet Minister by June. It came three months sooner.
On Wednesday a shaken and upset Nick Smith admitted he had done wrong. Politics again has shown it is a most bruising arena. Some will have compassion for the demise of a dedicated politician. Others will recite: He who lives by the sword…State Of It: Minister Nick Smith's Resignation Rocks National-Led Government (updated),