John Key is backing disgraced Minister Maurice Williamson to continue to serve as the MP for Pakuranga, saying he has already paid a heavy price for his mistake.
This week Williamson stood down as a minister after it emerged that he telephoned police on behalf of a wealthy Chinese businessman and National Party donor, Donghua Liu, who was facing domestic violence charges.
While he has insisted he had no intention of influencing the outcome of the investigation and made that clear to police, Williamson did check whether the investigation was on "solid ground" and mentioned the businessman's substantial investment plans.
Key said the event clearly breached the Cabinet manual, but had already paid for it.
"I think he's paid a pretty hefty price, but that's the right price to pay because he made a mistake," Key said shortly after he arrived at the National Party's northern conference in Mt Wellington in Auckland this afternoon.
Key dismissed suggestions that Williamson, an MP for 27 years, should stand down from Parliament at the September election.
"Maurice is a colourful character. He's been around for 27 years. The people of Pakuranga know him well," with many seeing him as doing a good job as the local MP.
"If he stands he'd have my support."
Key said there now seemed to be a belief that mistakes meant MPs should stand down from Parliament, but this would be disproportionate.
"There's got to be calibration of the mistakes people make. Losing a ministerial warrant and going through all of that is actually a pretty big deal for people and I think that's about the right penalty for what he did."
He fended off questions of whether there was any way for Williamson to return as a minister as "way too early" to look at the question.
"There's no plans to bring him back at that point."
Key said he had never contacted police on behalf of a constituent. While the rules were slightly different for MPs the Cabinet manual made it "absolutely crystal clear" that ministers should not contact police about ongoing investigations.
Even for regular MPs it would be "unwise" to make the calls, irrespective of what they preface the conversation with.
Asked if it was appropriate that police did review the case of the businessman as a result of Williamson's call, Key said that was a question for Commissioner Mike Bush, not him.
Earlier Williamson defended himself of TV3's The Nation that at the time he made the call he did not see it as an issue.
"In my mind at the time it was very much like a number of constituency calls that I would normally make...I have people coming to me all the time with an issue, with a problem. It will either be with the ACC or with the local DHB and so on.
"In many cases I'll look at it and say 'I think you've been treated badly'. That's what a member of Parliament should do. It's not because they're a wealthy donor.
"I've had people that are as poor as a church mouse come to me and want help. And in my electorate if you go and do a survey, if you go and ask people on the street, you will find thousands of people who over the years I've helped. And I've gone to hell in a hand basket for some people. So this particular case seemed quite simple."
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