Nick Smith resigns ministerial portfolios

DANYA LEVY, PALOMA MIGONE VERNON SMALL, KATE CHAPMAN AND TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 17:00 21/03/2012
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Nick Smith has resigned after allegations of assisting a woman he knew with her ACC claim while he was still minister of the department.

Nick Smith after announcing that he is resigning from his Cabinet portfolios in Parliament.
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Nick Smith after announcing in Parliament that he is resigning from his Cabinet portfolios.

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His voice choking with emotion, Nick Smith resigned his Cabinet portfolios, telling Parliament he was guilty of two ''errors of judgment''.

Summonsed to Wellington for a grilling over sending a letter on ACC ministerial letterhead to help a female friend with an ACC claim, Smith spent his flight penning his resignation.

Ironically, his political death note was penned on an ACC pad, his draft attempts witnessed by a Fairfax reporter sitting nearby on the flight.

Smith went from Wellington airport straight into the House where, close to tears, he announced his resignation.

''I messed up,'' he later told reporters.

While he had told the Nelson Mail newspaper hours earlier he would not resign, as the hours ticked by he realised his position was untenable.

His speech in Parliament was hard, and the fiasco was difficult for his family, he said.

Smith provided a letter to Auckland friend Bronwyn Pullar while still ACC minister, and it was used to advance her ACC claim.

His apparent abuse of power did not emerge until Pullar was at the centre of a massive privacy breach by ACC, which emailed her names and details of 6752 claimants, sensitive sexual-abuse cases among them.

Once the letter was made public, Smith was set for the push.

He jumped first, in doing so joining Richard Worth, Phil Heatley and Pansy Wong as ministers to have resigned or quit since National came to power in 2008.

"I have tendered my resignation," he told Parliament.

"I do so because I made not one error of judgment but two in dealing with a conflict of interest in respect of a friend.

"It was an error of judgment firstly in doing the letter but more so on it being in ministerial letterhead."

His second admitted error was a letter in 2010, when another MP was advocating for Pullar to then ACC associate minister Pansy Wong.

Wong had rightly declared a conflict of interest, as she too knew Pullar, and referred the letter back to Smith.

''ACC prepared a formal response to that letter, I signed out that letter back to that constituent without acknowledging that I too had a conflict of interest.''

Erring twice meant he had to resign, Smith said.

"I do accept that the signing of those two letters is not up to the standard this Parliament can rightly expect of its ministers."

He earlier said he could not say why he signed the second letter for Pullar, saying "bells should have rang".

"I honestly can't recall why I signed that letter out. Was it because, 'well someone has got to sign it' ... did I sign it out simply because I get hundreds of correspondence?

"Signing that letter added to the first, in my view, and it came to the point that I have breached the good standards that should apply to ministers."

He would not comment on the nature of his relationship with Pullar.

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"I'm not going to comment on my private life, except to say that I have a wonderful wife and family, who are actually pretty distressed today. I have been absolutely loyal to my wife and I will be to the end of my days."

It was proper for him to acknowledge that Pullar was a good friend, he said.

"One of the difficulties with this job is that you have friends that put you in a lot of pressure to try and get things that they wish.

"I have to say overall I didn't do any action that resulted in her ACC claim."

He had told Pullar he could not intervene as a minister, and thought writing about what she had been like pre-accident would be OK.

He would stay on as MP as he felt "passionate" about Nelson, and regarded himself as a good MP.

"I will simply be working as hard as I can for my constituents in Nelson and to be an ongoing constructive contributor to the National Government," he said.

"I also think there is a huge expense of going to by-election."

'SERIOUS QUESTIONS'

Labour leader David Shearer said Prime Minister John Key should have asked for Smith's resignation yesterday.

"If he was in my cabinet, he would have been gone," he said.

"If you read the Cabinet manual, it's a clear breach of the manual.
"It wasn't just a minor breach, it was a significant breach."

Shearer and Green Party ACC spokesman Kevin Hague both called for an independent inquiry.

"Serious questions remain about the impact of Dr Smith's error on the individual ACC case at the centre of the fiasco and on the wider privacy issue," Hague said.

"Dr Smith's resignation should not allow Key to shut this fiasco down."

"Key has been so relaxed about the whole debacle, you've got to wonder whether he really understood the gravity of the criticisms facing Dr Smith."

Hague said the second letter which led Smith to resign today was a "convenient excuse" after Key "finally cottoned on to how politically damaging the situation was".

"John Key should have had the political nous to deal with this before now but he just didn't seem to get it," Hague said.

SADNESS AND DISAPPOINTMENT

Nelson National Party electorate chairman John Sandston said he hoped Smith would remain in Parliament and eventually regain a Cabinet role.

Smith's resignation was a big disappointment, Sandston said.

''He's a huge talent and an incredibly hard worker for the Nelson community and also New Zealand as a whole. Obviously he's decided that it's in the interests of the Government that he resign, and I support him over that.''

Key said he had accepted with sadness Smith's resignation.

"It is important that ministers are seen to actively manage both real and perceived conflicts of interest in the exercise of their duties," Key said.

"I have always expected high standards from my ministers - and I will continue to do so.

"I am very disappointed to have lost such a capable minister. Smith has made a huge contribution to the National Party and to this Government."

Gerry Brownlee has taken over the Local Government portfolio, Craig Foss will work on Climate Change Issues and Chris Finlayson takes Environment.

NZ First leader Winston Peters yesterday told Parliament it was "a shabby little case, involving blackmail, sex, [and] a minister with a conflict of interest".

- The Dominion Post

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