Nick Smith's letter a step too far

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 21/03/2012
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Was Nick Smith within his rights to write a reference for a friend and ACC client on ministerial letterhead while ACC minister?

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OPINION: John Key's refusal to cut Nick Smith loose over revelations that he intervened in a close friend's long-running battle with ACC while still ACC minister will come back to haunt him.

Yesterday, Winston Peters labelled it cronyism, a shabby little deal and a case of National ministers looking after their mates – and the bad news for Mr Key is that it looks like all those things and worse.

Presumably Dr Smith would have been gone by lunchtime had he still been ACC minister when his letter on a ministerial letterhead supporting the claim of National Party activist Bronwyn Pullar emerged.

That may have been the reason Mr Key failed to move against him yesterday, even as the story over whether or not the letter was on a ministerial letterhead changed. But it doesn't lessen the size of Dr Smith's error or the scale of his misjudgment.

Forget the polite reminder contained in the letter that it would be inappropriate for him to get involved in Ms Pullar's case as ACC minister. The fact that the letter was written at all, and on a ministerial letterhead, screamed that there was to be no doubt in anyone's mind that Ms Pullar had powerful friends in high places.

If Mr Key was of the view yesterday morning that the crime was forgivable, it should have dawned on him over the course of the day that Dr Smith had clearly stepped outside the boundaries of acceptable ministerial standards.

It is akin to the police minister intervening in decisions over charges against a family friend, or the revenue minister intervening over the size of a mate's tax bill.

Former deputy Speaker Ian Revell was forced to resign over using his letterhead to try to get off a parking ticket. Dr Smith's sin is only slightly better because he was not seeking to advantage himself. The big unanswered question is why Dr Smith wrote the letter at all, after he apparently resisted every previous approach by Ms Pullar to do so.

The even bigger unanswered question for Mr Key is whether there is more to come out.

The ugly aftermath of Ms Pullar going public over a mass privacy breach by ACC has been a series of leaks and counter leaks, which could drag out the controversy. And the longer it drags on, the more strain it will place on Mr Key's promise to raise the bar on ministerial standards.

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