OPINION: Machiavellian, arrogant, hot-headed. ACC Minister Nick Smith has been called all those things and more. And by his friends. He has a reputation for throwing tantrums and flying off the handle when things don't go his way.
That was never better demonstrated than when his mate Bill English was dumped as leader of the National Party in 2003. Dr Smith was so vexed he had to be sent home to Nelson for two weeks on stress leave. And that after being appointed deputy leader to build bridges between the English and Don Brash camps. Needless to say, his deputy leadership was short-lived.
But Dr Smith is also a passionate advocate of his constituents' interests and a minister who takes his responsibilities seriously. For that, taxpayers have reason to be grateful. It is because he keeps his ear to the ground and takes an active interest in his portfolios that a potential fraud has been uncovered within ACC. The corporation said this week that it had sacked a staff member – known to be its property manager Malcolm Mason – and referred "matters of concern" to the Serious Fraud Office.
Those matters relate to property transactions involving ACC in several different parts of the country and that appear to go back some time. However, it was not until Dr Smith queried the rent ACC was paying for its new offices in Nelson that anyone within the corporation thought to compare the prices it was paying for office space with the going rates. Dr Smith did so because local retailers were worried that the $346,320 a year ACC was paying to rent its Nelson premises set too high a benchmark and because other locals feared ACC was not getting value for money.
This week, the real estate agent who arranged the purchase of the site on which the offices were built estimated ACC was paying "double the going rate" for its office space. The building value would fall, probably substantially, when the lease expired, he said.
Dr Smith signalled his unhappiness by refusing to open the building. Contrast his attitude with that of Labour's former internal affairs minister, George Hawkins, who ignored newspaper reports and industry concerns about the leaky building crisis for more than 12 months about 10 years ago because officials had not formally advised him there was a problem.
"One would expect that, if there was a problem, the people set up to deal with that would inform their minister," he said at the time. "They did not."
If Dr Smith had taken the same approach, ACC would still be unaware it was paying twice the going rate for office accommodation in Nelson and would not have uncovered irregularities in other parts of the country.
Irascible? Yes. Economical with the truth? Sometimes. But also an example to other ministers of what the public expects. The job of ministers is not simply to sign pieces of paper put in front of them by officials, open new buildings, bandy unpleasantries across the floor of the House and enjoy their generous salaries and perks. It is to actively represent the interests of voters.
Dr Smith has done so. He deserves to be congratulated.
- The Dominion Post