The rise and fall of Nick Smith

23:01, Mar 25 2012

Nick Smith first stood for elective office while at secondary school. In 1983 he stood for the Rangiora District Council.

He did not get elected that time, but was elected three years later in 1986 aged 21. During this time he also managed to get an honours degree in civil engineering, and then a PhD.

It was in 1986 that I first met Nick. I was a new Young National, and he was the New Zealand Deputy Chairman.

Even back then he was incredibly hard working, and was a real go-getter. In 1988 at the age of 23 he became a regional deputy chair for the main National Party - I suspect the youngest Deputy Chair in the party's history.

It was little surprise that he won selection for Tasman in 1990 as a 25 year old, and beat Labour (and later ACT) MP Ken Shirley.

The seat merged with Labour-held Nelson in 1996, and Smith won the combined seat by a massive 12,000 votes, getting around 60 per cent of the vote, despite National getting barely over 30 per cent and losing the party vote to Labour.

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The same happened in 1999. Labour beat National by 13 per cent in the party vote, but Nick won comfortably again.

He was starting to be held up to other MPs as a prime example of how to be such a good local MP, that you can hold your seat, even when your party is unpopular.

He showed this again in 2002 winning the seat by around 15 per cent, despite Labour receiving well over twice as many party votes as National. It was only in 2008 that National finally won the party vote also. It is a measure of Nick's worth ethic for the people of Nelson and Tasman that he won the seat eight times.

He spent six years on the backbenches. He was never a rebel, but he did vote against the Government on a couple of issues, and even survived being on the same side as Michael Laws on an issue.

Despite this he became a Minister in National's third term, as Minister of Conservation. Jenny Shipley also gave him Corrections and in 1999 he moved to the front bench and became Education Minister.

Nick was a very fit MP. I recall he once persuaded Bill English to join him in kayaking across Cook Strait. They both looked to be close to death when they arrived - they were obviously on the verge of exhaustion. But Nick was never one to give up.

I worked with him quite closely in opposition, when he was put in charge of aspects of the strategy, such as polling. His engineering background was obvious, as he would map out exactly what he wanted.

Other MPs might say "Can you graph this", while Nick would draw the graph, label the axixes, colour in the legend and choose the timeframe. I actually liked this, as it meant I knew exactly what Nick wanted.

Amongst many strong qualities, Nick did have one recurring weakness. When he felt something was wrong, he would launch into battle, and throw everything at it.

While this quality made him an excellent electorate MP (many Nelsonians have stories of what Nick achieved for them) it did get him into trouble on several occasions.

He got too involved in a very sad Family Court case and ended up being found in contempt of court.

He had to settle out of court a defamation case, when he went too far with comments over timber products from Osmose. That almost bankrupted him.

The recurring theme was a desire to help others, but a lack of judgement as he got so caught up in fighting against what he saw as a wrong.

There were other hic-cups along the way. When Don Brash rolled Bill English, it came as a huge surprise to Nick, as the English camp thought they had the numbers.

Almost on the spur of the moment, he offered to serve at Don's Deputy Leader, as he desperately wanted National to win in 2005, and heal the rift between the rival camps.

However in hindsight, Nick shouldn't have offered, and the stress of it all got to him, resulting in stress leave, and Gerry Brownlee replacing him as Duty Leader after just a couple of weeks.

Then finally of course we have the Bronwyn Pullar ACC issue.

Bronwyn had on repeated occasions told Nick (and many others) of her grievances with ACC, and how something should be done. On many occasions he did the right thing and refused. It is actually not that good a thing being a friend of MPs, as it is proper for constituents to ask MPs to help them with grievances with government agencies.

But if they have a relationship with you, then they are in fact less able to assist.

I suspect Nick felt guilty that he had been unable to assist Bronwyn, despite her multiple requests.

At some stage she must have proposed to him, that okay you can't intervene with ACC but how about you just write me a reference for the doctors stating what I was like before the accident.

Nick managed to convince himself that as it was not directly to ACC, and that as it was not taking a stance on compensation, that would be an acceptable compromise, and that perhaps finally he could have helped his friend.

He was of course wrong in his judgement. He should have known that any letter from him would be seen as putting pressure of ACC.

He should have stuck to his guns, and said that while he was ACC minister he could never do anything about her case, due to their friendship.  

He has paid the ultimate price for that failure of judgement. Not only is his ministerial career over, but his parliamentary career may be also.

Helen Clark would routinely return former Minister to the ministry after a spell in the "sin bin". John Key doesn't tend to, and while not ruling anything out, has indicated reinstatement down the track is unlikely. With future ministerial prospects dim, Nick may well decide not to contest the 2014 election, which will excite Labour's Maryan Street who knows that she would never have defeated Nick, but may win against a different National candidate.

In the John Key ministry, he was a heavy lifter looking after Environment, Climate Change, ACC and then Local Government. The climate change portfolio especially is hideously complex and probably beyond the ability of most MPs (and Ministers) to manage. John Key will have a tough time deciding whom to replace him with there.

Local Government is relatively easy to fill, but Environment will also be a bit of a challenge, as many of the issues such as RMA reform are very complex, and can have huge ramifications. Some Ministers are easily replaced. Nick Smith was not one of them. He will be missed.

On a different note this is my final blog post for Stuff, as the agreement was primarily for the election year, and ends this week. I'd like to thank Fairfax for giving me the opportunity to blog for them, and also thank the readers who commented and gave feedback.