Editorial: Govt minister fell short of standards
Nick Smith's abrupt resignation from his ministerial portfolios has effectively ended his political career – but it cannot be the end of investigations into the affair that triggered his departure. Too many questions remain unanswered.
Foremost among them is what he hoped to achieve by writing a letter on behalf of a friend, Bronwyn Pullar, who was experiencing difficulties with ACC while he was ACC minister; what, if any other, representations he made on her behalf; and what impact his involvement had on the way ACC dealt with her case.
The letter was couched in disinterested terms. "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on Bronwyn's ACC claim issues as a friend, given my role as Minister" he wrote on July 7 last year. But it would be a rare official whose eyes did not widen upon seeing the government crest atop the letter and wonder whether they were being given a coded message to give Ms Pullar special treatment.
To ACC's credit, it does not appear to have acted on the hint, accidental or otherwise. It seems to have dealt with her as obstreperously as it deals with other clients who dispute its assessment of their health.
Ms Pullar remains deeply unhappy with her treatment at the hands of the corporation as evidenced by her revealing it had mistakenly sent her confidential information about thousands of claimants.
However, it is the existence of the letter, not how ACC responded to it, that made Dr Smith's position untenable.
As the former minister acknowledged when its existence became public, the letter was an "error of judgment".
Whether it was written on plain paper, as Dr Smith originally suggested, or ministerial letterhead, as it was subsequently shown to be, is beside the point.
Ministers cannot advocate on behalf of friends and family with their departments. Nor can they allow the perception to exist that they are doing so.
Dr Smith should have resigned as soon as a copy of the letter was put before him. Prime Minister John Key should have demanded his resignation as soon as he became aware of the letter's existence.
Public confidence in the machinery of government is a fragile thing. It must be nurtured.
Instead Dr Smith and Mr Key attempted to brazen it out as former prime minister Helen Clark and Tariana Turia did in 2001 when it was revealed that the associate corrections minister at the time had asked prison authorities to transfer convicted bank robber Matthew Thompson, who had previously lived with her as a ward of the state, from Paremoremo Prison's maximum security wing to Whanganui to be closer to his family.
Dr Smith's error of judgment was not a sacking matter, Mr Key said.
It was only when the existence of Dr Smith's name on a second letter dealing with the case was uncovered by ACC officials that Dr Smith and Mr Key concluded he must go.
His resignation is a sorry end to a career that has featured some significant achievements. It is a reminder to all ministers that they must not only conduct themselves with the utmost probity, they must be seen to do so.